Presidential Speechwriters at Purdue University

FOWLER HALL, PURDUE UNIVERSITY, INDIANA-September 8, 2015

It was 5pm on a beautiful late summer day. I am in the Fowler auditorium in Stewart Center.

I am going to watch a presentation by two former presidential speechwriters.

John McConnell was the speechwriter for President Bush. David Kusnet was the speechwriter for President Clinton. The name of the presentation is “Writing for the President when the Nation is in Crisis.”

Speechwriters

David Kusnet, 66, served was the chief speechwriter for Clinton at the White House from 1992 to 1994. Kusnet also wrote speeches for Democratic Party presidential nominees Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale.

Kusnet has published five books on social, political and economic issues. His book on political communication, “Speaking American,” became the basis of the Clinton message in the 1992 campaign.

John McConnell, 44, served as a speechwriter for President Bush and as the chief speechwriter for Vice President Cheney since the 2000 campaign.

McConnell’s work included notable speeches in response to crises, including Bush’s address to the Joint Session of Congress after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

McConnell assisted writing the remarks after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, and the eulogy for President Ronald Reagan.

Kusnet on Clinton

“The role of the speechwriter,” according to Kusnet, is to “try to draft speeches that presidents would have written themselves.”

He added that Bush and Clinton have markedly different voices. In Bush’s State of the Union Address and previous speeches he presents himself as Bill Clinton’s opposite,” Kusnet said.

Kusnet spoke about the oratory skills of Clinton. He talked about how he prepared a speech. Clinton’s talent for spontaneous speaking influenced the work of his speechwriters, according to Kusnet.

“All we really did was just take notes on what Clinton was saying and just type it up and give it back to him and then he’d change it again. He was a dynamic public speaker with real personal charisma,” said Kusnet.

Kusnet said that Clinton’s real gift was being an extemporaneous speaker, “It was twenty-five percent of his delivery. He was one of the great speakers of his time because of his memory, delivery and ability to connect with an audience.

Kusnet recalled he and the other speech writers had a rule: Never give Clinton more than five single-spaced pages. For Clinton this was a starting point for his own train of thought.

“If you gave him a final draft, you would never see it again,” Kusnet remembers.

“The president would scribble on the margins as a way of making notes for himself, would spot perhaps one line from a drafted page, weave it into his own experience and own way of expressing himself,” said Kusnet.

“When he talked, he wanted to talk sense to the American people,” remembers Kusnet.

McConnell on Bush

As a Presidential candidate, Bush become famous (or notorious) for using unnecessary syllables in multisyllabic words.

“He learned fast as president. Bush was not a natural public speaker. He worked on it and became a great public speaker” said McConnell.

In describing the “man” of George W. Bush McConnell said, “There was never a more qualified person to be president than George W. Bush.”

“His father was president, he personally knew four living presidents, and he had spent over 100 days in the White House throughout his life. He had been a successful governor of Texas and his brother was governor of Florida. He knew what the job required and what it took,” said McConnell.

Over the first year of his time in office he emerged as a great public speaker.

His second State of the Union shows this. His speech sounded simple but he gave a compelling explanation of why and how a decent people in a democratic society can to war. He added that we do it reluctantly, but resolutely under extreme provocation.

In Bush’s 48-minute address, the president outlined his goals for his second year in office-fighting economic recession and overcoming external terrorist threats.

Over his first two years in office he gave half a dozen speeches that rank among the most powerful and important presidential addresses of the modern era.

Bush realized the deadly seriousness of his job after 9/11. The nation needed a leader. Bush turned out to be one of the best presidential speakers since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

McConnell said, “President Bush presented himself as a good man who was plain-spoken and honest.”

“President Bush saw himself as the moral and spiritual leader of a country at war. When he was younger he was wild. At age forty he quit drinking and smoking, an impressive act of will,” said McConnell.

McConnell recalls trying to get ready for the September 12, 2001, National Cathedral speech where he was going to address nation about 9/11.

“We knew we needed something with lift and ring,” said McConnell. “We looked at dozens of other speeches from other wartime presidents Roosevelt, Lincoln and Kennedy, but couldn’t come up with the right tone,” said McConnell.

“President Bush came in and said the country was in the ‘…the middle hour of our grief,’” said McConnell.

“Usually you’re a speechwriter for a president of the United States, the words don’t make that much difference,” said McConnell,

“It’s important to have high standards. It’s important to have some knowledge of the tradition. But there are only a few moments, historical moments, where the words really matter and count,” said McConnell.

“We all knew that we didn’t do a good job (for the Cathedral speech) it would have hurt the country,” remembers McConnell.

“President Bush came in and said we don’t need anything complicated. We just need to talk about two things: 1.What happened 2. What we (the nation) was going to do about it,” said McConnell.

“President Bush just had a way of making things easy and simple,” said McConnell.

“We are here in the middle hour of our grief,” Bush told an audience that included four former presidents and most of the nation’s military, law enforcement, political and intelligence leadership and the nation.

McConnelll said, “He defined the nature of the attacks as evil. He talked about the scope of the challenge. He made the nation feel safe.”

McConnell said he made it a practice not to watch Bush’s speeches in-person. “It was too nerve wracking,” he said.

McConnell was at the National Cathedral when Bush made this speech. “It was a profoundly, emotional experience. It reached a peak when the audience sang, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“I teared up. It hit me again that the nation was at war,” said McConnell. “I had come as a domestic policy person. I knew that life was going to change, that everything was going to be different,” McConnell said.

He was also a member of the speech writing team that composed the finest speech Bush ever delivered, the president’s address to the joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001.

It announced the declaration of war against the Taliban.

Assessment

Both men had very different political views, but both men had the same job-to write the words of the men in-charge of the free world.

Both Kusnet and McConnell said Bush and Clinton were personally gracious to members of their staff. They knew how to treat people well and to reward hard work.

Both men agreed that their bosses were good and decent men. The staff of both presidents loved the men they worked for.

They belong to a small fraternity of men who personally knew and worked with Presidents of the United States.

Sometimes both presidents had episodes of cognitive dissonance when it times for campaign mode-they would push everything else aside to win votes.

These two speechwriters understand that for the rest of their lives most Americans will be grateful to them for helping keep the office of the President functioning. Both men, despite political differences, giving their administrations the spirit and order that only the carefully considered language–good writing–can give.

But there is a second reason: their loyalty is to the presidents they worked for.

Working with a president (Bush or Clinton) on draft after draft, answering his sudden telephone calls when, examining a speech draft, he wants to question an assumption, challenge a fact, or rewrite a transition; finding themselves summoned to the Oval Office twice a day for weeks at a time before a State of the Union Address, these two men and came to know Bush and Clinton as well as anyone in the White House.

They have seen their president in all moods and all seasons. And they’ve decided that serving their president was worth the sacrifice.

In doing so, they created a historical milestone–a marker, so to speak, for the record–that may prove as important in its way as the thousands of words they have helped the president write and say. It was a solemn duty both men felt honored to do.

Kusnet said it best,” There are three phases to a president’s life: a candidate, a president-elect and sitting president. Each phase requires a different face and different words. I was honored to put pen to paper to write some of those words.”

I learned a lot about both presidents. I really enjoyed hearing the personal stories of how Bush and Clinton dealt with crisis during their time as president.