An Evening with Presidential Speechwriters of Days Gone By

You may or may not have heard of the Judson Welliver Society.  It was the creation of William Safire, the now-departed columnist for The New York Times and before that a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.  Periodically it brings together former presidential speechwriters from all prior administrations with living speechwriters.  Peter has asked me to report on this year’s meeting, which he could not attend and which was on Tuesday a week ago.

Actually, “society” is too grand a term. A “once every year or two depending on nothing in particular assemblage for drinking, eating and (what else?) speechifying” would be more like it.  

Last Tuesday members gathered at the home of Chris Matthews. Before his leg tingled at McNBC, Chris was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and then an aide to Tip O’Neill.  Politics aside, he is a very good guy and, with his wife, Kathleen, was an impeccable host.

Safire convened the first of these dinners mid-way through the Reagan Administration.  He made a point, which has been continued ever since, of inviting the current presidential writers.  I was in the White House at the time.  I believe my inaugural dinner (we former presidential speechwriters like to use terms like “inaugural”in reference to ourselves, a subtle hint at past glories) was the second convocation, or perhaps the third.  

Of that first dinner I remember in particular Clark Clifford’s talk.  Clifford had been the principal political aide as well as speechwriter for Harry S Truman (Truman aficionados please note that, in Truman’s own style, I deployed no period or other punctuation after the president’s middle initial; Turman had no middle name, only that single letter).  Tall, lean, as elegant in manner and dress as any human being I have ever laid eyes on, Clifford told the most amazing stories.  He had everyone on the floor laughing.  At the next dinner two years later, Clifford spoke again, and told the same stories word for word again, as he did at the next one I attended, which was his last.  Thing is, each time he rehearsed his repertoire, it was with such energy and such a sense of fun that everyone died laughing all over.  He was a spectacular story teller.

This year a film crew was present.  Robert Schlesinger — son of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (JFK speechwriter and historian) — is producing a documentary follow-on to White House Ghosts, his excellent book on presidential speechwriting and speechwriters from FDR to George W. Bush (http://www.amazon.com/White-House-Ghosts-Presidents-Speechwriters/dp/B003H4RDCO).  The crew set up right behind me, and judging from the camera’s height and the occasional, “Oh sorry,” the top of my head may be in for a starring role.

This year at least one veteran of each administration represented spoke, including John Podhoretz (Reagan, now editor of Commentary magazine), Mary Kate Cary (Bush 41, now a columnist for U.S. News), Jeffrey Shesol (Clinton, now partner in West Wing Writers), Michael Waldman (Clinton, now president of NYU Law School’s Brennan Center), and  John McConnell (Bush 43, now a much-in-demand writer and speaker).  The Carter administration was particularly heavily spoken for and about by Carter writers Hendrik Hertzberg (now political commentator at The New Yorker), James Fallows (The Atlantic), and Gordon Stewart (chairman of the Society and MC of the evening).  In addition to Schlesinger, family  represented several of the departed members including Ted Sorensen and Bill Safire. 

I haven’t mentioned all the writers  or all who spoke, but everyone who got up was witty or moving or both.  Particularly good, for different reasons, were Dana Rohrabacher (Reagan, now a member of Congress) and Matthews.

Rohrabacher told a story of Reagan’s 1984 trip to Ireland and a presidential speech scheduled for delivery while there.  The speech included a Gaelic phrase that some staffer’s friends at a Washington-area Irish bar had suggested as appropriate.  It seems the speech flew through the clearance process and only at the last minute did anyone think to check what the phrase meant.  Let’s just say, it turned out to have been a practical joke that the president would not have found funny had the phrase’s meaning been discovered AFTER delivery.

By the way, had Reagan delivered it, he would not have been the first president to have stumbled so.  Other than Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the best-known presidential address in Cold War Berlin was JFK’s when he said in German, “I am a Berliner.”  Except that the key word was not quite right.  It turned out he actually said, “I am a jelly donut.”  The crowd cheered anyway.

Rohrabacher closed with a heartfelt affirmation of the common goal of serving the nation and all it stands for. 

Matthews spoke about working on a book about Reagan and Tip O’Neill.  Reagan and O’Neill were very different men, he said, coming from very different places in the political world.  They fought each other hard, but they also worked hard and maturely  to produced deals for the good of the country.  He talked about what made the relationship work.

Maybe I am wrong, but in listening I felt Matthews was contrasting the current president unfavorably with Reagan, much less if at all the current speaker with O’Neill.  If so, it would not be new.  Despite the tingling leg, Matthews has ripped into Obama publicly on several occasions for not listening to Congress, not dealing with them, not undertaking the hard, essentially door to door labor (except that instead of working precincts, presidents work senators and congress members) a president has to do to be effective.  In public in the past he has seemed dismayed and even at times seems disgusted with the Obama operation. 

Except this evening, courtesy kept him from being so direct.  The current writers were there.  He left his audience to draw their own conclusions.

  1. Peter Robinson
    C

    Sorry I couldn’t make it, darn it, Clark–the more so after reading this lovely report.  Matthews, praising Reagan, and the implicit expense of Obama.  Had I but known, I’d have rearranged my schedule here in California to be with you.  

  2. Flagg Taylor

    I’d be interested to know if/how speechwriting has changed in the past few decades. 

  3. Clark Judge
    C

    Peter:  Wish you had been there. Would have been even more fun.

    Flagg: The biggest change? Soundbites.

    We had very few news outlet — nearly all of them hostile — to push our message through.  So we put a huge emphasis on soundbites, i.e., a sentence, maybe less, that was so arresting or artful that the media pretty much had to use it and that encapsulated our essential message.  Think “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” or “Evil Empire.”  The Reagan presidency went 416 weeks.  I’d bet you’d find at least one such soundbite every week.

    Today with cable and the Internet, the White House has thousands of portals.  Obama has mastered new media more than his predecessors.  But you can see the change beginning in the Bush 41 presidency, with cable news sometimes carrying secondary presidential speeches in full.  In 1996 the Internet went live.  By 2000, campaigns were streaming speeches.  Between cable and web, millions could hear them even without network coverage.  

    By Bush 43′s second term, the soundbite had all but disappearing.  At one of these Welliver dinners, Arthur Schlesinger delivered an impassioned talk about how bland everything had become.  The soundbite was dead. 

  4. KC Mulville
    Clark Judge:  Periodically it brings together former presidential speechwriters from all prior administration with living speechwriters. 

    Sorry, this just struck me funny.