Speechwriter Michael Waldman discusses his book "POTUS Speaks.
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GUEST: Michael Waldman
AIR DATE: 04/09/2011
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And in introducing my guest today, I really must express my regret that I hadn’t invited him here long since so that we could discuss his quite impressive writings about America – mostly its politics – since he left Bill Clinton’s White House in 1999.
Michael Waldman, who had been Director of Speechwriting for President Clinton from 1995 to 1999 – after serving as his special assistant for policy coordination – in 2000 published his impressive “POTUS Speaks”, using the usual shorthand for “President Of The United States”. And now my guest is Executive Director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice.
To be sure, ever since his White House days my guest has been writing and speaking up a storm of commentary in print and on the air. And his impressive new book is My Fellow Americans a massive print and audio compendium of Presidential speeches from George Washington to Barack Obama – accompanied by CDs, narrated by George Stephanopoulos and an impressive Foreword by David Gergen, two more old White House hands.
As Mr. Gergen writes, my guest “knows as well as anyone the importance of the bully pulpit … But, as [he] reminds us, up until the time of Teddy Roosevelt, Presidents spoke much less frequently than today.
“George Washington gave few public addresses, even though he had the finest speechwriting team in history – Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison. Washington thought his deeds spoke more impressively than his words.
Gergen continues, “Thomas Jefferson was a shy man who loved to write…but spoke only when required: he sent his State of the Union messages to Congress on paper and gave only two major speeches, his First and Second inaugurals!
“Abraham Lincoln”, Mr. Gergen notes, “gained political prominence through the power of his oratory. For years after, students studied his Lyceum speech, given as a young man, as well as his “House Divided” speech; his debates with Douglas that lifted him onto the national stage; and, of course, his address at Cooper Union that convinced New Yorkers he might be a good nominee for the presidency.
“Once elected, however, Lincoln refrained from speaking much. His first and second inaugurals, along with the Gettysburg Address, are among the only ones he delivered [as president].”
So I guess I need to begin today by asking Michael Waldman to bring us up to where we are today … with teams of presidential speechwriters and seemingly daily reams of White House speeches. Michael, the air is filled with White House speeches now, how come … what’s the difference?
WALDMAN: It’s true that these days these speeches are as much a matter of quantity as quality. The biggest difference is twofold. One is, we have a different concept of what we want our Presidents to do and what kind of leaders we want them to be. And the other is technology.
Washington and Jefferson and Adams, of course, they spoke to the few people right in front of them when they spoke … and then anybody else would read it on paper.
And that was, as you say, really the way it was. Jefferson not only didn’t give many speeches, he thought it was improper for a President to try to lord it over the rest of the country.
Adams and Washington gave the annual State of the Union Address before Congress. Just, just as Presidents do now and, as you know, in the Constitution, it actually requires that the President deliver a report on the State of the Union. It doesn’t say it has to be in person.
But they did it just the way we have it now. Jefferson thought that was kingly. He thought it was presumptuous and inappropriate, so he sent it up … he sent it up in writing and that’s how Presidents did it for a century.
On of the articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson was that he went on a speaking tour and tried to speak to the public as they say, “in a loud voice” which I suspect means he’d been hitting the, the rum ball before he was speaking, given what we know about Andrew Johnson.
But then along comes the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in the country … urbanization and suddenly we wanted a stronger Federal government and we wanted a stronger President.
And it was first Theodore Roosevelt who coined this phrase “the bully pulpit”. Of course to him “bully” was just an all purpose positive adjective … like a teenager might say something’s “awesome”. For him it was a “bully pulpit”.
And he realized that he could speak to the whole country, and he was the only voice who could speak to everyone. Congress was always a cacophony of many voices.
But the President could kind of tell it like it is. But even he was limited. He didn’t go speak to Congress. Woodrow Wilson was the first President in a long time and he actually went up to Congress and delivered the State of the Union and other speeches there.
And then you had the revolution of radio. Where people could suddenly, actually hear the President as a person and not just a, a photograph in the paper or, or words on a page.
And of course the master of radio, of that technology, was Franklin Roosevelt. Came at just the time when he became President and he not only gave great, stirring speeches like his Inaugural Address, but he revolutionized the Presidency with his Fireside Chats. Where he would talk quietly to people in their living rooms and they suddenly felt a personal connection with whoever the President was.
And, you know, if you think about it, it’s interesting how the technology made oratory suddenly more important here or in Britain with Churchill, or in Germany with Hitler.
Suddenly the ability to command that electronic medium became an incredible tool of power for whoever was President.
And, so Presidents started to do it more and more … and Roosevelt started to use speechwriters. Now for Roosevelt and the Presidents after him, these were not kind of anonymous groups of copywriters off in the corner churning out words.
These were trusted policy advisors. For Roosevelt it was Harry Hopkins, his all purpose domestic and foreign policy aide. It was the playwright Robert Sherwood who won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a Judge from New York, Samuel Rosenman.
And Presidents had very trusted top policy people writing speeches.
President Kennedy … when he took office … his top speechwriter was Ted Sorenson … who recently passed away. And Sorenson was his counselor, he was not only his speechwriter.
That was in the era a television. So they spoke more and more. And then when you have the ability to speak to the whole country on the three TV broadcast networks, which was, of course, as you know, the way it was back then … Presidents could command the audience … everybody would stop and listen to what the President had to say.
And that was for several decades. And Ronald Reagan, the former actor, the “Great Communicator”, he mastered that medium.
Well, now along comes the next explosion of technology … the Internet. When I worked for Bill Clinton, the day he took office in January of 1993 … there was basically one cable news network … CNN, which had only started a few years before … there was basically no worldwide web … there were fifty sites in the worldwide web.
By the end, we had thousands, millions of websites. We had four competing all-news networks, 24 hours a day. Every breath a President took was broadcast worldwide, but people had stopped listening.
So Presidents needed to find a new way … to master this new medium and they just speak much more frequently and, and have to kind of do more to, to use this “bully pulpit” to, to wrestle with the media the way it is now.
HEFFNER: Do you think it is still, therefore, a bully pulpit?
WALDMAN: I think it still can be. It still can be …
HEFFNER: Can be?
WALDMAN: … when Presidents use it right. Because there are still times … first of all one of the things that was exciting about Barack Obama when he ran for President … and in fact, one of the things that George W. Bush tried to do was to bring back some of the formal oratory, the big set piece speeches. A speech to Congress … ahh, ahh … you know, an Inaugural Address because those are still times when you can really say something important, potentially controversial, but really go to the country’s core and its history.
And Obama showed that he had that in the campaign. He hasn’t done it so much as President and I can’t entirely figure out why, but I think that when we’re in a crisis, people still want to hear from their President.
So George W. Bush and you might not be surprised to know he’s not my favorite President, by any means.
But when the country was attacked on September 11th he, he gave some really wobbly speeches the first few days and scared everybody even more. But then he kind of pulled it together and he gave a speech before Congress that was as powerful an evocation of our values as there ever was.
And everyone was listening. Because it was a crisis.
Barack Obama took office in a crisis. Unfortunately, he didn’t use that crisis to speak to us. He was … maybe he was so busy saving the economy that he didn’t speak to us about what he was doing and I think it was a real missed opportunity.
HEFFNER: You say … you’re being generous … maybe he was so busy saving the country from a plunging economy … what do you really think is the reason he hasn’t done … hasn’t used the speech … THE speech?
WALDMAN: It’s, it’s … as you can imagine, for somebody as interested as I am in the way Presidents have governed through their words and having been immersed the craft of it for some many years as President Clinton’s chief speechwriter, it’s a bit of a mystery to me.
If you think about it, he took office in a crisis, also with this massive wave of joy and hope that he had engendered.
He has his Inaugural Address … he didn’t really talk much about the role of government or the crisis. He never gave an Oval Office address to the country about the stimulus bill, which was one of the most significant pieces of social legislation in decades.
And he had a political strategy, perhaps understandable, of really holding back on the healthcare bill. Of, of letting Congress …
WALDMAN: … make its sausage, as they say, without him being too directive. But I think it goes deeper. I think that, you know, as you know, Governor Mario Cuomo …
HEFFNER: The greatest speech-giver around.
WALDMAN: Utterly. I, I can’t say “Governor Cuomo” because there are going to be two of them …
WALDMAN: And I remember standing on the floor of the Democratic Convention in San Francisco in 1984, hearing Mario Cuomo’s Keynote speech and still believing it was the most powerful thing I’ve ever heard.
But Cuomo has this famous line, which is “we campaign in poetry and we govern in prose”. And I don’t think that’s entirely right. At least not when you’re President.
I think Obama perhaps takes that too seriously. I think that he has a feeling that what people expect from your President is sobriety and under-playing things and, of course, that’s true. But when I look back at all the great speeches of the President, so many of them had an element of surprise, of drama, of saying something controversial. And of rising to the moment. And, his nickname, apparently … in the campaign that he had and among his intimates is “No Drama Obama”.
And you know, the Presidency … the Presidency has some drama. Ronald Reagan, a lot of us Liberals used to just kind of mock him, “Oh, he’s an actor”. Which of course was a great underestimation of his skills … but someone asked him once in an interview … “You know, how can you be President having been an actor?” And he thought about it and he said “Well, I don’t know how you could be president and without being and actor” … we need a little more drama and acting.
HEFFNER: Ahh, you know, when I revised, with my grandson, my Documentary History of the United States and we were honored to include Obama Addresses … we didn’t have a real problem … we could go back to just very powerful ones, whether it had been the Philadelphia speech about race, or the original address to the Convention long before the rest of us were thinking about him as President.
But it is such an incredible puzzle as to why this man who can … when he sets his mind to it … deliver an incredibly fine speech hasn’t been doing it.
But, you know, you, you talked before about the … Franklin Roosevelt using, not just speechwriters sitting in a room in the back, but close advisors.
What happened there? I, I, I know what you’re saying about Sam Rosenman and about Robert Sherwood, I’m old enough so that both of them were here on, on my programs … but what did happen … the move from advisor to speechwriter. And I don’t mean to demean the role that you and your fellow speechwriters played.
WALDMAN: Well, it’s interesting … in fact, I’m old enough to remember the shows about Franklin Roosevelt …
WALDMAN: I was a young man and they were very inspiring and I saw those speechwriters and I said, “Hey I might want to do what that guy does.”
HEFFNER: Is that … so I’m responsible.
WALDMAN: Absolutely … except I thought they were all in black and white …
WALDMAN: … turns out they’re not. You know, Roosevelt still spoke much less frequently and understood … because he understood that the words really were action.
He understood that they were policy. I always tell the story and tell it in the book of how the “Four Freedoms” speech was written.
That was in 1940, we were not yet in the war, yet Roosevelt had the audacity to set out war aims and post-war aims and he closed his eyes and there was a Broadway play at the time, where they mocked him for dictating laws to his secretary … he closes his eyes and he said, “Grace, take a law”. And he looked at the ceiling and he said, “This world we seek will be founded on four essential freedoms … freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear, everywhere in the world.
And his aide Harry Hopkins said, ‘Gee, Mr. President … that’s … I’m not sure everybody cares about human rights in Java”. And he said, “Well, Harry, they’re going to have to”.
The whole concept of the United States as a beacon of international human rights was set out in that speech.
The UN charter, really, was drawn from that speech. And so it was policy, it wasn’t just pretty words.
That was true for Eisenhower, it was true for Kennedy and Johnson. Then along came, who else … Richard Nixon … and Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff was H. R. Halderman, who worked in an ad agency.
HEFFNER: Ah, ha!
WALDMAN: And he wanted the writers … he had those great writers, William Safire and Pat Buchanan, but they wanted them off on the side, they weren’t going to get in the middle of Kissinger and Nixon scheming and making policy.
And over time, by the late 1980’s there really was a diminution of the, the involvement of the speechwriters.
Fortunately, I think, and I was very fortunate to be in the middle of it … President Clinton, during his eight years began to push the pendulum back.
He made me head speechwriter in 1995. Not because I was the best writer in the world … I must have been good enough … but because I was a policy aide and he thought I understood his policies.
And he cared a lot about these speeches, especially the State of the Union, which he would work on for months.
And it was the moment, for him, where Presidential policy and personality and politics all would come together and so I had been a policy aide. His domestic policy advisor had started as a speechwriter. He foreign policy advisor, had been a speechwriter in early administrations and we all worked very closely together … it was like a team … the speechwriters and the policy people.
George W. Bush, his close confidant and speechwriter, Michael Gerson, moved into a policy position afterwards.
And, of course, President Obama has David Axelrod who’s his closest friend and advisor, and this young speechwriter named Jon Favreau who, I don’t think is a policy aide, but knows him quite well.
So there’s really been a pendulum swing back …
WALDMAN: … to understanding the centrality of this stuff. Which I think is, is important and good.
HEFFNER: You mean we may look forward to a period of great speeches again?
WALDMAN: You, you know, unfortunately, great speeches often come from great calamities or great crises.
So, so it isn’t always terrible to have a gap, but we, we may … I like to think that, that Obama understands it and that others understand it, too.
Sometimes when you have a din … when you have this clamor of all the ways we get information … the best answer is “do something big and formal”.
Both Bush and Clinton relied on the actual text of speeches, which is more, more, more than had been the case previously.
HEFFNER: You’re still a kid, but when you look back, the best days of your life as the Chief Speechwriter?
WALDMAN: The most sleepless days of my life, certainly were as Chief Speechwriter. It, it, it … when you’re doing something like that, even at the time, you know that it’s not replicable. I was 35 when I began head speechwriter, I was 32 when I worked on his first Inaugural Address, and that was old for the job.
Ted Sorenson was 32, James Fallows who had been Carter’s chief speechwriter was 27. The ability to pull all-nighters and work for days on end is actually one of the main qualifications …
HEFFNER: I gather from what you’ve written that Clinton was particularly much involved in changing words here, changing words there … right up until the last minute.
WALDMAN: Oh, yeah. I … Clinton, of course, you know we talk about Obama … about President Reagan as the Great Communicator.
And I think President Clinton, in retrospect especially … he was the Great Explainer. We saw that recently when he came into the Briefing Room with President Obama …
WALDMAN: To try to sell Obama’s tax plan. And did, I thought a really good job of making the best points for it.
Clinton loved policy, he did not like formal rhetoric, he would cross it out. If he saw something too fancy, he would cross it out and mutter “words, words, words”. And finally Gene Sperling, his economic advisor whispered to me as I slunk out the Oval Office, “I keep telling you, no more words, only symbols”.
And when Clinton spoke, what he really wanted … most of the time … was almost an outline. If he was going to give a 30 minute speech … what we would give him would be 15 minutes long. And he would, he would double it. I would tell the new speechwriters … you know, we give him Hemingway, he’ll turn it into Faulkner”. The sentences get longer and more Southern. And what he wanted was arguments and facts and explaining policy.
Now for a State of the Union, that was different, he would spend months working on it. It would go through 20, 30 drafts and for an everyday speech he’d be crossing out, revising in the car, really looking at it for the first time, ten minutes before it was due and you had to be ready then with the answers to the policy questions, we’d be on the phone calling the Cabinet secretaries finding out what the answer was.
So for Clinton it was a performance art. And he liked to improvise. He, he, himself, likened his style to a jazz musician … he had the score, but the, the real beauty came … was when he soloed.
HEFFNER: I was interested in that one place, I think it’s in POTUS … maybe it’s in your new book which is massive, and wonderful … they talk about Clinton handing Gingrich, as speaker, I gather what you were saying was that it wasn’t a real text, it was just paper and that, that’s just a paper and that that’s a … just a play acting device.
WALDMAN: Well, for Clinton, the big moment was always the State of the Union speech …
WALDMAN: And the drama there, in part, was that the Congress was Republican and Gingrich would be sitting behind him and he would hand him an envelope with the speech in it, and sometimes there’d be a little note in, in the, in the envelope as well.
And sometimes we didn’t … sometimes if you look at the State of the Union speech … if they’ve given out the speech too far in advance, then all the members of Congress just sit there …
HEFFNER: Aha …
WALDMAN: … reading it and they know when to, to … not pay attention. Partly because we never finished it that quickly and partly out of strategy. We didn’t really do that.
And Clinton used those speeches to articulate his vision of the role of government. And to articulate his political philosophy.
And I’ll give you an example of the power of it for him. So, the 1996 State of the Union came right after the government shut down. And this, of course … he had lost control of the Congress. He’d had a terrible time of it. And then he wound up fighting … over big principles with the Republicans in Congress over the role of government. And they’d shut the government down … twice … because he wouldn’t sign the budget.
And he had sort of triumphed. But nobody was really quite sure who’d won the fight. And then he got up and gave the State of the Union.
And this was the, this was the speech where he said the era of big government is over. But the era of basically “everyone for themselves” can’t begin. And then he launched a whole host of initiatives in that speech.
He took the anti-government rhetoric, but reminded people about what they liked about government. But then at the end of the speech he did something really, really powerful.
This whole anti-government sentiment then was part of what gave us the Oklahoma City bombing. Which, which was an anti-government act.
WALDMAN: And the President had, up in the gallery, with Mrs. Clinton a man named Richard Dean who had been a worker in the building in Oklahoma City and had … when it was blown up … and he went back in and rescued many people. And so he’s the kind of person who … the hero … sitting next to the First Lady.
So the President said, “You know, we want to honor Richard Dean, he, he was working at his desk, the building collapsed, he went back and he rescued all these people. And he was a hero.” And all the Democrats and all the Republicans stood up and applauded.
And I was standing on the floor of the House and blurted out to the person standing next to me, “Oh my god, I can’t believe they’re, they’re not seeing what’s happening here.” And it was a reporter who didn’t know who I was … so that was fortunate.
Then he said, “Now, on behalf of Richard Dean …” he was shut out of his office another time when this Congress shut the government down … “and on behalf of Richard Dean, don’t ever shut the government down again.”
And [finger snap], you know, that was a big moment. And that speech lifted Clinton up 9 points in the polls and he never lost that advantage over the Republicans and cruised to re-election.
HEFFNER: Who’s idea?
WALDMAN: That was Vice President Al Gore …
WALDMAN: And his policy aide, Elaine Kamarck. But these speeches are all, for Clinton, they were his joy to bring in all these outside people and every, every book he’d read that year and, and ideas … for him it was, it was kind of a, a … it was a way to synthesize the many, many different notes he heard.
HEFFNER: Fireside … we have a minute left … Fireside Chat? Do you think we’ll ever get back to them? Can we in terms of the technology?
WALDMAN: That one, I think, is pretty hard because people just don’t sit around …
WALDMAN: … listening to their radio. Unless they’re driving. It’s, it’s … I think Presidents have to adapt their voice to the technology and tenor of the times.
HEFFNER: What’s your prediction, in the seconds left … that’s going to happen in terms of speech writing?
WALDMAN: I, I hope that President Obama, who I, who I admire a great deal will find his Presidential voice, which is a bit more poetry and a bit less prose and when he does and makes those really strong public arguments about the role of government, about public philosophy, I think we’ll hear some great speeches.
HEFFNER: Michael Waldman, thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind. I hope that everyone goes out and reads that massive compendium of Presidential speeches and that you end up some day, back in the White House.
HEFFNER: Okay? Thanks.
WALDMAN: Do my best.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at www.thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 other Open Mind and related programs.
That’s thirteen.org/open mind.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.