Powerful Writing: Presidential Speechwriters Discuss Their Craft

Presidential speechwriters play an important role in making sure the president’s message hits home with the masses, whether in campaigns or in White House policymaking.

Three past presidential speechwriters are giving a special presentation at Chicago’s American Writers Museum at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, and two of them gave “Chicago Tonight” a behind-the-scenes peek into their profession.

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Carolyn Curiel served as a senior speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. John McConnell was a speechwriter for both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney during their eight years in the White House.

Below, a Q&A with our guests on the current state of presidential messaging.

How might the threat of impeachment impact speeches during a presidency?

John McConnell:  The news media will cover impeachment as topic A, so dealing with it will be central to any messaging strategy.  Speeches, however, are different – as Bill Clinton showed 21 years ago, a president has no obligation to address impeachment in every public utterance.  A president has an agenda to advance and his words will be widely covered in any event. 

Carolyn Curiel:  A president and his administration should work to compartmentalize the process, however stressful, so the wheels of government don't grind to a halt. As he faced impeachment, President Clinton nonetheless worked with Congress to normalize trade relations with China and brought parties together in pursuit of Middle East peace.

President Trump has come under fire for inaccuracies in his public statements. John, you’ve said the Bush speechwriters had an entire team of fact-checkers. Carolyn, how about President Clinton? How did you both ensure accuracy and why are we not seeing that in the current administration?

McConnell:  Indeed we had a great team of fact-checkers, who spared us anxiety and embarrassment!  I don't know how the office is organized at present, but I would recommend our process to any presidential speechwriting operation.

Curiel:  The Clinton White House had a robust fact-checking system. President Clinton was a policy wonk who often knew the exact statistics needed. Errors rarely survived the process.

President Trump has been known to veer off script when delivering speeches. Did the Presidents you wrote for go off script to this extent, or is this a signature style of Donald Trump that we’ve never seen in a previous president? 

McConnell: President Bush would occasionally depart from the text, but not that often.  He worked hard on his speeches, so when he stepped in front of an audience, the document in front of him contained his best thoughts in his own words.  President Trump is a very different kind of speaker, but he's not the first to veer widely from a prepared text.  President Clinton digressed fairly often, I'm told, and pretty effectively. 

Curiel: It has been said that President Clinton used his speech scripts as briefing memos, and that was sometimes true. But he also sometimes delivered speeches without detours. Those were especially happy days.

How have speeches and messaging changed under the current administration?

McConnell: President Trump waged a successful campaign with more off-the-cuff performances than set-piece speeches, but the balance shifted once he came into office.  He now delivers lots of prepared speeches. Even for a president with an improvisational style like Trump's, there are plenty of times when the traditional path is best, and he takes it. 

Curiel:  The changes have been dramatic from prior administrations, some of it owing to social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, and especially under the current president. Facts, context and the most pressing issues can get lost when the commander-in-chief tweets and talks incessantly – and often about himself – creating and controlling news and rabbit holes of information. It's been good for the news business, though.

Presidential speechwriters Carolyn Curiel and John McConnell share White House memories and their opinions on what makes a great speech with Paris Schutz on “Chicago Tonight.”

Follow Andrea Guthmann on Twitter @AndreaGuthmann

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