Translating presidential ideas into words: Speechwriters in the White House
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The Presidential Ideas Festival was held May 21-23, 2019.
About this video
May 23, 2019
John McConnell, Sarada Peri, Kyle O’Connor (moderator)
By Anna Katherine Clay
“If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this whole session, it’s that being a presidential speechwriter is exactly like you’d think it would be on the West Wing,” grinned Kyle O’Connor, a speechwriter for President Barack Obama, as laughter rippled through the over-capacity crowd for “Translating presidential ideas into words: Speechwriters in the White House.”
O’Connor joined Sarada Peri, another Obama speechwriter, and John McConnell, speechwriter for President George W. Bush, to share anecdotes and lessons-learned from crafting the words that presidents spoke.
“In a weird way, as speechwriters, we are not coming up with the ideas—there are much smarter people in the building who are developing those ideas,” Peri said. “But in a way, I think that these ideas don’t get crystallized until they get litigated on the page.”
McConnell talked about the week following 9/11, when Bush was scheduled to address a joint session of Congress. On the morning of September 17, McConnell and his staff learned that they had to submit a speech draft to Bush by that evening.
Around 1 p.m., they were called into the Oval Office. “‘How’s the drafting going?’” McConnell recalled Bush asking. “‘Fine, but we’re not quite there,’” McConnell remembered someone responding, as the team struggled with direction and structure.
Bush looked at each writer. “‘Americans have questions,’ he said. ‘They want to know who attacked our country. They want to know why they hate us. They want to know what’s expected of us now. They want to know if we’re at war, how we’re going to fight and win the war.’
“And from there,” McConnell said, “we had a structure for the speech itself.”
O’Connor and Peri pointed out how Obama, as a writer himself, “would write the speech better than we would ourselves, if he had the time,” Peri said. She would meet with the president and he’d start talking about what he wanted to say in the speech; then, he would offer up the format—opening, next paragraph, etc.
“It was so irritating as a writer, because you’d been sitting in your office trying to come up with a structure for hours, and you spend ten minutes with him and he has the whole thing down,” Peri said with a smile, as the crowd laughed.
All three panelists cited the busy and divergent day of a president, moving from one event to another, very different event and still another, and how those events influenced speeches.
Peri remembered working on a speech for Obama prior to Pope Francis’s visit; the two had sent the speech back and forth several times over a few days. On the day before the Pope’s visit, Peri was called into the president’s private dining room, where he sat at the table, poring over the speech. He showed Peri that he had added a specific section about refugees; Peri later learned that Obama had been in a meeting about refugees earlier in the day, which influenced the addition.
“What was so interesting about that day was to watch the evolution of his thinking—even though there was so much going on, in those few minutes he had to focus in on this speech, and give it the thinking it needed,” Peri said.
While Bush wasn’t a writer, McConnell said, he was a scrupulous editor. “He could read an eight-page speech draft, throw it down, look at the ceiling and recite to you the outline of the speech,” McConnell said.
McConnell also talked about the importance of authenticity and the contrasting styles of direct messaging through a medium like Twitter versus the back-and-forth between a president and his speechwriting team, where “you are also authentic when you are saying what you want to say in the best way you know how to say it.”
O’Connor and Peri talked of the pressures of “being funny” for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech, as well as how Obama’s presidency in particular followed the growth of social media, learning to communicate in a new way. First Lady Michelle Obama, Peri said, was “on the cutting edge of reaching audiences through social media.”
The trio also discussed process: While the Bush speechwriting team passed around paper drafts of each speech among staff in the White House, marking with pen, the Obama teams shared speech files electronically.
“Colin Powell said one time, ‘Everyone likes to grade papers,’” McConnell said, in reference to the preferred methodology at the time. The lead speechwriter’s name and phone number were also written at the bottom of the page, McConnell said, so they could be contacted about it at any time.
All three stressed the importance of learning your audience—before you begin writing.
“The audience is the world for any speech,” Peri said. Just as important, McConnell said, was capturing the president’s style and voice, remembering as you wrote: “This isn’t me talking—it’s him.”