Speechwriters for United States Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and George Bush gathered to share some of their favorite stories in a roundtable discussion at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on Friday, September 22, 1995.
The Presidential Speechwriters Roundtable was part of a public relations campaign to promote the just-released Library of Congress/Rhino Word Beat audio box set “The Library Of Congress Presents: Historic Presidential Speeches (1908-1993).”
As noted in a joint LOC/Rhino press release, the box features audio recordings of 23 key speeches delivered by every chief executive of the 20th century — from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton — on six CDs/cassettes packaged in a 6″x12″ encyclopedia-style box that also includes a 60-page booklet.
The esteemed speechwriters were Hendrik (Rick) Hertzberg, also the Roundtable’s moderator (Jimmy Carter); Dr. William B. Ewald Jr. (Dwight D. Eisenhower); Theodore C. (Ted) Sorensen (John F. Kennedy); Mary Kate Cary (George H.W. Bush); and Anthony R. Dolan (Ronald Reagan).
The following is a Roundtable recap written by Stephen K. Peeples, then Rhino Entertainment Media Relations co-director and producer of the Roundtable with Sam Brylawski, the LOC’s Recorded Sound Specialist with the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.
Brylawski produced the box set with Cooper C. Graham, Acquisitions Specialist with the same Library of Congress division.
This recap was originally posted on the Rhino website and is now archived.
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Samuel Brylawski: Producer’s Opening Remarks
“I’m thrilled with the range of the recordings, the fact that, as you’ll know if you look at the playlist, some of them are inaugural addresses, some of them are policy addresses, there’s a farewell address, and they represent all different kinds of moods, both of the President and the country at those times.
“Most of these speeches have never been published before, particularly the recent ones. Only the very early ones off of 78 rpm discs have really been published and distributed to a large number of people, and they’ve been out of print for more than 75 years. Cooper, in making most of the selections for this set, had the ingenious idea to contact the offices of the living ex-Presidents, and all but one office responded. I think there were some surprises in their selections; one of the largest surprises to me is the fact that the office of Richard Nixon never responded, so Cooper made the choice of his speech, the Silent Majority address, on the basis of Nixon’s writings about that address.
“When we first began to discuss this project with Rhino two or three years ago, Rhino immediately recognized the value of this project and produced this really splendid-looking set. We’re delighted to join Rhino Entertainment, which really is this country’s, if not the world’s, foremost reissue record company, in this and future publications from our archives. Rhino and its Word Beat spoken-word subsidiary, publisher of this particular set, are well-respected not only for the quality of their reissues but for their efforts to take reissues of American music out of the niche market, to get reissues to a much wider market.”
Hendrik (Rick) Hertzberg: Moderator’s Opening Remarks
After Brylawski introduced him, Presidential Speechwriters Roundtable Moderator Rick Hertzberg took the National Press Club podium. Hertzberg is a former Carter speechwriter. Later an award-winning editor of The New Republic, he has been Executive Editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1992.
Having already talked about the collection early that morning with host Brian Lamb live on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” (the first time a record has ever been “plugged” on C-SPAN, by all accounts), Hertzberg opened the Roundtable by remarking how novel it was that there would be such an event honoring the usually unsung, behind-the-scenes writers of presidential speeches.
“Speechwriters are in the position of having to deny, essentially, that they do anything, except maybe supply blank yellow legal pads to politicians for them to write their immortal thoughts,” Hertzberg said, drawing laughter. “It doesn’t quite happen that way…I think today we’ll find out how it does happen.”
Referring to his high-powered panel and the other former presidential speechwriters on hand in the audience, Hertzberg elicited even more laughter when he quipped, “We should get right into it…because not since [former White House Speechwriter] Peggy Noonan dined alone has there been such a collection of speechwriting talent!”
The HISTORIC PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES box set, Hertzberg observed, “Is a very worthwhile project. It’s beautifully produced, it’s a wonderful idea…I’ve been listening to it, and I think one of the things that’s so interesting and gratifying about it is to hear the voices of the earlier Presidents, especially.
“There’s an intimacy in the human voice, and you’re actually hearing a relic of this person’s life,” he continued. “It’s a little bit like the lock of Thomas Jefferson’s hair that’s in the Library of Congress. There’s a thrill to actually hearing the sound of William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson’s actual voices.”
Mary Kate Cary on President G.H.W. Bush
Hertzberg then introduced the Presidential Speechwriters Roundtable panelists “in archaeological order,” starting with the most recent administration and working back in time. First to speak was former George Bush Speechwriter Mary Kate Cary, presently the Republican National Committee’s Deputy Director of Communications, and author of the Republican response to President Bill Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address.
Cary recounted the often hilarious “get-acquainted” meeting President Bush held in the Oval Office with his new speechwriting staff upon entering The White House in January 1989. The President told the assembled scribes to avoid using the word “I”; to never hand him a perfect “10” speech that’s so perfect he can’t add anything to it to make it his own; and that his favorite sources for quotes were Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Yogi Berra.
President Bush also told them to hand him his speeches well in advance, Cary said. “He told us the story that when he was Vice President he was driving to an event with President Reagan in a limo, and an aide handed President his speech on the speech cards. And President Reagan started going through it and making notes, and then-Vice President Bush said, ‘Is that the first time you’ve seen that?’ And [Reagan] said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I’m just looking at it before we get to the podium.’ And [Bush] said, [incredulously] ‘You mean you hadn’t seen that speech before we got in the limo?’ ‘Oh, no, no…’ Vice President Bush just thought to himself, ‘Well, we’ll just see how this guy delivers this speech!’ [laughter]
“They got to the event, and President Reagan delivered it like he had been practicing for 10 years,” Cary continued. “And President Bush turned to us [speechwriters in the Oval Office that day and said, ‘Don’t you ever do something like that to me! [much laughter] I want my speeches 48 hours in advance. And the man who hands me a speech in the limo on the way over is gonna be a dead man.’ So we never did that.”
Anthony R. Dolan on President Reagan
Cary was followed by Anthony R. Dolan, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and Chief Speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. Dolan coined the term “The Evil Empire” and is now writing the book Undoing The Evil Empire: How Reagan Won The Cold War. Dolan also supervised the writing of Reagan’s May 31, 1988 address at Moscow State University, delivered by the President with a huge mural depicting the Russian revolution as a backdrop behind him, and a large bust of Lenin in the foreground.
Previewing points made in his forthcoming book, Dolan spoke with characteristic eloquence about the Moscow speech’s spot-on predictions about the impending information revolution, which is taking place right now; the significant roles Reagan’s tough mindset and this speech in particular played in the West’s eventual victory in the Cold War; and Reagan’s underappreciated genius as a communicator.
“I think it’s altogether appropriate that the Library of Congress and Rhino Records chose the Moscow speech for this [HISTORIC PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES] collection,” Dolan began. “The New York Times called the speech a rhetorical high point of the Reagan years and said that when people look back to the milestones of the Cold War, they are likely to look back at the day Ronald Reagan extolled freedom while Lenin looked on.
“But beyond the coup de theatre, there was Reagan’s message, and his explanation of freedom as a primary creative force,” Dolan continued. “The Soviets, of course, like most 20th Century intellectuals for that matter, were brought up on the idea that power was a function of the biggest battalions or who had the largest GNP. And right from the first days of his presidency, Reagan had suggested other criteria, a non-material one. In the end, he said frequently, ‘The Cold War isn’t going to be decided by who builds the biggest bombs or the most rockets or economic strength.’ He said it was really in the end a question of faith and will.
“Reagan wasn’t just an immensely attractive media property or presence, and he wasn’t just a person or surpassing personal bigness,” Dolan concluded. “He was also a cerebral president, a man of ideas. And I think those unique ideas and the vision and the uplift they gave the world are all on display here, and can be listened to in the University of Moscow address, with Vladimir looking on.”
Hertzberg on President Carter
Returning to the podium, Hertzberg discussed the irony of President Jimmy Carter’s choice of the “Energy And National Goals” speech from 1979 for inclusion on HISTORIC PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES.
“It’s an interesting choice because that speech is generally thought of as one of the greatest political catastrophes of all time,” Hertzberg noted. “It’s called ‘The Malaise Speech’ — not a particularly attractive nickname. It has proved to be a hardy perennial on
the campaign trail, beginning with Ted Kennedy in 1980 and then with every Republican presidential candidate and President since then. I’ve gone as a journalist to all of the Republican conventions since leaving, since we were hustled out of the White House, and if I had a dollar for every time I heard something about, ‘The last thing we want to do is go back to the days of Carter and malaise,’ I’d be a wealthy man.
“So it is interesting that he chose this speech,” Hertzberg continued. “It’s a speech that a lot of mythology has surrounded. For example, as everyone here probably knows, but most of the public, those that remember it, don’t, is that the word ‘malaise’ did not appear in the speech. The speech was, in fact, a gigantic popular success. It generated a record amount of mail. Carter went up in the polls literally overnight by 11 points. It wasn’t the speech that was his undoing, really — it was the Cabinet shakeup that happened two or three days later.
“I think we can now see that what [President Carter] had to say about the crisis of confidence was prophetic,” Hertzberg concluded. “In many ways, it’s truer now than when he said it.”
Theodore C. (Ted) Sorensen on President Kennedy
Next to address the audience was Theodore C. (Ted) Sorensen, who served 11 years as Policy Advisor and Legal Counsel as well as Chief Speechwriter for Senator and President John F. Kennedy. Author of the 1965 book Kennedy, an international best-seller, as well as six other books on presidential politics, Sorensen since 1966 has been a senior partner in one of New York’s most prominent law firms, Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton & Garrison.
“This is truly a historic gathering — five former White House assistants, all speaking from the same podium,” Sorensen grinned. “As you’ve probably read in The Washington Post recently, another former White House assistant, Colin Powell, gets $80,000 for every talk he gives, former White House assistant Henry Kissinger gets $30,000 for every talk he
gives, and so on, all the way down to the Reverend Charles Colson, who gets about $1,000 a speech. However, the Library of Congress has always believed in free speech [laughter], and today you’re getting five of them!” [laughter]
After a few classic stories behind other famous JFK addresses, Sorensen turned his attention to the Kennedy address selected for HISTORIC PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES, delivered in June 1963 at Commencement at American University, and including the President’s pledge that the U.S. would suspend nuclear tests in the atmosphere, and would not be the first to resume them.
“I regard it as the best speech, and in many ways, one of the most important speeches — if not the most important speech — that he ever gave,” observed Sorensen. “It was the first time in all of those post-war years that a President of the United States had asked the American people to take a different look at the Cold War, and to take a different look at the process of peace, and to take a different look at the Soviet Union itself.
“I would have to say that it was as opposite from the ‘Evil Empire’ speech Tony Dolan talked about as two speeches could possibly be, 25 years apart,” Sorensen continued. “And that’s one of the sad aspects of President Kennedy’s death. I firmly believe that had he not been killed later in 1963 that the Cold War might not have stretched on for another 25 or more years, at terrible cost ofour fortune and manpower.”
Dr. William B. Ewald on President Eisenhower
Last to the podium was Dr. William B. Ewald Jr., renowned government scholar, educator, author, speechwriter, and consultant who worked with the speechwriting team of President Eisenhower, and helped Ike with the preparation of the former President’s two-volume memoir, The White House Years, written between 1961 and 1965. Author of five books, the most recent being McCarthyism And Consensus, Dr. Ewald is the last surviving Eisenhower speechwriter.
“The Eisenhower speech included on the HISTORIC PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES collection, his Farewell Address, justly remembered as one of Ike’s greatest speeches, I did not write — I didn’t have a thing to do with it,” Ewald began, a youthful gleam in his eye. “Not only that, I don’t know who did write it, and nobody else knows. There have been a number of candidates for authorship and perhaps they have correct claims, but it’s been a mystery and a subject of contention.
“I will say, however, when I was working with the President on his book, The White House Years, I did ask one of his most distinguished speechwriters, Bryce Harlow, who was in The White House at that time and knew a lot about defense matters,” Dr. Ewald continued.
“I said, ‘Bryce, did you write that speech?’ And Bryce very modestly said no. He said, ‘I didn’t. They did bring it by to me when it was finished, and I read it, and I said, “You know, this is a splendid speech, and I just really think it’s a great talk. There’s just one thing that it lacks. You’ve gotta put in there some kind of capsulization of what you’re talking about, so I’ve inserted the words, ‘Beware the military-industrial complex!'”‘” [much laughter] Bryce had a habit of being funny, and I wasn’t so sure that he wasn’t pulling my leg.”
However, Dr. Ewald emphasized, “The ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ speech does not rest on the fact that Bryce or somebody else thought it was a clever phrase and put it into the speech. The significance of that speech is that it codified and encapsulated something that Eisenhower had believed since Day One in his presidency.
“You can read in May of 1953 he went on television, talked against setting up a huge national garrison state in which you had overbearing military and industrial power. He said that would destroy the country. He clung to that throughout. He fought with the people who wanted to increase the defense budget, he stuck to this throughout his presidency.
“The significance in that speech, which is included in this group of speeches, is in that substantive idea.”
Ewald Compares Ike & Colin Powell
Dr. Ewald’s close working relationship with Eisenhower gives him a truly unique take on another war-hero general now prominent in the news, more than 40 years after Ike took office.
“The question on everybody’s lips today is, ‘Is Colin Powell another Eisenhower?'” Dr. Ewald notes.
“I look at enunciations of principle and policy, and reading through those as [Powell] has delivered them, as they appear in the book, as they have appeared on the Barbara Walters show and in other interviews, I find very, very little difference between Colin Powell on the one hand, and Dwight Eisenhower on the other.
“It’s just one thing after another,” Dr. Ewald continues. “No executive wars, no getting into war without the support of the American people; [Powell writes]
“‘I’m a fiscal conservative with a heart,’ or ‘I’m a fiscal conservative with a conscience,’ and Eisenhower said exactly the same thing in the same words. ‘Take your job seriously, never yourself’ — that’s an Eisenhower maxim, it’s in Colin Powell’s book. Time and again, if you’re really trying to look for a dime’s-worth of difference on principle, and on belief, I find very little difference between the two.”
Speechwriters Critique President Clinton As Communicator
QUESTION: “Bob Rankin, Knight-Ridder Newspapers. I cover The White House. I wondered if you could speak about the current President and his speech-making ability. I know the Memphis speech is included in the Library of Congress recordings, but apart from that, for a man who talks so much there is very little if any that is memorable in his public speaking, and I wondered if you could discuss why that might be.”
ANTHONY DOLAN: “Well, you’re asking a French critic his opinion of German opera…[laughter] The problem…with Clinton is, that in the midst of one of his addresses, a little genie gets up and runs around the room and whispers in everyone’s ear, even though things are ostensibly going well: ‘Don’t believe this guy.’
“And I think there are some performers like this, some actors like this, who give technically glib and adequate performances, but somehow their audiences don’t find them believable, and I think that may be the problem, not so much the words, the verbiage, but a question of substance, or lack of substance, that may come through subliminally.”
RICK HERTZBERG: “I would like to add to that the style of the presidency has been changing, and Clinton, like Bush in a funny way, like Carter, is a kind of populist figure, and for him to give the kind of Churchillian rhetoric that Kennedy did and that often Reagan did and that Nixon did, although Nixon didn’t really get away with it the way the other two did, wouldn’t really be believable.
“I think Clinton is an awfully good speaker. His speech introducing his health care plan was a real tour de force. So was his first State of the Union. These were not a tour de force of speechwriting; they’re a tour de force of extemporaneous reaching out and grabbing the audience by the throat. He’s awfully good at that.”
TED SORENSEN: “I would just add that Clinton is a superb communicator, one of the best that we’ve had in The White House. He is absolutely at his best in a one-on-one conversation. He is not quite as good in informal talks to a small group. He’s not quite as good as that when he gives an informal talk to a larger group, and he is least effective when he is giving a formal speech on national television or to a very large audience.
“I think the reason is exactly what Rick said. Except for Ronald Reagan, I don’t believe any of the Presidents since Kennedy have wanted to be eloquent speakers. Eloquent is old-fashioned on television, some of them feel. Eloquence has the ring of an imperial presidency about it. And so their speeches are not “10s,” or anything close to it, and personally, I regret that.”
MARY KATE CARY: “One of my recent assignments, as Rick said, was to write [the Republican] response to the President’s [most recent] State of the Union. And…I was in the position of writing a response to a speech where I didn’t know what he was going to say.
And…what we tried to do with [Clinton was] to emphasize the things that he is not, and one of those things, unfortunately, is credible, and he, like Tony said, I don’t think comes across as credible to most listeners.”
Speechwriters on Presidents Taking All The Credit
QUESTION: “John Cowan, Speechwriters Newsletter. What’s it like when someone else so completely removed passes judgment on your work?”
SORENSEN: “You see, the interesting thing about that question, is that it’s exactly the opposite side of the coin to the question we usually get: ‘How do you feel when somebody else is getting all the credit for the words you write?’ And it’s the same answer. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest to see somebody else getting the credit for the words that I write, because in every real sense of the word, it’s his speech. He takes the responsibility for it. The pundits are out there, if it’s a bad speech, attacking him, not me. If it’s a good speech, he deserves the praise, not me.”
HERTZBERG: “Also, I think the idea of the press getting up and savaging the president’s speech right after he’s made it is a fairly recent innovation. That didn’t use to happen very much, as I can recall, during the Eisenhower Administration, not a whole lot during the Kennedy Administration, and I’m not really convinced it happens that much now. I think that television tends to wait until something else gives the signal, whether it’s an instant poll or the editorials that come in the next two or three days.
“But it’s no fun to get bad reviews. Charlie Peters once blamed Carter’s acceptance speech at the 1980 convention, which I had a hand in — although [Carter speechwriter] Chris Matthews has to share the blame because he’s here [laughs] — for electing President Reagan and the subsequent 12 years, and that’s a responsibility I’d rather not shoulder. [laughter] I’ll let Tony have the credit for that.”
Stories of Humor in Presidential Speeches
MYER FELDMAN (Kennedy Speechwriter): “I’m Myer Feldman, speechwriter for the Kennedy Administration [referring to Sorsensen]. Now, this question is directed to everybody except Ted. I know how Kennedy got his humor; we had a taste of that today. But how did [the rest of] you get humor into your speeches?”
HERTZBERG: “Shall we answer in order of humorlessness? [uproarious laughter]. That was really hell on wheels getting jokes, ah, well, for anybody, but particularly for Carter. It got him into a lot of trouble at more than one point.
“I think you may all be familiar with the famous metaphor of Carter’s small-mindedness that he monitored who used the White House tennis court, and this became a symbol.
“Well, in fact, actually, what happened was that Carter played tennis, so naturally, a couple of times he’d come out and find staff members on the tennis court. And he was all done up in his whites with his racquet, and at that point, he could either say, “Get off, I’m the President,” or slink back, and one or two times he slinked back. So that’s why he set it up so that you’d have to call his secretary to see when you wanted to use the court.
“But you had to do it when he was in town or not. So once Jim Fallows called — a colleague of mine and Chris’ [Walker] and Walter Shapiro’s. Carter said to his secretary, ‘Here, give me that,’ and got on the phone and said, ‘You can use it, but first write five jokes for my speech.’ [laughter] It was a powerful weapon.”
CARY: “We had the big Gridiron dinner, the White House Correspondents Dinner, and I wrote a number of those…well, I shouldn’t say wrote — I was sort of the typist. Dennis Miller, the standup comic, was the entertainment for the evening, and he was on Saturday Night Live in those days, and Dana Carvey was also on Saturday Night Live and was the guy who did all those impersonations of President Bush.
“Now, a few days earlier, some impersonator had gotten through The White House switchboard saying that he was [Iranian leader] Rafsan Jani, and it had gotten all the way up to Brent Scowcroft, and he apparently was about to get on the phone with the President before someone figured out that he was an imposter. So this had just hit the news the day before this White House Correspondents dinner.
“So the joke was that the President would say, ‘Good to see you, Dennis Miller, I know who you are’ — which he didn’t — [laughter] ‘I know who you are, you’re on ‘Saturday Night Live’ — as if George Bush watched ‘Saturday Night Live’ — [much laughter] ‘And we know that buddy of yours, Dana Carvey…you know, we got this phone call from Rafsan Jani the other day, and I did ask Dana Carvey to call Rafsan Jani back for me. [laughter] And Dana Carvey said, [imitating Carvey], “Not gonna do it — not at this junc-ture!” [laughter] So here we had George Bush doing Dana Carvey doing George Bush.
“On paper, the President reads it, and says, ‘I don’t get it…’ [laughter] So he calls in the Director of Communications, and says, ‘What’s this joke all about?’ And he says, ‘Well, that’ll be you doing him doing you, you know, it’ll be a very exaggerated impersonation of yourself.’ The President says, ‘Well, ah…how does it go?’ [much laughter] You can imagine being the Director of Communications, Dave Demarest, doing this, impersonating George Bush impersonating Dana Carvey impersonating George Bush. And [Dave’s] whole career flashed before his eyes, and said, ‘This is it.’
“So he does the joke, and the President, completely deadpan, says, ‘And you think people will think this is funny?’ Dave says, ‘I guarantee you’ll bring the house down.’ [laughter] And the President says, ‘Do you personally find this funny, David?’ So he says, ‘Yes, I do, sir,’ not that it mattered because he figures by this point, ‘What’s the difference? I’m fired anyway!’ [laughter]
“And so the President says, ‘All right…’, and it was one of the rare instances where George Bush actually gave a joke that he didn’t really get. Usually, he would only give jokes that he understood, and so this time he gave it and it brought the house down, and it was one of the best jokes he did. So he does a very good impersonation of himself — very good!”
EWALD: “This is historically interesting. I can’t think of very much [presidential] humor, and certainly, we didn’t spend much time looking for jokes. You were doing other things, for better or worse. And if you try to think of funny presidents, I can’t think of many until Gerald Ford, who loved jokes and had people out looking for jokes. But Nixon? Johnson? Eisenhower? Kennedy had a wit, no question, but wit is different from belly laughs. And when you go back beyond that, Truman didn’t have it. Roosevelt had a great sense of humor; he laughed a lot but he was not a humorist. Then if you go all the way back to Lincoln, Lincoln could be very funny. Apparently, he was a very good teller of stories, but not in his speeches, I don’t think. [Ford speechwriter] Bob Orben’s over there — how about with Ford, Bob?”
ROBERT ORBEN (Ford Speechwriter): “It’s become mandatory with CEOs and in the presidency and everywhere else. You have to be humorous because people trust people who can make them laugh. And so it’s part of the job description nowadays.
[To Mary Kate Cary:] “I have to tell you though, I stand in applause for your fighting for that joke with President Bush. I was six years on ‘The Red Skelton Show’ as a writer and sometimes a line or two got thrown out, and sometimes you would fight for a joke, and Red would reluctantly do it. And nine times out of 10, it worked. The one time it didn’t, for the next few months you would hear about it when you were fighting for another joke — he would say, ‘Oh, like the cauliflower joke!'” [laughter]
DOLAN: “I think it really is a gift, that spontaneity, and that wit, and only certain people can do it. My favorite example of that is Reagan, who, of course, was howlingly funny sometimes in remarks he could make, particularly in private.
“But Jack Kennedy — Ted mentioned some of the horrible things President Truman had said right after the convention in 1960, in his colorful way about Kennedy’s youth and lack of experience, and they said, ‘Well, now, Senator, how are you going to patch things up with former President Truman?’ And Kennedy said, ‘Well, I think that President Truman’s probably going to apologize for calling me an S.O.B., and I’ll apologize for being one!’ And I don’t think, you know, you can get out of situations more artfully or more gracefully than with [humor].
“Presidential humor has its dangers…President Reagan was going to speak at the Heritage Foundation, at their first real attempt to get an endowment, and he was going to be introduced by Joe Coors. I thought, ‘Gee, this is a good opportunity for a little fun,’ and wrote a line like, ‘I was delighted Joe Coors gave me such a nice introduction here this evening, because I’d seen him at a cocktail reception prior to this and I made the mistake of saying, “Joe, it’s been a long hard day in the Oval Office, but now it’s Miller time!”‘ [laughter] That’s when he showed me his Bonzo button and it went on from there…[laughter] Coors wouldn’t speak to me for months! [laughter]
“But [with] President Reagan, it was a matter of spontaneity and, of course, he was by nature a storyteller. He collected them. He could do hilarious routines that he’d done on nights at the Friars Club during his years in Hollywood. He was marvelously talented at this, and there was hardly anything needed from his writers.”
SORENSEN: “Well, I’m not supposed to answer this question, but it was President Kennedy who was responsible for that change [to use more humor], and it was almost by accident.
“It went back to 1958, when, as Senator and potential Democratic candidate, he was invited to give the Democratic speech at the Gridiron. He thought, ‘This is wonderful!’ He thought that for about five minutes, and for the next five weeks, he said, ‘Oh, why did I ever accept this? This is a terrible assignment! if you’re funny, so what, nobody cares, but if you fall on your face, it’s all over town, and you’re a failure….’
“So [Kennedy] worried and he worried, and we talked to the late wonderful Fletcher Knebel and we got lines from Clark Clifford, who was an old Gridiron executive. We got Mort Sahl to send in a joke. We collected items from Will Rogers and Mark Twain and everyone we could.
“And it turned out to be a terrific speech, and after that, [Kennedy] wouldn’t give it up. He insisted on mostly one-liners — no long stories, but one-liners. Relevant and crisp and almost always self-deprecating. And that was true of the opening line of that [Gridiron] speech.
“We had found out that the Democratic skit right before he spoke was going to have the chorus sing ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ — except poking fun at Kennedy, they said it was going to be Kennedy singing ‘Send the Bill to Daddy,’ [referring to the charge that JFK’s father] Joseph P. Kennedy was paying for his whole campaign and so on — if it were only true. And so the skit ends, Senator Kennedy is introduced, he stands up and says — everybody thinks spontaneously, of course — ‘I have just received the following telegram from my beloved father: “Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than is necessary — I’m damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide!”‘” [much laughter]
ORBEN: “Mort Sahl once told me an interesting story about when Kennedy was running for President, perhaps for the nomination. He was in San Francisco, Sahl was playing the hungry i in San Francisco, and Mort had done that joke about the election and not paying for a Republican landslide. And then-candidate Kennedy asked Mort to come down to the campaign party.
“And Mort tells it that he came down to the campaign party, and was ushered back to where the office was, and Kennedy was sitting there talking with everyone, feet up on the desk, and he asked, ‘Where did you get that joke? What’s the meaning of that joke?’ And Mort said, ‘Well, it’s commonly known that the Kennedys have a lot of money.’ And Kennedy thought about it a moment, and said, ‘How much money do you think we have?’ And Mort said, ‘$400 million.’ And Kennedy said, ‘Where did you get that information?’ Mort said, ‘Time magazine.’ Then Kennedy said, ‘How much money do you think the Rockefellers have?’ Mort said he had no idea. And Kennedy said, ‘Five billion dollars.'”
At that point, Mort had the feeling that he had been dismissed. So he stepped outside, it was raining and he started to bundle up a little, and he sensed someone was in back of him, and there was Kennedy standing in the doorway, saying, ‘Now, that’s REAL money!’ [much laughter]
QUESTION: “Hee-soon Yim, Hana Press. How much access to the President did you each enjoy on a regular, everyday basis?”
HERTZBERG [to Sorensen]: “Shall we start with the most access?” [laughter]
SORENSEN: “First of all, I was a counsel to the President and Legislative Assistant to the Senator, so for 11 years I was described, I guess with some accuracy, you can ask [fellow Kennedy speechwriter] Myer [Feldman], as the President’s principal advisory assistant on policy and program. I was very much involved with the ex-com (executive command) that resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis…”
FELDMAN: “You were described by some as [Kennedy’s] alter ego!”
SORENSEN: “…I was involved with the decision to go to the Moon, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, and so on, all of which I am extremely proud of. But I know that my obituary headline will read, ‘Ted Sorensen, Former Speechwriter to Kennedy, Passes Away.’
“And I don’t mind that in the slightest. I’m very proud of that because Kennedy’s speeches did make a difference. They were responsible for some important changes in the thinking of our country and in the world, and to have a role in that, having been brought up by my parents to care what kind of world this is, I’m very proud to have been his speechwriter.
“Second, I have sympathy for those who came after me, particularly after the Nixon days when there was, as Mary Kate pointed out, an office of speechwriters, people who sat in a room and were told, ‘The President wants a speech about XYZ.’ Well, I couldn’t have done that with any pleasure or confidence. I was involved in the meetings about XYZ, I knew how the President made up his mind, how the arguments were presented to him, what evidence mattered most to him. I could go back to my office and put that together and knew I was reflecting his thoughts and his decision. But just to have been a wordsmith with no participation in those decisions would have been very difficult for me. And I admire those who were able to do it.”
HERTZBERG: “Perhaps we should leave it at that, because I think we all feel that way, not that we all had that same kind of experience, but I think we all feel privileged to have been part of the inner workings of, and this process of, American democratic government.
“And on that note, thank you for coming — and don’t forget to buy the record!” [laughter/applause]
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Stephen K. Peeples is a Grammy-nominated multi-media writer-producer and radio/record-industry veteran raised in Miami and Los Angeles. He was Co-Director of Media Relations then Senior Director/New Media and first website content editor for Rhino Entertainment from 1992-1997. For more info and original stories, visit Peeples’ website and YouTube channel.
Article: Presidential Speechwriters Swap Stories at Library of Congress Roundtable
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com