By Jeff Shesol
“Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric”
A book by William F. Gavin
“I have serious doubts about eloquence,” confesses William Gavin at the start of his memoir of a life spent writing speeches. This is, in its way, a startling admission. Speechwriters, as a rule, put great stock in eloquence. They have a weakness for it. They will strive and strain to achieve it at the slightest provocation, such as a blank piece of paper.
Once Gavin, too, had a taste for eloquence. In 1967, while teaching high school English in a Philadelphia suburb, he sent a fan letter to Richard Nixon, imploring him to run for president. “You are,” Gavin wrote, “a man who has been beaten, humiliated, hated, but who can still see the truth.” Nixon, sensing immediately this young man’s discernment, invited Gavin to a Christmas party and then, a few months later, to join his incipient campaign. In 1969, after Nixon’s victory, Gavin became a presidential speechwriter. His particular role, a reporter observed at the time, was “staff poet”; his specialty was “rich, velvety, rippling sort of stuff.”
History records that this was not Nixon’s strong suit. To be fair, he had smart, serious, talented writers, among them Gavin, William Safire, Ray Price, Patrick Buchanan and Lee Huebner. His speeches were, for the most part, well-composed, and his arguments well-constructed. He could be brutally effective on the stump and persuasive on the fly. And yet rarely eloquent. At best, Nixon managed a sort of ersatz eloquence, peroration painted by numbers. (“Our destiny,” Nixon intoned in his first inaugural address, “offers not the cup of despair, but the chalice of opportunity.” America, take a sip.)
By William F. Gavin
Michigan State University Press, 172 pages
Which brings us to Gavin’s doubts. Hired for his “emotional writing,” Gavin found little use for it in the Nixon White House. He came to share the president’s suspicion of stirring, soaring speechifying and his preference, instead, for what Gavin calls “working rhetoric”—plain, forceful, purposeful prose. Words that bear down instead of lift up. “The desire to be inspired,” Gavin writes in “Speechwright,” “to be uplifted, to be made to feel deeply, to be swept away, and thrilled is the mark of jaded citizens who have forgotten that the major goal of political rhetoric should be to make good arguments, clearly and honestly.” For Gavin, the original sin had been committed by John Kennedy, whose inaugural address begat “the modern cult of thrill-talk.” That speech was “magnificent,” Gavin allows, “but it wasn’t true, because it wasn’t achievable.”
Speechwriting, in Gavin’s view, is not a calling, but a craft. “And that,” he explains, “is why I prefer the term ‘speechwright’. … Speechwrights hammer, drill, saw, and otherwise push around words to craft something ephemeral but useful.” After leaving the Nixon administration, Gavin pushed words around for one-term Sen. James Buckley, Republican of New York and brother of William F., then spent nearly two decades with Rep. Robert Michel of Illinois, the longtime House minority leader. In recounting these years, Gavin is faithful to his own advice and to that of Messrs. Strunk and White: He omits unnecessary words. But the ones he includes here are insightful and often self-effacing.
He writes throughout with restraint, but also evident passion—for the men he served and for their brand of conservatism, which, today, has few adherents: a probing and “practical” conservatism that disdained dogma, acknowledged reality and represented “a tendency to look at the world in certain ways rather than a full-blown ideology with answers to everything.” When Gavin adds that a flat-out refusal to compromise in any instance is a pretty good definition of “fanaticism,” he might not intend it as a rebuke to the current crop of Republicans, but one hopes they read it as one.
Practiced as he is in the art of argumentation, Gavin, in the end, fails to fully persuade. He is mostly right that politicians should “stop trying to get us to stand up and cheer” and “start persuading us to sit down and think.” But he has too low an opinion of high rhetoric. As Richard Goodwin, who drafted speeches for John and Robert Kennedy and for Lyndon Johnson, has written, the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to “move men to action or alliance.” To accomplish this, a speaker has to be able to modulate, to hit a range of notes on the scale—including, at times, the highest. True leaders exhort as well as explain.
Yes, “thrill-talk,” as Gavin insists, often gives wings to “impossible dream(s)” and “inevitable disappointment.” But the words that excite us are also the words that can change us—words that stretch our national sense of self, that make us believe we really can end Jim Crow and win a war and put a man on the moon. Not every dream is an impossible one.
Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is a partner at West Wing Writers and author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”
© 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group