Writing it right

Don’t knock the outgoing guy. Richard M. Nixon’s chief speechwriter,Ray Price,recalled that,as he prepared to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969

Written by LA Times Washington Post | Published:January 20, 2009 2:34 am

•» Don’t knock the outgoing guy. Richard M. Nixon’s chief speechwriter,Ray Price,recalled that,as he prepared to succeed Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969,Nixon read all the previous addresses. “One comment he made to me was,’It’s important not to kick the predecessor,’ as he thought Kennedy had done to Eisenhower in saying,’A torch has been passed to a new generation,’ “ Price said. Price concluded the inauguration should give voice to what Lincoln called our “better angels.”

•» Anticipate the sounds of silence. Obama’s talents for working a crowd are already legendary. But this skill is all but useless at the inauguration because of the size of the “room.” Don Baer,a Clinton speechwriter,noted that the inaugural address “is delivered in a big open-air setting.” The crowd is unusually distant from the speaker. So “the impact of the words is very different. You don’t get applause.” Moreover,said Ken Khachigian,a Ronald Reagan speechwriter,“It’s cold,so everybody is wearing gloves. When they clap,it’s muffled.” Thus,the incoming president is almost completely deprived of the kind of audience feedback that speakers rely on to refine the music of their prose.

•» Beware the staple marks. Standard procedure for the president-elect speech is to cast a wide net for a number of would-be speechwriters,in the hope of finding some gems. The danger is that it can produce so many good ideas that it swamps the speech. Republican speechwriter Aram Bakshian Jr. claims that Nixon’s second inaugural suffered precisely this fate. “Unfortunately,Nixon saw some lines here and there that he liked’’ making his “a roller coaster speech with staple marks… you could identify things had been pasted in from other drafts. I remember thinking,did the cleaning lady forget to sweep up?”

•» Take no for an answer. Patrick Anderson recounted that Jimmy Carter wanted to open his 1977 inaugural address with a biblical quote: “If my people,which are called by my name,shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Anderson strongly objected to using this passage which suggested that the people who had just elected him,and whose fundamental goodness had been central to his campaign rhetoric,were evil. Sometimes the greatest service a speechwriter can perform is to help the president overcome his own blind spots.

Of course,in nonverbal symbolism Obama trumps even his most accomplished predecessors—simply because of who he is,the first African American president. With his right hand held aloft,his left resting on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible—will send a message beyond the powers of any speechwriter to put into words.

Russell L. Riley is chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs

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