tv The Presidency Presidential Speechwriters CSPAN August 31, 2019 12:00pm-1:06pm EDT
history tv products are now available at the c-span store. see what is new for american history tv and check out all of the c-span products. nex >> next on "the presidency," three former white house speechwriters talk about the process of turning a president's politics and policies into a speech. this was from the presidential ideas festival hosted by the university of virginia's miller center. kyle: we appreciate you coming, we have some other panels going on at the same time, we will try to make it worth your while. today we are really lucky, i am a former speechwriter for president obama. we are also really lucky to have sarada and john.
jeff who worked for president clinton was supposed to be here, but he had a conflict that kept him in in d.c. we will try to tell as many of his stories as we remember. [laughter] kyle: we have some questions for these two, and then we will take any questions you have. if there's anything we hope you take away from this session, being a presidential speechwriter is exactly like you think it would be on "the west wing." [laughter] kyle: i'm just kidding, it is much more like veep. [laughter] >> i will start with questions about the relationship between ideas and speeding. sometimes what starts as an idea and incident in a speech, sometimes the process starts before you have the idea. i am curious, how does an idea become a speech? sarada: in a weird way, speechwriters are not coming up with the ideas, there are much
smarter people in the building developing those ideas. but in a way i think the ideas, they don't get crystallized until they are litigated on the page. a lot of speechwriting is a process job where you are managing the various points of different policy staff that all have different interest and want different ideas and you're helping them shape how you explain that message. in that process, a lot of decisions can be made on the page. for our white house with president obama, a speech might get assigned to us, say on a new trade policy, and the first thing we would do is go and talk to the fox involved in the trade policy to get their input on exactly what needed to be said, and from there, we would go to the drafting process. but i think the process itself
helps crystallize what the idea would be. john: working for george w. bush was a unique experience in the sense that he had, when i went to work for him, he was governor of texas, and he had gotten elected to that position on a reform agenda. four things he wanted to do for texas, a policy driven campaign. when i joined the bush operation, he was a full-fledged presidential candidate, and that was also a campaign on issues. so it was a very disciplined process with him. you had your policy team, the speechwriting team would be given the policy, and it was our job to turn it into a nice, presentable, persuadable speech, but it was a very good policy operation. when the president got up to give a speech on whatever it was he was proposing, it represented what he really wanted to say
about it and also represented a very disciplined process that had been underway for some weeks or months prior to the event itself. it is also the case that working with george w. bush, we found ourselves in many ways, in a crisis presidency. things kept happening. the ultimate was 9/11, and the monday after 9/11, the president made the decision that he was going to address the joint session of congress, or more precisely, was probably going to address the joint session of congress but he wanted to see a speech draft before he made a final decision. it was our job, my colleagues and i, to do a speech for the president that monday.
he asked that he begin the entire speech for that day. the assignment came that morning. as much as we protested, it was clear that we had to get it done. we got to work, it wasn't as if we were lacking for subject matter or material, or what we needed to write about, but we did need some policy direction, which we received. we talked to condoleezza rice that morning. about 1:00 that afternoon, we were called to the oval office and the president. we had seen him quite a bit since the attacks the previous tuesday, but we had not seen him since we had gotten this assignment, obviously. we were brought in and he asked how the drafting was going and mike speaking for the group said it is going well but we are not quite there. he looked at us and said, americans have questions, they want to know who attacked our country, why they hate us, and they want to know what is expected of us now, and if we
are in a war, how we will fight and win the war. from there, we had a structure for the speech itself. if you look at the speech to congress the following thursday, the president went through those questions and because, i've always thought, because he gave us that basic construct at the beginning, we were able to finish the draft that day. we didn't have a conclusion ready, he allowed us to move that onto tuesday. kyle: can you talk about how president obama would give you the framework for a speech like that. he is a lawyer, he would always give you point 1a, 1b. sarada: yeah, literally. he himself is a writer, and if he had time, he would write the speeches better himself. but the commander-in-chief doesn't have time to write speeches. often, you go in the oval and
sit down and he was start riffing, and maybe seven minutes in, he would say ok, here is what i am thinking. one, and he would give you your one, and he would give you your opening. two, the next paragraph. 1a, he would walk you through the previous paragraph. it was so irritating because you were trying to come up with a structure for hours and east spend 10 minutes with him and he had the whole thing down. it was inspiring and incredibly annoying. [laughter] sarada: he was really good at this. also interesting, one of the challenges of being a president,
really any elected leader, i worked for a senator for years and saw the same dynamic -- you are going from very different events to very different events during the course of a very busy day. he might be having a meeting with me about the national prayer breakfast speech and right before then he was in the situation room talking about china with people way more important than i am, and after that he is going to a ceremony with the girl scouts. the day is so fragmented and your mind has to quickly shift. for a whole host of reasons, president obama as a lawyer and writer, and someone like president bush, extremely disciplined, and able to shift. i remember we were working on the remarks when pope francis came to visit the u.s. because the pope is the head of a state, the holy see of the vatican, we did a state arrival. it was a very early speech, they do the state arrivals on the south lawn starting at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, quite early. i had been working on the speech and handed in a draft a couple of days earlier, and in our
white house, the process was that the draft -- we would write the draft and the chief speechwriter would edit it, and then it would go around the building to many people for input and edits, including lawyers and fact checkers. our white house had fact checkers. [laughter] sarada: policy people. they would offer their input, which we would then incorporate. eventually the draft would go to the president. we had probably spoken to him we had probably spoken to him about the speech before but then it would go back to him. i sent it into him a couple of nights earlier and i got it back and only one word was crossed out. and i thought, this can't be right, the president loves pope francis, he was really excited about the arrival. i couldn't imagine he had no edits. of course, i get a call from the president's secretary the morning before the speech and she says, he wasn't done
editing, he wants you up here. so i go to the oval and he is behind the desk, and in his neat handwriting he is making edits. "come on in." i do about obama impression. [laughter] sarada: he was talking about that testing his own. i want to focus on that, and it wasn't supposed to be a long speech, but he wanted to blow that out a little bit. he said work on this and similar draft and i will look at it over lunch. i worked on it and send it back. i got another call at lunchtime and i am summoned back. i go into the oval and i don't see him. his secretary says, he is having lunch in his private dining room. go back there. i had never been back there. i am both terrified and trying to take in everything on the walls. [laughter]
sarada: as i make this two second walk to the presidential dining room. he is in their eating a plate of carrots or something. [laughter] sarada: he has made his edits and wants me to read them and make sure i understand what he is doing. and i see he has kind of blown out that section more and added a bit about refugees. later on i learned that he had been in a meeting related to refugees. you could see the evolution of his thinking, but he was going to do something else right after that. he said, go make these edits and send me back a draft and i'm going to go meet the pope at andrews later but i will look at it tonight. i sent it back. at the end of the night, maybe around 8:00 p.m., i went to get his edits and he had a few more. what was interesting about that day was to watch the evolution of his thinking where even though there was so much else going on, which any president has, in those two minutes he had to focus on the speech and give
it the thinking he needed -- not that it was an influence i what was going on through the day, but the ability of a person in the office to continually give this his focus and tend to it even though there are other things going on. john: that's one of the value adds that speech writing brings to a president. give him something to react to, to look at. president bush was not really a writer, but he was a really serious editor. very confident editor. he had this very, very logical mind. you've heard me tell this story -- he could read an eight page speech draft, throw it down on his desk and look at the ceiling
and recite to you the outline of the speech. i am not capable of that, but he could internalize it. he called me in one morning really early and he was going to give a speech across town and it was one of the speeches where you have to cover two things not related. in the middle of the speech, you had to connect the two. he was going to his final read through and he said what is this on page three in the middle paragraph? it was 6:30 in the morning or something. i said, it is the nature of a transition, mr. president. he said this word. take it out. [laughter] john: he wanted it direct and clear, the way that sorenson used to describe john f. kennedy, he could feel the momentum of the words. and if you didn't feel it while reading the speech, there was a problem. but give them something to react to. the morning of 9/11 i was sitting with vice president cheney, and the reason i was with him is he had a speech that
friday and the arrangement we had was i'm not going to go in and say you have a speech on friday, what do you want to say? i'm going to come in and say you have a speech on friday, here is what i recommend. and then you can get the gears turning and something to react to, because i have so many other things going on. i have to give a foreign-policy speech in chicago -- no, don't do that. kyle: i was going to say that sounds really familiar to me. i had to write a speech that president obama gave to morehouse college, a historically black college in atlanta. i remember walking to the oval office and my boss hopefully said, kyle has some ideas for you. he is looking at me, the first black president, like i'm going to let you finish. [laughter] kyle: you probably remember this, but the editing, the more
you got from president obama, the better. if he spent time writing it out on a yellow legal pad at night with your draft next him, that was great because he was fully engage with it. you never wanted the note that said please come see me. you are starting over. sarada: it's true, you always want the person you're working with to be engaged with the draft. also something john said was really important, president bush was looking for that momentum in the speech, and here i can represent our collie to is who is missing, jeff, who i worked with for many years. one of the things he taught me is a speech should have a sense of inevitability about it. you are building an argument through a speech, there is momentum, so by the time you get to the end, the audience says obviously this is where we are. there is an inevitability about it.
what president bush saw with the bad transition is there wasn't a sense of inevitability, his momentum got broken. i was thinking, you could do the joe biden transition -- look, folks. [laughter] sarada: but bush would not like that. kyle: we are all speech writers but not all speeches are the same and not always a president gets a message across is the same. whether it is a state of the union, press conference, social media, where do you feel like president bush and president obama were best and where do you feel like they were not as good? any stories about a good or bad example? john: he was pretty good in all of these settings. the issue of authenticity comes up and nowadays you here people say, it is more authentic if someone just tweets something off the top of their head or more authentic if they are doing an interview or something more off-the-cuff, a town hall meeting or that sort of thing.
you can be authentic, but you also are authentic when you're saying what you want to say. in the best way you know how to say it. i saw an ambassador here at this conference and he's writing an essay on reagan's address at moscow state university in 1988. that speech at the berlin wall, one of the great speeches in the english language, remembered by everybody. it was worked on very closely by the speechwriters, the secretary of state of believe was believe, was involved, the president himself. there wasn't a spare word, annexed or word in the speech, it was a very carefully, well done speech. no one would say that was not authentic because reagan wasn't saying what just popped into his mind. there was nothing more authentically reagan than that.
sarada: it's about being respectful of your audience, too. john: yes, respectful of their time. one time president bush did a town hall meeting in kansas. i was not on the trip but it was on c-span or something, and i said, did you know you were up there for an hour and a half answering questions? he did, but at the time he said he had no idea. it was a big event, he had his microphone, and going into an event like that, he said don't waste your time giving me a prepared speech for the first few minutes of a town hall. he would make notes about what he wanted to say. by notes i mean public schools, freedom. [laughter]
john: always freedom. he was very good in all settings as well. i also felt secret weapon was the press conference, because the late-night comics were always making fun of george w. bush's word stumbles, mispronouncing a name, they would catch him and run these things constantly. but then everybody at some point in the course of the year, everybody is going to see the president or hear him in a situation that they are kind of, it's the only thing they can listen to, they are in their car and the president is making an announcement. you are listening to bush and i think a lot of people thought, he is very well informed and well spoken and this is not what i was expecting. most people are busy with their lives. but in these rare moments when they would here for 15 minutes or so, he would some pretty good, and that's why i say i was his secret weapon. sarada: he was also really funny. john: yes, he did not have to write jokes.
he tried. [laughter] sarada: we know that president obama's reputation is somebody who gives these soaring speeches with a lot of oratorical flourish. some of the seminal speeches of the last 10 years, 15 years have been ones he gave at a critical moment. selma, charleston, speeches that he put a lot of thought into. like john says, he was saying the thing he wanted to say and was prepared to say. but i also think, and i'm sure you have felt this, we were sort of, his presidency followed the growth of social media. it was a whole other opportunity to communicate in a new way and also screw up in a new way but to really reach audiences in different ways.
and i think he really followed mrs. obama's lead on this. the first lady was on the cutting edge of social media to reach audiences. she wanted to meet people where they were. she was always getting to young people through whatever social media channel they were using. she went on "ellen" all the time because she knew that was an audience of women watching that she wanted to reach with policy ideas come and also to shape culture around issues like college access and healthier food for children. she was really good about that and not above any of that. i think that also inspired the president's team to get more bold about social media. he did the "between two ferns" video that you might remember. he encouraged people to suffer health care. -- to sign up for health care.
but he also did a facebook live video to encourage young people to sign up for facebook and it turns out young people are not on facebook, so he used snapchat or something like that. to get young people to fill out their fafsa form. we had one day that he was interviewed by a bunch of youtube stars. i didn't at the time know what youtube star is, but they have millions of followers. traditional journalists were extremely angry he was doing interviews with these young people who are not serious journalists and not speaking to face the nation or whatever. but he felt this was an opportunity to reach young there are pitfalls to all of this but i feel like throughout his eight years, he was really good about finding ways to use every medium at his disposal to get his message across.
it didn't always work but he tried. john: a couple of quick points about bush could he was very funny as you said. he would use the first page of his speech, he would take acknowledgments, just names, and he would riff off of the names. that's where a lot of his humor came from in his speech. he wanted to thank the person who introduced him and the local the band and everyone he wanted to thank, and he would riff on these things. he came up with this thing, some of the smo story maybe sometime around the lincoln movie, some presidents have said they saw lincoln's ghost, have you seen lincoln's ghost? and he said no, i quit drinking in 1980. [laughter] john: but cheney also has a great sense of humor, very low-key delivery but very good timing.
he called me one time and it was in the morning and i picked up the phone and it was the deep voice of dick cheney and he said, "john, i got us into some trouble." i said oh? he said the president is going to europe and is not going to the radio and tv correspondents dinner and i have to go there and be funny for 10 minutes. [laughter] john: he said, i don't do funny. [laughter] john: but the truth is he does. my colleague and i hurriedly put together a speech for him for the next night, i think it was. and he did a great job, he was very good at that. kyle: i want to ask this question because i don't know the answer, but the way the correspondents dinner works is there is usually a lead writer that is the funny speechwriter. i was not the funny writer ever.
everybody else will submit jokes to that person and they will pick some. i would spend time to have a page or two of jokes and give them to our funny speechwriter. did you have any jokes that were accepted? sarada: i think maybe. tyler ran our speechwriting process for that. honestly, i can't remember. there was sort of this pressure to get jokes, but people send jokes in unsolicited, from the outside. [laughter] sarada: whoever was running lead on the correspondents dinner was getting emails from everybody suggesting jokes, but they also might reach out to comedians, comedy writers and others for help. it was a huge undertaking. the state of the union is a really hard speech to write.
white house correspondents dinner felt like that too because there was so much pressure. like president bush, president obama is funny naturally, he was really good at timing. you can always expect them to deliver. but the pressure to pull off these speeches was so great. kyle: going back to what you said about compartmentalizing, this is a story you may have heard, but there is a correspondents dinner, i think a few years and his presidency, presidency, where there was a joke -- his middle name was hussein. and there was a joke that was something like there was a republican whose middle name was osama. we went into the final edits and he said, you know what, i think we can cut this out. do you remember who the republican was? sarada: i can't. kyle: turns out, that was the
day they had the mission to kill bin laden. he had just come from a meeting in the situation room and later that night they were going to do it and he did not let on, he was just like, let's not do that. sarada: that famous photo of them in the situation room is them the day after the correspondents dinner. but the speechwriters did not know that. they had to be able to switch gears. kyle: it is tough to reach different audiences, members of congress, members of the public and press. are which audience you how do you reachw that audience? john: that's the first question i always ask. it's an exaggeration but in a certain sense you're halfway there when you know who the audience is. is it your friends, the unpersuaded, academics, the
brigade of midshipmen at the naval academy, the chicago world affairs council, veterans of foreign wars, the republican club of cedar rapids? you find out what your audience is and then you know probably how you will get into this speech, what the general tone of the presentation is going to be, and things of that nature. however, it is the president speaking and therefore, as he always told us, everything is important. we were not to think of a small rose garden for the teacher of the year event and the rose garden as unimportant. it was part of the full volume of statements he made as president of the united states. also, he was always after us never to skip a step in making a case. even if you are speaking to the
people, and audience of people who are likely to be in agreement with what you're saying, don't skip a logical step because a president always has a broader audience. if he is making his case for social security reform and he skips over the hard part and just tells you all of the great things that will happen, a person who disagrees and maybe even a person who hasn't run a -- hasn't done a lot of thinking about it will go, you skip to ped a step. he was always after us to explain things, regardless of who the audience was. sarada: and you can get bogged down in the fear of the audience. like john said, the audience is the world for any speech. you never know who is paying attention. i would have relatives in india say one of the president's speeches was reported on in a paper there. you just never know. by the time we came into office, everything is on twitter, and
you could watch a speech -- i would do this sometimes, a speech i worked on, i am watching it on tv and i am watching twitter at the same time and it is a great way to lose your mind. [laughter] sarada: you can see how any given news outlet will filter pieces of the speech through its own view and then slice and dice it and reinterpret it however they want. and it appears on twitter a very different way from what you intended and this can make you lose your mind. but i agree, you have to think about the primary audience. one of our colleagues would always say, once said to me when i was working on a speech for memorial day, you can get bogged down in the potential people paying attention, so focus on the emotional heart and center of the speech.
who is the person whose heart you are most trying to touch? and then go out from there. for memorial day, it is a soldier, so start with that person and then go broader. that was a helpful way to stay focused and not lose sight and let twitter ruin your life. [laughter] kyle: i'll ask one more question and then if you want to line up at the microphone, we will take questions from the audience. we were mostly domestic speechwriters but there is a big difference between a foreign-policy speech and domestic speech. can you talk a little bit about what we have seen colleagues do and what we know, the different considerations for the two. john: i was fortunate, i am a lawyer by training but i'm not an expert in any kind of a policy area. i had to write speeches about
things that in many cases i have not done much thinking about. but one of the great things about working about the white house is your policy experts and they love talking about their area of expertise and they're very good at it. i was always toggling back and forth between foreign policy/military stuff and domestic and all of the things that fall under that umbrella. president bush, his signature issue as governor of texas was education reform and he wanted it to be the signature issue of his presidency. that was ted kennedy and john boehner coauthored the legislation that bush signed and that was a big part of what he wanted to a conscious president. it fell far into the background. but we could never make him happy with an education speech draft because he simply knew too much about it, to a granular detail that speechwriters cannot get. it would go through the staffing process and anything was fine and then it would get to the president.
and he would say, you don't get it. [laughter] john: one time, this was in 2004 in the middle of a reelection campaign, a lot going on. i said to mike and matthew, my colleagues, the president did not like the last educational speech. we have another speech to do, let's take an education speech he didn't use and look at the transcript from what he actually said and use that. so we did. we took the transcript of the last speech, we cleaned it up, put in some current fax and local references to freshen it up. i thought, this is what he
wanted to say, and clearly that day it was the rare event he had a speech in front of them and didn't use it. it was education, he just wanted to do his own thing. so we made that into a speech, centered around and we sent to the president and we will see if he likes appear. word comes back, he loves it. [laughter] john: because he wrote it. [laughter] sarada: my understanding from colleagues who works with bill clinton is that previously, speechwriters were an all-in-one kind of shop, and when sandy berger was national security adviser for clinton, he wanted the foreign policy speechwriters under his purview. they moved over to the national security council. even when we were in the white house, our colleagues who wrote foreign-policy speeches, their email addresses were nsc. they were technically part of the nsc even know they were on our team. they had a different level of clearance and everything in their lives. they were looking classified materials in order to write speeches. it's a very different process. the few times i did have to work with nsc staff and work on foreign policy, you realize it is a different ballgame.
foreign leaders and populations of foreign countries are really looking to the president of the united states and what he says, they are poring over every word. there is a level of care that needs to be given to those speeches. not that you're not careful about every speech, but the considerations that go into those speeches i think is really different. and sometimes, that would have an affect on the prose. you'd be going back and forth with the nsc staff that wanted something said in a precise way but doesn't sound like human english. [laughter] sarada: you be going back and forth, trying to get to a place where it sounded like something a person would say, but was accurate in a way they needed, precise in a way they needed. one friend from the nsc told me, he wasn't a speechwriter, he was
a policy person, but he was helping one of his bosses with remarks, and in the speech she said, the draft said something like, "we are going to do this for the american people." and the nsc lawyers came back and said, "you have to say u.s. persons." [laughter] sarada: which is of course ridiculous. but there are these considerations. they are just a different. john: when a president of the united states goes abroad, all of his public remarks he makes on that trip, whether it is two days or 10, they are done and cleared and approved before air force one leaves the united states. so it is a real crunch for speechwriting. >> as a former resident of south
carolina in charleston, i would like to hear you elaborate on his decision to sing "amazing grace." sarada: we will just tell our boss's story. i was not involved in the charleston speech, and i was not there, but our director of speechwriting tells the story that they were actually on the plane headed down there and the president said, there is a 50-50 chance i will sing. i think in the moment he felt it. kyle: our boss didn't say, sing it. [laughter] it was just in the moment. >> thank you. >> to what extent do you try to speak in the voice of the president? i mean, to mimic his phrasing or make it sound like something he
himself would say? or is that a road too far? kyle: that a huge part of the speechwriter's job and probably the hardest part at the beginning, getting someone's voice. writing and speaking like they would speak. >> does that come from getting to know them well? sarada: i think one way to overcome the initial hurdle, how am i going to sound like a 55-year-old man who is the leader of the free world when i am me, is to think about how that voice, the idea of how someone speaks, getting someone's voice, it's really about how they think. if you start there, you figure out what words and phrases they like. what you are trying to understand is how they approach the world and problems. at least for me, i don't know if -- you had a lot more time with president bush. but as soon as i got to the white house, i immersed myself
in everything i could about him. i read his books, i read every speech he had given. i watched when he was on jimmy fallon. i spent a lot of time immersing myself in the mind and soul of barack obama, which is kind of creepy. [laughter] sarada: but it is how you start. you get to the point where you wake up in the morning and it's not what do i think about what is going on in the world, what does barack obama think about what is going on the world? kyle: i was writing emails to friends as barack obama. [laughter] kyle: it is hard to get out of. >> i imagine any of the president's speeches are rewritten and rewritten endlessly and cleared by dozens of people. mechanically, how do you know what the draft is at a given moment, and a practical question, what happens to all of the drafts? are they shredded, raised, filed -- erased, filed to the archives?
john: everything for us was comments due in the speechwriting office at 5:00 on the same day. nobody was given, during the staffing process, no one was given an electronic copy of the speech. we didn't want anyone -- colin powell said one time everybody likes to grade papers. everybody would love to get on the computer and play with your work. we insisted on edits on hard copy. they would come into us and we would have a stack of them. sarada: i really wish we had done that. [laughter] john: there's no other way to do it, because you get in their hand, and also when someone has to take the time to write something, that is thinking, too, rather than dashing something off. the idea of having all these electronic copies of our speech,
redlined, it would have made our job so -- it would've made me miserable. but the hardcopy, you go through them, and if you worked on the speech, your name and phone number were on the bottom of the last page. the president and vice president always make clear, you are accountable for the speech, which means you have the power to make sure the speech still works as a whole. it doesn't mean you can overrule the national security advisor on a question of wording or whatever. but it does mean that when you get all of these multiple suggestions from people who haven't done a lot of thinking about the speech, maybe just commenting on the fly, and maybe don't feel strongly about the suggestion they are making, all of those factors come into play, but it is your responsibility to go through those edits, a -- accommodate the changes that need to be accommodated, laugh at the ones that don't. [laughter] john: the ones from people who don't appreciate your artistry and all of that. but that is the only -- you have to have a process and stick to it.
otherwise, it becomes chaos. and then the final thing is what happens to the drafts? they are all in the bush library. all of those papers. we had to give everything. if two sets of eyeballs were on it, it became a record. sarada: yes. especially going forward in the current occupant of the white house, you should know they can't just throw things out. every record must be kept, there is a federal law to that effect. we unfortunately did not have people do handwritten edits, and i wish we did. i think everybody had a different method. we would ask for them by 5:00 the day we circulated.
i think most speechwriters i know, we are all kind of obsessive about version control. i have an elaborate system of how i name my files to make sure i'm looking at the right version. when i got a lot of edits, i would print them all out so i could check off i've had gone through all of them. i might be getting a bunch of edits from members of the same team, and i would ask them to combine them all, litigate among themselves what they wanted to send me, and then send everything to me. i would not accept 20 different edits from people on the same team. kyle: there's also the mental list in your head of people you have to take edits from and people you can kind of ignored. [laughter] kyle: you don't tell people they are on that list, but yeah. >> thank you for coming, first of all. you mentioned earlier that a lot of times when you're running the -- writing a speech, the ideas
cannot just be your own, and you can't really overrule the director of the nsc. there are certain things to take into consideration, but you are the voice of the leader of the free world and that carries a certain weight. to what extent do you feel you had influence over policy as a speechwriter? sarada: you know, i don't know if -- i personally didn't feel like i had influence over actual policy. a couple of our colleagues were also policy people, but i did feel like i had some influence in shaping how he talked about something. specifically, by the time i got there, i felt like i could kind of help the president be more vocal about his feminism. and so i used various opportunities, culminating in a speech he gave at a conference that the white house held called the united states of women in 2016, that i could kind of build up and help him find a voice, give voice to what i knew he truly believed. and that i could push it and see whether he would push back. i worked on a team of men, so i felt like i had the ability to
do that. and to kind of challenge it a little bit. and through each piece of writing about this issue that we did, i could kind of push the envelope a little more so than by the time he gave the speech, when he got on the stage in front of thousands of people and said this is what a feminist look like, it took slowly moving us to that direction. it wasn't that i was putting an idea into his head, it was something he already had, i was just helping him find his voice, giving it voice. john: the thing that is most rewarding about writing for a president, a president you like, and a vice president i should say as well, is the reasons you like the person you are writing for, you want the whole country to see what you like about the person. so you think about that when you
are writing. i don't consider that as having influence on policy so much as giving him confidence, expressing his best thoughts, putting all you can into it to ensure the qualities you like and admire are there for all to see. i will add that in the bush-cheney white house, a speechwriter for half the administration was a policy advisor and he had real standing with the staff. he was very good at what he did. kyle: you can widen the circle of people who care for something. i did a speech on health care and that was important, he spoke about it a lot. we really had to persuade people in congress and in different states not only to pass the law but sign up. we ended up going through all of
the letters, president obama received thousands of letters and read 10 every night, including from people who say these are the issues i'm dealing with, this is why it is important. we would tell a lot of those stories to help people understand why this matters. and who this will make a difference for. >> thank you. >> my good friend just basically put together a much more eloquent version of the question i have. [laughter] >> i'm in a little bit of a scramble, but if i could shift the perspective on how you as a speechwriter have the influence. a lot what's being talked about is the president being around people who can respectfully disagree and hold discourse with him or her. one of the questions i had is in
the time you were speechwriters, were there are where you were able to challenge the president on a way he was approaching a certain topic or issue? or perhaps just the topic itself. were there places where you could have that kind of discourse with him and show there was maybe a different path to what he was originally thinking? john: not many times. [laughter] john: but i will say, if there was something i really felt strongly about that i wanted to say to president bush about policy -- i wouldn't say, can i grab you for a second? but i remember talking to a deputy chief of staff once about something that i had a strong opinion on and that was good enough. i knew that this would be presented to the president and i didn't care if he said whose thought it was. the vice president, you could be a little more free with the vice
president. cheney was not the man in the oval office, but he was a chief of staff to a president, secretary of defense, a congressman. a serious guy. i never lobbied or anything like that. but i remember raising a couple of things with him. he is the kind of guy you would not hesitate to do that. but you would also want to make sure you had done some serious thinking before you talked about it, because he respects anyone who is talking to him, but you need to respect his time. don't come in with a half-baked idea. but -- and in terms of speeches, you always have to tell yourself, this is his speech. this is not me. i'm not contributing to the corpus of my work. it is him talking. sarada: that's an important point. no one would ever say that is a great speech by sarada.
they would say this is a lousy speech by barack obama. you have to be really cognizant of that. i don't know if you ever challenged him on policy, i certainly never did. but my understanding from people who worked on policy is that he really wanted very robust discussions about policy happening in front of him, where his experts were disagreeing with each other and talking about it. there are great accounts of those conversations happening during the financial crisis. during the transition before he even took office, and even conversations -- the transition was really smooth in part largely because of president bush's personality. but i think during the transition, there were really robust conversations that many people have written books about at this point. and i think he wanted that. from a writing perspective, we were giving him our best in a draft, and the edits would come from him. it was rare, i've never had an experience where i would say, i could come up with something
better. more often than not, he would cross out two of your words and come up with one better one. john: robert strauss told a story, he had problems with the vietnam war and he was determined to tell president johnson he was on the wrong track. all he remembered saying was something like, mr. president, you are the greatest man... [laughter] john: he said he left the oval office and was so angry at himself, and he made a vow to himself that if he was ever speaking to a president again, he would tell them exactly what was on his mind. he maintained that he kept that and he ended up on the cabinet in the carter years. he maintained ever after that he
stayed true to that. i was in a meeting in the oval office one time and it was glenn hubbard, and economic advisor who later became the dean of columbia business school. i don't never what the issue was, but glenn was there and i was there, and obviously a speech was being talked about. i remember there was kind of a loose consensus forming around some idea, and the president looks at glenn hubbard, and dr. hubbard, what do you think about that? and he said, "mr. president, i don't agree with that at all!" [laughter] john: i have never forgotten that. it's one of those moments you hope actually happen, if the president asks for someone's opinion and the tell them in so -- instead of holding back. that was kind of the tone i always felt president bush had, even though i never felt in a position where i needed to say i disagreed with something. kyle: it's hard to overstate how hard that is. first time i was in the oval office, i forgot the complete thing. i do not even remember walking out. you are there, i'm in the room, it is so bright. what do i do with my hands?
[laughter] kyle: it is hard, but you get used to it. >> in the impeachment of andrew johnson, one of the articles of impeachment involved speechwriting. the president had done a tour of the country defending his version of reconstruction, and had apparently been so crude and offensive and unpresidential in his criticism of the radical republicans that they wrote that as a reason for his removal from office. is it possible for a president to say something, write something, or tweet something that would justify removal from office? [laughter] kyle: it would justify the removal of the writer. [laughter] john: that's what you live in fear of. johnson didn't have writers. so, impeachment. sarada: legally, i can't answer that question. i think if he says something where he perjured himself, then
yes. kyle: it's like the sign of an actual crime. sarada: there are questions about whether this presidency, the use of his twitter account, tweets, whether he is in violation of the presidential records act. as john said, one of the things that speechwriters live in fear of is being wrong. writing something -- maybe not the current speechwriters, but we lived in fear of being incorrect. hence, the fact-checkers and the lawyers who made sure what we said was not in violation of anything. johnson didn't have that. there were also other reasons they impeached him. >> for all of us prospective speechwriters, what are you doing now? john: i write speeches for private clients.
i worked with a former white house colleague. sarada: i also have my own sort of one woman shop and i do speeches and all kinds of writing, but also message strategy, communications, coaching for clients. kyle: i graduated from uva in 2008. i moved back to charlottesville about a year ago and i work for jim ryan. i also write speeches. >> i am curious, once you have all of the words on the paper, how much time did your respective presidents spend practicing, or do they have the ability to read it a few times and really deliver in a way that, with the appropriate pauses and all that goes into really communicating that?
and is that the kind of thing they are doing at night in front of a mirror? john: that's a good question, and i don't know the answer. i don't know how much time he spent on it. now and then, we gave him the speeches in 23 point type and he read them usually on cards about two thirds the size of a sheet of paper. it was big type, and he could read it without his glasses. on occasion, i would ask the staff secretary to give me the president's reading copy, because i wanted to see what he had done in the last moments, what changes he had made and what cross outs and additions and things like that. they weren't terribly common, but they did occur, and i wanted to see them. my point is, i would notice that
he would underline words for emphasis. he would mark out where he wanted to stop and pause. he wouldn't write notes to himself, but he would put signals, he would underline. so that suggests there was at least one serious practice of the speech. i've been in the oval office when he reads an entire speech aloud for a small audience of people sitting around the desk, and that is when he is doing, typically doing his first major edit of the speech.
if he was going to go off to a city in the heartland and read a speech, there would not be a practice session. but there were be practice sessions in the family theater in the east wing of the white house. it's about as deep as this room and half the width, maybe. set up like a little movie theater and they would set up a teleprompter. but he used a teleprompter. i know president obama used it lot, but president bush used it maybe four or five times a year. he would practice those things. he would sometimes edit it while reading the speech from a teleprompter and stay with us while he did it. but in the ordinary course of things, i know there was some, but i never really asked him how much time he spent with it. sarada: my understanding, you might know better than i do, the speeches president obama rehearsed were white house correspondent dinner, the convention speeches, but the ones he was doing regularly. i think as a president you get used to delivering speeches. because he had prepared the speech and spent time with it, there was a subset of the population that would mock president obama's use of a teleprompter, but it really is a better way to deliver a speech, you're looking out at the
audience, you are prepared, you thought about what you're going to say. he got accustomed to doing that and he is a terrific orator and was able to do that. the first lady is always prepared, does her homework early. i know she would rehearse her speeches. she wanted to make sure she got it right. she wrote about this in her book, that she knew that little kids were listening to every word she said. people were hanging on every word, what she said mattered. so she really wanted to put a lot of thought into what she said and how she said it could -- how she said it. she took her role as mom in chief seriously and wanted to be very prepared. i don't think president obama -- he took it seriously, but i don't think he rehearsed the way she did. kyle: she was not a politician. kyle: she was not a politician. one other story quickly. the only speech i remember him
really practicing is in 2007 in the first campaign, he was doing the jefferson jackson dinner, a big campaign event and stages round and there is no room for notes. he had to memorize it. it was a point minutes speech. we kept telling him you have to memorize this and start learning it. he was like yeah, i'll get to it. the night before, he started memorizing it. reggie love remembers walking by and hearing espn blasting on the tv. he was in the bathroom, talking to himself in the mirror, trying to memorize the speech and he did not want them to hear it. he apparently hated doing that. we are out of time. thank you all so much for coming. [applause] enjoy the rest of the day.
announcer: this is american history tv on c-span three, where each weekend, we feature eight hours of programs exploring our nations -- 48 hours of programs exploring our nations past. announcer: tonight on lectures in history, abraham lincoln and native americans. we visit the stony brook university classroom of professor paul to learn about the dakota wars. resulted in 38 executions, the removal of the navajo and the 1864 sand creek massacre. here is a preview.
so, what about lincoln? what are we to make of him? has left posterity with a troubling legacy. i will admit, historians often get asked, who is the best president? i perhaps would say abraham lincoln because of his determination to preserve the union and that he oversaw the end of slavery. but, when we look at this new history,of indigenous lincoln is perhaps no different from any other president in the 19th century. someone who was in favor of westward expansion, and believed in manifest destiny. to say the is hard buck should stop with him. he was very busy fighting the civil war, there was a lot going on.
but, i suppose to those thousands of decoders who were forced -- dakotas who were forced from their homeland, the buck should stop with him. i suppose for those thousands who had to endure the long walk and the wretched conditions, the buck should stop with him. i suppose for those hundreds of murdered,ho were lincoln should come under more scrutiny. announcer: learn more about abraham lincoln and native americans tonight at 8:00 and midnight eastern. this is american history tv, where we bring the classroom to you. the late 1850's, americans generally trusted their congressmen but did not trust congress. as an institution, nor did
congressman trust each other. i 1860, many congressman were routinely armed, not because they were ready to kill their opponents but because their opponents might kill them. joe and freeman will be our gaps -- joann freeman will be our guest. include thetles central hamilton, hamilton writings. withour live conversations phone calls, tweets and facebook questions. at 9:00 p.m. on afterwards, in his latest book, the immoral majority, ben explores whether evangelicals are choosing power over christian values. >> i think it contributes to keeping a system in place that takes accountability out of the system. and i think it also is an easy way to bring in something like
evangelicalism or any other faith and then use that as a way to get votes, which seems like the worst possible way. announcer: watch book tv every weekend on c-span2. announcer: next, holocaust survivor halina yasharoff peabody, recounts her family's radiance after the invasion of experience after the soviet unions 1939 invasion of poland and eventual german occupation. her father was deported to siberia, forced to leave behind his wife and children. they survived by pretending to be catholic. warren: good morning and welcome the holocaustof museum's first-person series. warren: good morning and welcome to the holocaust memorial museum. my name is warren marcus. i will be your host today. we are in our 20th year first pers