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The art of political speechwriting—from a former White House speechwriter

The West Wing portrays speechwriting as a distinctive skill that requires Herculean efforts at breakneck speed. But, as the television show suggests, the position can also be particularly rewarding, affording the writer a front-row seat to history.

Alan Stone, who worked on President Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992 and then in the White House as a speechwriter from 1993 to 1995, says the real-world experience is pretty similar. “Being part of memorable moments is fairly commonplace for a White House speechwriter, if for no other reason than your physical proximity to the moments that will live in history” noted Stone. “While you are aware of what is going on you are also extremely busy, so it is not often until much later that you realize the weight of the events you are part of.”

Stone, who is currently senior consultant for Northeastern University, wrote speeches on topics ranging from economics to social justice. He even got a line in Clinton’s first inaugural address.

[Watch Stone tell this story on our Facebook page.]

How did you get a job working as a speechwriter in the White House?

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I was chief speechwriter for U.S. Senator Tom Harkin during his run for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 presidential election. After Harkin lost and Clinton got the nomination, someone from Clinton’s team called Harkin and said “We are staffing up. Can you recommend some of your senior people?”

I guess my name came up. And people kept saying to me “I hear the Clinton people are going to hire you.” There was even a mention of it in a local gossip column. But I hadn’t heard anything from the Clinton campaign.

I was in Los Angeles at the time and I did something very uncharacteristic; I called the Clinton campaign, asked for David Kusnet, Clinton’s head speechwriter, and asked him what was going on. He said, “I was just about to call you, I swear. When can you get here?”

I told him I didn’t really expect a job offer right then and I’d need to think about it. He responded, “We need you here in 24 hours.” So I packed up my Puegeot 504, with my old Mac, and some clothes, got on the road, and didn’t sleep until I arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas.

[Hear Stone tell the story of his first encounter with Clinton on our Instagram page.]

What is speechwriting on a campaign like?

The stump speech is the pack mule of every campaign. It’s mostly low art with a bit of high art thrown in. I say low art because it gets repeated in basically the same form hundreds of times in any presidential race. It contains the core message and themes of the campaign as well as proven applause lines and critiques of your opponent. That framework gets adjusted for locale and issues. So, for example, you’d mention ethanol and price supports if the speech is given to a rural group. You always acknowledge local leaders. You try hard to add some local color and humor. But the scaffolding remains the same and these make up the bulk of campaign speechifying.

Be passionate about the issues. It will really help. Leave your ego at the door—your words are meant to be read by someone else.
— Alan Stone

What, then, is the “high art” version of a campaign speech?

It’s a campaign speech of significant political consequence given to a critical audience. It requires much more work and craft than a stump speech.

Bill Clinton gave such a speech at the University of Notre Dame on Sept. 11, 1992. Just as is the case today, abortion was a hot-button issue at the time. And this was the first major speech Clinton gave after he was harshly attacked on “family values” by Pat Buchanan and others at the Republican National Convention.

Clinton spoke about the influence the Catholic social mission had had on him and how deeply his plans reflected those values. He talked about how the “religious war” Buchanan sought was antithetical to the values rooted in faith that most Americans have.

The audience was very tough on him that day. There were lots of catcalls and attempts to shout him down. But he stuck to his guns and met his goals, which were to connect to this traditional Democratic constituency, to frame his opponents as not in the mainstream of traditional values, and conversely to identify core Catholic values as those animating his proposals. This speech was beautifully drafted by Kusnet.

Do you think writing in a presidential campaign has changed?

Of course. All presidential campaigning is changing and communications is no exception. While stump speeches and more major speeches are obviously still important to campaigns, and free media is still coveted, and third-party or earned media is still the gold standard, social media is now playing an enormous and growing role in every campaign.

This is not my field of expertise, but I imagine at a minimum if a campaign is not great at using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to its advantage, it is in big trouble. Likewise, if a campaign is not good at assessing its engagement, sharing and networking, and making changes on the fly, it will be at a big disadvantage.

Do you have any advice for people who are interested in political speechwriting?

Be passionate about the issues. It will really help. Leave your ego at the door—your words are meant to be read by someone else. When you hear something you like, go back and study what worked for you. And steal the good stuff—the ideas not the words—because someone else has almost certainly stolen it before you.

Alan StoneWhat was your most memorable moment serving as a White House speechwriter?

As I’ve said, being part of memorable moments is oddly fairly commonplace for a White House speechwriter. For example, when the Oslo Accords were signed, in 1993, I was literally working only steps away. So the most memorable moments for me were ones that stood out for more personal reasons. The night we won, sitting at a pub in Little Rock feeling overcome with equal parts pride and exhaustion; meeting Rosa Parks at a speech in Los Angeles; flying back to Washington, D.C., on my last trip on Air Force One before beginning my new career, thinking about how overwhelming the experience had been and hoping time and reflection would help me understand it more. And it has.

What is it really like working in the White House? What happens behind the scenes?

It was the hardest work I have ever done, by far. The speeches need to be perfect, yet the process that went into them was often chaotic, with changing topics, delayed prep sessions, etc. The deadlines, however—they never moved. And the volume was relentless.

Was there a specific approach you took to writing speeches? A formula? Or was every one new and different?

You have to know the themes and messages of the moment—the stump. You need to know the audience and the goals of the speech. After that, I always tried to tell a story with a spine; I always looked for new data or a new anecdote to make my point; and I always tried to be positive in the sense of forward movement and looking toward the future. Finally, I always tried to end big. That’s about it. I hope I hit my goal more than I missed it, but that is a judgment for history.

Alan J. Stone, an attorney and writer, is president of Alan J. Stone Consulting, LLC. He currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.