An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric
Publication Year: 2011
For almost thirty years, William F. Gavin wrote speeches at the highest levels of government. Speechwright is his insider’s view of politics, a shrewd critique of presidential and congressional rhetoric, and a personal look at the political leaders for whom he wrote speeches. While serving President Richard Nixon and candidate Ronald Reagan, Gavin advocated for “working rhetoric” —well-crafted, clear, hard-hitting arguments that did not off er visions of the unattainable, but instead limited political discourse to achievable ends reached through practical means. Filled with hard-earned wisdom about politics and its discontents, Speechwright describes Gavin’s successes, his failures, and his call for political rhetoric built on strong argument rather than the mere search for eloquence.
Published by: Michigan State University Press
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For almost thirty years I made my living writing political speeches of all kinds: contributions to national convention addresses, Rose Garden remarks for a president, presidential greetings of dignitaries, college commencement addresses, Arbor Day celebrations, and senatorial and presidential campaign speeches, not to mention presidential letters, magazine articles, newspaper columns, press releases, one-liners, slogans, jokes, remarks for the...
One: A Speech at the Beach
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On Thursday, March 8, 1990, twenty years since I had last seen President Richard Nixon, he visited Washington, DC, to give a speech to the Republican Conference, meaning all the Republican members in the House of Representatives. Although most conference meetings consisted of weekly members-only sessions (sometimes excluding staff), occasionally an outside speaker...
Two: A Speechwright’s Education
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My introduction to the magic, manipulations, and Machiavellian machinations of political rhetoric came in 1948, when I was thirteen, a freshman in St. Michael’s High School in downtown Jersey City. One day our history teacher, Mr. Furlong, told us a story of a then-well-known local politician— the irrepressible, rotund (he weighed, it was said, 350 pounds) raconteur and oratorical master T. James Tumulty...
Three: Becoming a Speechwright
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In 1966, while still teaching at Abington High, I was asked to become a member of the master teachers program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. I would continue to be paid by my high school, but for two years (if my option was picked up by Penn, which it was) I would be teaching a course in the methods of teaching...
Four: On the Campaign Trail
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Nineteen-sixty-eight was a weird year in American politics; a mean, ugly, desperate year of war and assassinations; a year without pity; a year of angry words in the streets of burning cities, shouted by rioters and by hundreds of thousands of college students protesting the United States’ involvement in trying to help the people of South...
Five: The White House
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On Tuesday, January 21, 1969, I stood between Bryce Harlow and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the shortest and tallest Nixon White House staffers, and was sworn in as assistant to the president of the United States. My office was room 118 on the first floor of what was then called the Executive Office Building (EOB), to which the speechwriters...
Six: A Brief Bureaucratic Interlude
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For as long as I can remember, my mind has worked best when I am dealing with a situation that can be understood in narrative form. Tell me a story and I’ll know what you want and where you’re going. In the decades since I left the White House, I have often thought of what story form would best suit my brief stay at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Melodrama? Bill Gavin, an average...
Seven: Jim Buckley and Ronald Reagan
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The most important aspect about my work for Jim Buckley from 1972 to 1976 is that it took place not just in a senatorial office but also in what he and his staff saw as a besieged outpost of the conservative movement. In the pre-Reagan age, conservatism...
Eight: Bob Michel, Man of the House
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Late November 1976. The office suite of Senator James L. Buckley: If something doesn’t happen soon, I’ll be out of a job in little more than a month. My wife, three children, all depending on me. A mortgage, little savings. Jim’s defeat still haunts me. I’ve made a lot of phone calls, had lunch with a few people, but the election was bad for...
Nine: Working with the Gipper, Again
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In 1978, as I was learning about how to write in the House, I got a call from Marty Anderson. He asked me to attend another meeting at Reagan’s home. Reagan was going on the campaign trail for Republican congressional candidates. He needed a stump speech. Would I be willing to give it a try? The same group was there as the last time I had visited the Reagan home, minus one or two, plus Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s canny, no-nonsense press aide. Dick Wirthlin briefed us about his...
Ten: Getting the Job Done
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At some point in the late 1980s, I forget exactly when, I began to be afflicted by doubts about what I was doing to earn my living. It wasn’t a crisis of the spirit (to use the phrase I coined for Nixon so long ago). I had no political or ideological second thoughts. In fact, if anything, my long political experience had deepened and strengthened...
Appendix: Richard M. Nixon, Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech,Republican National Convention, Miami Beach, Florida, Thursday,August 8, 1968
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Vladimir Nabokov wrote a classic autobiography called Speak, Memory. I have always liked the title, because it reminds us that in order for memories to come to us, we first have to summon them. It has been my experience as I grow older that I may say “speak, memory” and...
Page Count: 172
Publication Year: 2011