SPEECHWRIGHT: AN INSIDER’S TAKE ON POLITICAL RHETORIC
By William F. Gavin
Michigan State University Press, $24.95 172 pages
Nobody raises their child to be a speechwriter; it’s still one of the few working skills most practitioners acquire accidentally while training or studying to be something else. Bill Gavin, the author of this brief but engaging volume of amusing political reminiscences and penetrating rhetorical insights made his accidental entry to presidential speechwriting in 1967, when as a young high school English teacher from a working class, Irish Catholic family in New Jersey, he wrote a letter to Richard Nixon, then a private citizen practicing law in Manhattan.
“Dear Mr. Nixon,” he began. “May I offer two suggestions concerning your plans for 1968? 1. Run. You can win. Nothing can happen to you, politically speaking, that is worse than what has happened to you.” He then went on to do something to Richard Nixon that no one had probably ever done before. He quoted from Spanish philosopher and man of letters Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “The Revolt of the Masses”: ” … these are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission.”
Unaccustomed as Nixon must have been to this sort of thing, what followed may have surprised him even more. “You,” Mr. Gavin told him, “in effect, are lost. That is why you are the only political figure with the vision to see things the way they are and not as leftist or rightist kooks would have them. Run. You will win.”
In 1968, Nixon ran, as the author had urged him to do, and won, as the author said he would. Along the way, he had made Mr. Gavin a part of his campaign-writing operation - “the one-liner man,” the guy who wrote “with heart” - and then a member of his incoming presidential speechwriting staff. As with many before and after him, once the initial thrill of being a White House staffer wore off, he found himself deprived of the forced intimacy of the campaign trail and part of a rigid chain of command that limited his writing duties mostly to grinding out one-liners and anecdotes or short “Rose Garden rubbish” remarks.
By mid-1970, Mr. Gavin had had enough. He quit the White House and began a brief, quixotic stint at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, a predictably liberal bureaucratic mare’s nest from which he soon decamped. After more satisfying stints at the U.S. Information Agency and on the staff of Sen. James Buckley (New York’s one-term Conservative Party senator and brother of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.), he settled in on the staff of Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, soon to become House minority leader and one of the best-liked, most highly esteemed men on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Gavin would remain Mr. Michel’s trusted counselor and wordsmith until both he and the congressman retired 18 years later. Among the other major figures he met and ghosted for over the years were Vice President Spiro Agnew and former governor and president-to-be Ronald Reagan.
Each of these political heavy hitters had a unique style of his own, and it is a tribute to Bill Gavin’s versatility, sensitivity and, yes, “heart” as a speechwriter that he was able to tailor his words into perfectly fitted rhetorical garments for such a mixed bag of characters.
While I have used the term “speechwriter” repeatedly in this review, in its title and throughout his book, Mr. Gavin prefers to be called a “speechwright.” Here is why:
“I believe writing speeches is something less than an art, but more than a mechanical exercise. It is not, strictly speaking, a profession. I prefer to think of it as a craft, and this is why I prefer the word ‘speechwright.’ … A wright is someone who puts things together. A speechwright puts together a speech out of separate pieces … the way a wheelwright puts together a wheel. I think ‘wright’ has a nice blue-collar ring to it while ‘writer’ does not. Authors of books and essays write to make something lasting and beautiful; speechwrights hammer, drill, saw, and otherwise push around words to craft something ephemeral but useful.”
I couldn’t agree more. The best political rhetoric - what Bill Gavin calls “working rhetoric” - makes clear, strong, specific points appropriate to its time, its place and the nature of its target audience. It is purpose-driven, not style-driven. If it works there and then, and is concerned with something truly important, it may find its way into history. But that is for history to decide in its own sweet time.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., served as an aide and speechwriter to Presidents Nixon and Ford, and as director of presidential speechwriting for President Reagan.