President Nixon to speechwriters: Make me more interesting!

In a memo to chief speechwriter Ray Price, dated Apri. 12, 1972, President Richard Nixon complained ahead of the 1972 campaign that “the speeches I make are to the great credit of the speech writing team generally highly literate, highly responsible and almost invariably dull.”

What was needed were not gimmicks to make the speeches memorable—”I abhor gimmicks and the clever tricks which are fine for Governors, Mayors, Senators, but simply not up to Presidential Standards,” Nixon clarified—but instead, “greater illustration, parable and striking colorful language which will grab attention and keep it.”

Inspired by reading about advice delivered to a young Winston Churchill the American orator Burt Cochran, Nixon defined the job of the presidential speechwriter this way:

Anyone can take enormously potent substance and make a successful speech. … What we have to take is a minimum amount of substance and get a maximum of mileage out of it. The only way we can do this is to improve the quality of our speech writing and the best way to improve the quality is to follow Cochran’s advice to Churchill—more easily understandable familiar illustrations and whenever possible a colorful phrase or two that will stick in the minds of the hearer.

As all of you know, Churchill did not invent the phrase “iron curtain” which he used at Fulton, Missouri, but the words added enormous bang to the substance. Let us, like Churchill, learn from Cochran without, of course, Cochran’s 19th century flamboyance.

Click here to download the memo in its entirety.

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