Speechwriter dies, but his truth lives on

Former Nelson Rockefeller scribe Joe Persico saw the relationship between speechwriter and speaker as inevitably "uneasy."

Editor's Note: Former Nelson Rockefeller speechwriter Joseph Persico died Saturday at 84. As the obits said, this scribe (and historian) literally had his words etched in granite. He was chosen to write the dedication at the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall in D.C.: “Here we mark the price of freedom.” At the time of Persico's death, he was in correspondence with our rhetoric editor Neil Hrab to schedule an interview about his career. Hrab offers this remembrance of Persico through Persico's words on speechwriting..DM


“For eleven years I wrote speeches for a man with dyslexia and a tin ear. The music of language bored him. He had no great respect for the writer’s craft, which he rated about on par with applying frosting to a cake after others had done the serious baking…He struggled hopelessly with anything in writing which was unfamiliar. Once, after a particularly harrowing evening, he came to me the next day, rolling his eyes and wrinkling his eyebrows. In the future, he asked, would I please leave people’s names out of speeches.”

Thus did the late Joseph Persico recall certain moments in his 11 years as a speechwriter in the service of Nelson Rockefeller, former New York Governor and former Vice-President under Gerald Ford.

The quote comes from Persico’s 1982 biography The Imperial Rockefeller, which is a frank record of his one-time boss’ life, virtues and foibles, spiced here and there with equally frank memories of Persico’s experience as a Rockefeller speechwriter. We also get insights into Persico’s work with other Rockefeller scribes such as Hugh Morrow and James Carberry

What can Persico’s book teach other speechwriters? Three lessons are extracted below.

Accept the tensions inherent to the speechwriter-speech giver relationship.

Every team will have occasional tensions, and the Rockefeller-Persico speech partnership was no exception. While acknowledging throughout the book Rockefeller’s propensity for unexpected acts of generosity to his staff, Persico also notes that:

On the whole, Nelson Rockefeller was a stimulating man to work for, but impossible to write for…[H]is disdain for ‘that fancy stuff,’ his instinct for the banal, made speech writing perhaps the least satisfying function in his service. He took no pleasure in language, lacked delight in the well-crafted phrase and the satisfaction of moving people through the power of speech. Quite literally, he and writers did not speak the same language.

Ambivalence may also be built into the speechwriter’s job. If he achieves the highest level of performance—writing as a writer-conceptualizer-confidant—he feels a vague unfairness at forever having his creations credited to another. He becomes cynical, knowing that behind the moving expression and persuasive argument of most public figures there labors a performer as faceless as himself. The client, on the other hand, quite naturally resents the inference that someone else is putting words in his mouth, doing his thinking for him. Thus the alliance between speechwriter and speech giver remains uneasy.”

Draft fearlessly—even if you’re writing speeches for the powerful, immensely self-assured heir to one of the great American family fortunes.

“A speech,” Persico observes elsewhere in the book, “is something of a blank check on which the speechwriter can write what he dares. Once the ideas are committed to paper, it remains for others to catch them and accept or throw them out.”

In other words—since the final form of a speech will invariably bear the stamp of the person delivering it, speechwriters should feel free to incorporate a full airing of ideas, even ones that challenge some of the speech giver’s thinking on the topic at hand or personal speaking style, into first drafts.

As Persico tells it in the book, there may have been no other way to draft speeches for Nelson Rockefeller, given Rockefeller’s rigid conception of what made for an effective speech.

According to Persico, Rockfeller favored in his speeches “precision over poetry, literalness over imagery, the worn and comfortable over the fresh and striking.”

Persico continues:

If Nelson Rockefeller, and not Franklin Roosevelt, had delivered that immortal 1933 Inaugural Address, instead of "One third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,’ we might have had ‘32.2 percent in substandard housing, 29.9 percent inadequately clothed…" [Rockefeller] had absolute faith that if he could just pile the facts high enough, then the rightness of his case must prevail. He never accepted that most people are stirred emotionally rather than persuaded intellectually, that for every rationalist there are ten sentimentalists.

Edit fearlessly—even if that means risking the anger of your boss’ good pal Dr. Henry Kissinger.

In 1968, Persico found himself in the position of editing a draft speech written for Rockefeller by Henry Kissinger, a close friend of the Governor.

Persico read over Kissinger’s text and decided its “lumbering gait” required some judicious editing. Persico cut back the text, but “not without trepidation… Once, when a speech of his had been reworked by other Rockefeller staffers, [Kissinger] had thundered, ‘When Nelson buys a Picasso, he doesn’t hire four house painters to improve it!’

In this particular instance, Kissinger took Persico’s edits much more gracefully:

The next day I heard a deep grumbling over my shoulder. "Who rewrote my speech?" I turned to see a frowning Kissinger.

"I did."

[Kissinger] stared, then at last smiled coolly. "Good job. I can’t remember what you took out."

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