Speechwriter, Q.E.D.

President Eisenhower taught James Humes to write speeches with purpose—and Humes never forgot.

Veteran speechwriter James C. Humes, who passed away on August 21 at the age of 85, was a speechwriter to five successive Republican presidents, from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush. 

Having worked with Humes on at least two occasions, and lunched with him on several others, I can testify that his passing was like a library burning down. He was a repository of many hundreds of delectable anecdotes, not only about the presidents he served, but also about famous people whom he had met, like Winston Churchill. In addition, he had stacks of loose-leaf binders, crammed with uplifting and heart-warming stories that he culled from various sources, all ready to weave into the drafts of his speeches,

Those stories became his trademark. Because so many of them were the sentimental kind that he called “soul shakers,” his fellow White House speechwriters would refer to him dismissively as the “Schmaltz King.” But he took no offense. Typically, he prided himself on the title. And he had the last laugh when President Nixon took to asking those fellow speechwriters why they couldn’t come up with good stories for his speeches—“like Jamie Humes.”

I remember one story in particular that Humes told about Dwight Eisenhower.

Early in his career he found himself sitting down with President Eisenhower and the rest of the White House speechwriting team to discuss an upcoming presidential address. Eisenhower read the draft and became visibly annoyed. “What is the Q.E.D.?” he demanded, rapping his glasses on the desk.

The speechwriters exchanged blank looks.

Quod erat demonstrandum,” the president snapped. “That which must be proved. What’s the bottom line? What is it that you want the audience to take away with them? What is it that you want them to do?

“Why am I giving this speech at all? If you can’t tell me the answer to that, you’re wasting my goddamned time!”

Humes apparently took the episode to heart. For the rest of his career he made certain that neither the speaker nor the audience was in any doubt about the Q.E.D. 

On one later occasion, he was helping President Gerald Ford write his memoirs. Ford was going to call the book Straight from the Shoulder, but Humes came up with a better idea. “Mr. President,” he said. “You healed the wounds of Watergate, war and a feverish economy. You’re a healer. That is your theme. So why not take your title from the words of King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes? Call it Time to Heal.” And Ford did.

When he wasn’t speechwriting, or serving as a literary advisor to presidents, Humes was teaching, lecturing on speechwriting, and doing his much-acclaimed one-man show on Winston Churchill’s oratory. He was one of the great Churchill impersonators. But here again he never forgot the Q.E.D. Churchill had been as strict at Eisenhower on the need for focus, discipline and clarity in speeches. He once famously told a waiter at London’s exclusive Carlton Club, “Pray take away this pudding; it has no theme.” So in his Churchill impersonations, Humes took pains to highlight Churchill’s own commitment to the Q.E.D.

Among the stories he told was about the time in 1922 that Churchill heard the maiden speech of a protégé of his, future prime minister Harold Macmillan. When Macmillan asked Churchill how he had done, Churchill told him, “Harold, everyone in the gallery was saying ‘Young Macmillan is giving his maiden address.’ And they asked, ‘What is it about?’ Harold, if people can’t say in one sentence what the speech is about, it’s a speech not worth delivering.”

A senior speechwriter in the Eisenhower White House gave Humes the same advice when he told him that he had to be able to write the theme of a speech on the back of a matchbook.

In addition to being a popular speaker and lecturer, Humes was a prolific writer. He wrote some 30 books, many of which can still be ordered from Amazon. Speechwriters may profitably consult these books for their sound professional advice and many entertaining anecdotes. James Humes, the Schmaltz King, was one of a kind. He will have no successor.

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Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelancer based in Houston, TX. He blogs regularly on his web site, www.ringingwords.com.

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