Speechwriting and Speechmaking: Humiliation is Part of the Game

During the miserable years he spent as a powerless vice president—after having been the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate for much of the previous decade—Johnson suffered one indignity after another—not least, his speeches needed to be cleared by the White House.

In a rare face-to-face meeting with President Kennedy, Johnson—on his way to Stockholm to begin a 15-day tour of Scandinavian nations—stopped off in Hyannis Port. Kennedy “asked to see the prepared speeches fort the trip.”

He “not only read them, but edited them, turning the pages rapidly, crossing out paragraphs and lines. When he finished he simply handed Johnson the pages. They were ‘very good,’ he said. ‘I have crossed out a few short sections which won’t hurt the speech[es] but which are better left unsaid.’ A few minutes later, the visit was over …. Johnson hadn’t been asked for comment on Kennedy’s changes; he had been treated like a speechwriter, and a not particularly respected one at that.”

(And Johnson knew how to disrespect a speechwriter. Once, when his chief speechwriter Horace Busby disagreed with Kennedy’s economic advisors in a meeting, he snuck a glance at Johnson, who appeared disturbed. “You just came here to embarrass me,” the president later said. “Here you’ve got Rhodes Scholars and you’ve got Ph.D.s and all like that and … you’re telling them that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t you understand? These are the people that Kennedy had in there. They’re ipso facto a hell of a lot smarter than you are.”)

But Johnson did know how to improve a speech. To a short statement co-written for him by Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti and Liz Carpenter on Air Force One on the stunned flight home from Dallas on Nov. 23, 1963, Johnson made some deft edits.

It was short, but Johnson could always improve a statement—and this one didn’t have to be cleared with anybody. He made it more personal, changing their line “The nation suffers a loss that cannot be weighed” to “We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed,” and more dramatic, reversing two phrases in the last sentence. The fraft said, “I ask God’s help and yours”; he changed it to “I ask for your help—and God’s.”

Johnson’s ears weren’t only big—they were good, too.

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