For 16 years, historian Dr. David Corbin wrote speeches for US Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV). Corbin’s loyalty to Senator Byrd over so many years isn’t hard to understand, once you realize the Senator’s esteem for his long-time scribe. In a telephone conversation with Vital Speeches, Corbin referred to how, for some elected officials, “it’s a blow to their egos to admit they have speechwriters.” Senator Byrd was not one of these. “He was proud of his speechwriters and freely credited them for their work,” Corbin said.
As proof, Corbin shared the following story:
“Senator Byrd once gave a talk to a lunch-time Washington, DC audience and, at the end, received a round of applause. ‘I’m glad you liked the speech!’ he said. And then he added: ‘Here’s the person who wrote it—Dr. Corbin, would you please stand up?’
“During the ride back to the office, one of our receptionists who had attended the event remarked, ‘Senator, you shouldn’t say David writes speeches for you. We tell everyone that you write your own speeches!’”
The Senator’s response to his receptionist, per Corbin:
“‘You’re not doing our office the service you think you are. A good speech takes a day or more to write. Do you want people thinking that their US senator is spending so much of his time writing speeches? He needs to save his time for other tasks. That is why we have a staff.’”
Asked to describe the speechwriting process in Byrd’s office, Corbin underlined that he considered a “good policy speech to be a group product.”
“If the Senator was making a policy statement about a labor issue, for example, I would first speak with our labor person and make sure I was aware of all the key points the speech needed to touch. Given that the Senator was a fundamentalist, I would always discuss the speech with an evangelical Christian who worked on our staff not only for his review of any religious references, but to get to the tone right. And we had an excellent proofreader who was a superb writer. While going through the speech checking for typos and grammar, he often helped improve the wording of the speech, and offer useful and important points.”
When possible, especially when Senator Byrd was the Senate Democratic Leader, Corbin would “try to get the speech to the Senator a few days ahead of time, to give him a chance to look it over and to practice it if he wanted. When the Senator reviewed a speech, he would often ask questions like ‘What should I emphasize? What’s important to hammer on?’”
During the years when Byrd led the Senate Democrats, Corbin and others on his leadership staff helped ensure his speeches spoke to national constituencies, but also showed he was still in touch with voters in West Virginia. “Byrd survived nine elections as a Senator—and a real key to this was how he had his finger of the pulse of both local and national issues,” Corbin said.
What are some of the high points for Corbin from his time as a speechwriter?
Senator Byrd’s attacks in 2001 and 2007 on the cruelty to animals in America stand out because they were so well received throughout the nation. Byrd’s denunciation in 2003 of CBS’s plans (ultimately scrapped) to poke fun at the people of Appalachia with its proposed “Real Beverly Hillbillies” series is another.
The speech that Senator Byrd delivered to mark his 50 years of service as a US senator also stands out for Corbin. His work on that speech inspired Corbin to write “The Last Great Senator,” a comprehensive political biography of Senator Byrd.
Other memorable speechwriting moments for Corbin include Byrd’s speeches in opposition to the Second US-Iraq War. This collaboration with Byrd had a special significance for Corbin, because “as an undergraduate student, I was involved in protests against Senator Byrd’s hawkish stance on the Vietnam War. At one point, I was heavily involved in a protest at the state capital calling for his impeachment. But there I was, years later, writing anti-war speeches for him.”
Byrd’s warm tribute in 2002 to former antagonist Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) provided another memorable moment. Corbin said he liked it because it showed how the US Senate can and should work. “These two Senators were once bitter foes and engaged in some real bitter fights on the Senate floor. Now they were very good friends. They still opposed each other, but they still worked together, had a great respect for each other, and had become good friends,” Corbin said.
In his tribute to Senator Gramm, Byrd referred to their differences with a gentle jab at Gramm’s conservative, pro-Reagan voting record, saying it demonstrated that Emerson was wrong to refer to “a foolish consistency [as] the hobgoblin of little minds”—“it is also the hobgoblin of big minds,” Byrd said of his adversary-turned-friend.
With a doctorate in history from the University of Maryland, Dr. Corbin credits his formal training in that field as an asset in his speechwriting.
“History was one of the earliest academic professions to shift towards emphasizing sharp, clear writing in the active voice. Writing a history article is a lot like writing a political speech—you are not writing a murder mystery, holding back the conclusion for the end. Rather, you put your conclusion up front, and everything that follows supports it. This is true as well of speeches by political leaders,” Corbin said.
“My study of history also gave me a lot of substance for speeches—quotes, stories, facts, etc. This proved valuable with a Senator like Robert Byrd, who loved to use historical examples and analogies, and quotes, particularly from JFK and FDR. You can pull out a good historical quote for just about any occasion. Byrd was ready to use anecdotes and poetry as well, to advance his public policy goals in speeches,” Corbin said.
“And you can always fall back on history when you are caught off guard, like when you have to write a speech on short notice,” Corbin observed. As an example, he talked about a time in 1988 when Senator Byrd, at the very last minute, agreed to give remarks to a large Democratic audience in a plush New York City restaurant. Corbin was forced to write a series of remarks for the evening under a very tight deadline.
When he got to writing the Byrd’s closing remarks for the event, Corbin said he was tired and exhausted and a “little burned out,” so he fell back on his knowledge of history. He simply had Senator Byrd give the usual thanks to the organizers, and then added: “The service tonight was great, and the food was even better. Speaking of good food—let me tell you the story of Alfred Packer, a man who confessed to committing cannibalism in the winter of 1874.” The punch line was a reference to how, in one account of the sordid Packer saga, the judge presiding at Packer’s trial excoriated him for eating five of the county’s seven Democrats.
Another historical reference that sticks out in Corbin’s memory involves William Bradford’s well-known Thanksgiving proclamation—a document frequently quoted in Thanksgiving Day speeches.
“I once drafted a Thanksgiving speech for Senator Byrd, and I was asked by the chief of staff to insert Bradford’s remarks as part of the text. I explained that historians, for various reasons, do not regard the Bradford proclamation as a genuine document [due to certain inconsistencies in its wording],” Corbin said.
“Just after I had stated this point, the Senator stopped by to inquire about the draft. ‘Did you include William Bradford’s beautiful proclamation?’ he asked—and then proceeded to recite it word for word.”
“Put it in,” the chief of staff told Corbin—and he did.
In addition to Senator Byrd, Dr. Corbin also wrote speeches for Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) and other Senators. Dr. Corbin spent a total of 26 years working as a Senate staffer. He is currently writing a second book on Senator Byrd, with a focus on the Senator’s frequent use of poetry in his speeches.