Sixty years ago this July, a young man entered the Eisenhower White House as a speechwriter. It was the beginning of a remarkable professional journey for Dr. William B. Ewald, Jr.
Dr. Ewald graciously agreed to provide some over-the-telephone reflections with Vital Speeches of the Day about his initiation into speechwriting, and to share some details regarding the wide-ranging career he enjoyed following his White House years.
Prior to joining the Eisenhower White House in 1954, Dr. Ewald had completed a PhD in English at Harvard and also taught there. “How did Harvard prepare me for working in government? The experience taught me to research a subject as fast as possible, in order to master it quickly—and that’s what I did [with my early speechwriting assignments],” Dr. Ewald recalled.
Dr. Ewald worked from 1954 to 1956 as a White House speechwriter, reporting to the legendary Bryce Harlow. “I learned a lot from Bryce Harlow,” Dr. Ewald said. “I once asked him about what was the most important thing that a speechwriter could bring to a draft. His one word answer was: ‘accuracy.’ Not pretty words, not clever phrases, but accuracy.”
Harlow’s advice fit closely with aspects of Dr. Ewald’s studies at Harvard. He explained: “There’s a famous quotation going back to my days at Harvard, having to do with a lecture that George Lyman Kittredge, a professor of English, delivered on Shakespeare. And in the course of Kittredge’s remarks, a student said, ‘But I’m not interested in mere facts.’ Kittredge responded—‘And I am not interested in anything but facts.’”
“This was the mantra that I tried to follow, whoever I was writing for—whether it was the President of the United States, or the head of IBM—the key thing is the factual content of the message, and I tried to bring that to any writing that I did. This is how speechwriters earn their keep—by carefully researching and delivering facts.”
In 1956, Dr. Ewald left the White House to work as a special assistant to President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior, Fred Seaton. “I wrote whatever speeches were necessary [for the Secretary],” Dr. Ewald said. “He was invited to speak before various groups around the country, mostly political, but not completely. I was pretty much it in terms of writers—I did not have a staff, so to speak.
“[Secretary Seaton and I] would discuss the general details [of a speaking opportunity] and I would write a working first draft. He would change the draft, and then I would do a subsequent draft, and so on.” By one count, Secretary Seaton and Dr. Ewald worked together on at least 130 speeches.
Another highlight of Dr. Ewald’s speechwriting career came in 1960, when he joined the speechwriting team that accompanied Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon on his whistle-stop train tour of key electoral battlegrounds.
“Fred Seaton was acting as Nixon’s right hand man on the train, so he invited me to join the staff [and I accepted and boarded the train on the same day]. My wife and had just at that time finished a year on an Eisenhower exchange fellowship, which had allowed us to travel around the world. So I had a lot of ideas [for speeches] about foreign policy.
“When we had spoken [about me joining the campaign], Fred had told me that the first speech that I would write was to be about coal research—since the campaign was heading into Pennsylvania, a toss-up state where coal was important. I asked Fred, ‘when will the speech be delivered?’ And he replied ‘tomorrow morning.’
“So before I got on the train, I called Royce Hardy, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and asked ‘what should Mr Nixon say about coal research?’ and he gave me a full accounting of all the wonderful things that the Republicans had done for coal research. I delivered a draft that night, and Nixon used it the next day; and it was handed to the press [as a statement] and then quickly forgotten. And that was my baptism of fire for the Nixon campaign,” Dr Ewald continued.
“The next speech I had to write about was agriculture; and you scratch your head [about the topic], and finally I had a bunch of notes on agriculture; and I used those. We went into Ohio and [Nixon] talked about the price of food and so on. This was new to me; it had nothing to do with foreign policy. But that’s what you had to do. If you’re asked for a speech on agriculture before you go to sleep, you had to do it. You had to be ready—you had no time to sit around and think, you had to write.
“We had a staff of very fast typists who could take dictation, and I would dictate draft to a typist; I would look at the draft, mark it up and give it back to the typist.”
After the 1960 election, Dr. Ewald went to work at IBM. He would spend the years 1961-1965 on leave from IBM, assisting President Eisenhower with his memoirs.
Thanks to his work on the President’s memoirs, Dr. Ewald has a unique perspective on the origin of those famous phrases that can sometimes march straight from a speaker’s text into history.
Take “military-industrial complex,” from Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation. “Everyone wanted to identify who thought up this phrase. The truth of the matter is no one ever found out [who created it]. A further truth is that while Eisenhower delivered this farewell speech at the end of his presidency, he’d had the same idea in a speech he delivered in 1953, but he didn’t use the exact same phrase then. Even if ‘military-industrial complex’ itself originated from someone else, the thought, the idea behind the phrase was Eisenhower’s,” Dr. Ewald said.
Regarding IBM: “My experience at IBM [focused on] writing about public issues that the company confronted. I would write a position paper, or a draft of a speech, would that address these issues. One topic, for example, was: ‘are computers going to throw everyone out of work?’ Another issue for example was ‘how will America’s global preponderance in technology affect the country as a whole?’” Dr. Ewald recalled.
“In terms of speech at IBM—the speeches could be on anything that had a bearing on the corporation, and were mainly for domestic audiences. I had access to Tom Watson, the-then Chairman of the board of IBM, and I had a number of people in the corporation who were authorities on these various issues, and I would work with them, and then write the draft; on the whole, I worked independently.
“[When I drafted these speeches,] I never worried too much about the speaker’s style. As you know, many people think that a speechwriter ought to mimic the style of the speaker—but I never gave this any thought. I would try to understand the subject matter, and then write what made sense for the speaker [in terms of facts], and then the speaker could mark up the draft [with preferred personalized wording in mind]. I was not in the business of giving clever phrases or words that would stick in people’s mind; that was not the name of the game [for me at IBM], and I just never did it, “ Dr Ewald said.
“Why try to come up with some kind of clever wording suited to the speaker’s personality, when the speaker can do that himself, better than I can? Facts must be the principal concern of speechwriters. To the extent that speechwriters deviate from that, their writing will suffer.”
Dr. Ewald expressed concern about the optics of speechwriters trying to take subsequent public credit for phrases they’ve inserted into speech drafts. By doing so, they can look as if they are “trying to overshadow the one delivering the speech—and that’s, unfortunately, a mistake,” he said.
When it comes to adding those touches that personalize a speech, or infuse it with the authentic voice of the individual speaking, “the speechwriter cannot do better than the principal himself. Give the speaker ideas, rooted in accuracy and facts [in the draft]—and the speaker will find the words [for the final version].” Dr. Ewald said, as he referred again to the wisdom of Harlow and Kittredge.
‘“Supplying the facts and ensuring ‘accuracy’ won’t make the speechwriter a hero – but it will make the speechwriter useful. And in the end, that’s what counts—that the speaker values the speechwriter’s fidelity to accuracy,” Dr. Ewald concluded.
More information about Dr. Ewald’s experiences as a White House speechwriter can be found in his 1981 book Eisenhower the President: Crucial Days 1951-1960.