If you ask Jerome Doolittle, a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter, what form the ideal training for a speechwriter might take, you’ll hear him laugh. “I have no idea what would be good preparation – a strong stomach, I guess,” he deadpanned during a recent conversation with Vital Speeches.
Doolittle is a novelist and former journalist who has served as spokesperson for the US Embassy in Laos. He also taught writing at Harvard for five years. In his view, “speechwriting is really another kind of writing job, and not dissimilar to writing a column, or oped or other articles. If you want to succeed at any kind of writing, you need to both practice and be well read,” he said. One of the benefits of being well read, Doolittle added, is that a speechwriter will realize that “you’re never going to be original, no matter how you hard you try.”
As Doolittle pointed out some years ago in a piece for Salon:
Virtually all writing is plagiarism anyway, whether the writer knows it or not. Very few ideas, except out at the cutting edge of science, have not occurred to somebody before and been written down in one form or other. The only function remaining for the writer is to repeat in today's idiom what has already been written, somewhat differently, for readers in the past. This is particularly true in political prose, which tends to be light on facts and innocent of all but a few childish ideas.
(The Salon piece, by the way, includes Doolittle’s reflections about how many people over the years have, without due attribution, recycled a line he wrote for a speech by Democratic Presidential nominee Walter Mondale – “In Reagan's America, a rising tide lifts all yachts.”)
Doolittle was a speechwriter during the first two years of the Carter White House, after having first served as a press officer for Carter’s presidential campaign.
“I can’t speak for other White Houses, but in a lot of cases, there was likely more communication between a President and the speechwriters than in the Carter White House. Jim Fallows, the chief speechwriter, was always upset how we would find out about [speeches] only at the last minute, and then had to write something in a great hurry. Sitting down to talk about a speech with the leader of the free world was always an anomaly for us. The President and Jim tried to work out a policy for [more regular discussions of speeches], but it was hard to get Carter to follow it – he would not sit down with the writers,” Doolittle said.
“If you’re writing speeches, you want to work closely with the President well in advance of a speaking engagement, not 48 hours beforehand. You get the feeling from reading, for example, memoirs of the Nixon White House that there was a lot more of the President sitting down [with his writers] and saying ‘this is what I want for my speech’ and then sitting down again to review the draft.’
“Jimmy Carter was a good speaker, but a much better extemporaneous speaker than he was with a text. The best things he delivered were extemporaneous, and when he was tied to a text, it did not come across as well. But it’s an imperfect world,” Doolittle said.
Doolittle summarized the typical production of a White House speech during his tenure as follows, with tongue firmly in check: “You have to remember that most [Presidential speeches] are not written by one person. Rather, it’s sort of a group grope. The President comes out and says ‘I want to give a speech on Tuesday about unemployment,’ and so you call up the Labor Department, and the policy people in the White House, and this guy and that guy. And you stick together a collage of things based on the input, and then it goes to the Maximum Leader, who goes through it…and removes all the poetry.”
Doolittle’s background with the State Department and US Information Agency equipped him to “work on a good deal, but not all, of the President’s foreign policy speeches,” he recalled.
In a 1977 speech at Notre Dame, for example, Carter observed that the United States had freed itself “of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.
Doolittle had not been much involved with that particular speech, “but I did send the President, via Jim Fallows, the language about the ‘inordinate fear of communism.’ And the right wing jumped on it – they apparently believed that, in fact, we should have an inordinate fear of communism, and we ought to be frightened to death that the Soviets were going to land on Long Island, NY.”
“I remember another time when Carter was, I believe, going down to South America, and the State Department wanted to insert some language into a speech he would deliver there. They suggested the President talk about how the US would back the South American countries in setting up a satellite communications system. I went back to the person at State who passed along this suggestion, asking if there was anything to this idea – we didn’t want the President to say something if, in reality, we did not have an actual commitment in place to carry out the idea.
“And we went around and around with this person at State. Finally, he said the concept should go into the speech ‘because it was a good idea’ – but conceded that, no, we did not have any kind of policy [for a South American satellite system]. This kind of thing happened frequently, involving different parts of the government,” Doolittle said.
Another foreign-affairs recollection shared by Doolittle involved a proposal from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the President’s National Security Advisor, for a hard-hitting address by President Carter on Cuba. “Zbig wanted a tough speech about how Cuba’s support of communist movements in Africa was a threat to world peace. He sent me a supporting paper documenting a long list of things taking place in Africa that supposedly the Cubans had a hand in fomenting. But there was no header or footer in the document indicating where the information came from,” Doolittle said.
“I knew that this was just raw information that had not been assessed by anyone,” Doolittle continued. A review of the document by people in the State Department confirmed Doolittle’s suspicions.
Looking back, Doolittle observed that “there was a level of [factional] warfare over policy speeches in the Carter White House that never happened in, say, the George W. Bush White House, which had no problem coming up with corroborative bullshit to back up [speeches].”
By 1978, Carter was tired of media reports about White House factional sniping and internal schisms over foreign policy, and decided to deliver a speech at the US Naval Academy demonstrating that his Administration did indeed speak with a unified voice on foreign affairs. “To help with the writing of the speech, Carter provided two drafts – one prepared by Brzezinski’s team and the other prepared by a team led by Stansfield Turner, an admiral who was appointed by Carter to be head of the CIA,” Doolittle said.
“I went back to my office and reviewed the two drafts. They were on completely opposite sides of the spectrum! How could they be proof of unanimity? I assigned the speech to Rick Hertzberg for drafting. Much of the informed commentary that followed the delivery of the final version of the speech noted its contradictory aspects – as if one half was about the great beauty of the color yellow, and the rest about the great beauty of the color purple,” Doolittle said.
In 1978, Doolittle left the White House and became chief of public affairs at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), then led by Langhorne Bond. Doolittle’s experience writing speeches for Bond could not have been more different from his time in the White House.
“Bond had a very intelligent approach to speech giving. Unlike many elected officials, he spoke before audiences only when he had something to say – so he gave perhaps three or four speeches in a year. He would call me into his office and say, ‘I have to give a speech on the West Coast about an FAA initiative.’ I’d sit with him for 15-20 minutes talking about about the purpose of the speech, what points he wanted to get across, and who were the best people to speak to about the topics he wanted to raise in the speech,” Doolittle said.
“He’d then ask ‘when can you get it to me?’ and I’d say ‘by 3 pm today’ – and he said ‘really?’ – but it worked, because we both did the things we needed to do. He had explained what he wanted to say, and the policy angles he wanted to convey – and I could concentrate on the writing,” Doolittle added.
“Speeches are probably less important in politics than most people think – if you’re good at them, then it doesn’t hurt. The last person in public life who I thought was great at speeches was Mario Cuomo. But most public officials are not that good at speaking.
“Giving a speech is skill, with an element of acting in it. I think it is interesting how people talk about what a great speech giver Ronald Reagan was, and say ‘he was so effective because he was an actor.’ But they forget that he was a B-movie actor, and they think that his acting was good, when it really wasn’t. They hear a little poetry, or a few verbal flourishes, and are impressed. The really great performers, like say Meryl Streep, are people you don’t know actually know are acting,” Doolittle said.
If there’s a lesson in Doolittle’s contrasting experiences for writers working in executive communications, it might be the following hard truth about some of the clients they will encounter in their careers:
“The job of running an organization is very clearly different from the job of getting to be the head of that organization. Running for a particular elected position, or seeking to become CEO in a large company, and then carrying out the duties of that role, are two different things. Keep the Peter Principle in mind,” Doolittle sad.
“Elected officials, because they have been elected, often think they know something about speeches – so they don’t think to turn their speeches over to the people who really do know something about writing speeches. I don’t mean knowing about how to set a purpose for the speech, or to choose a topic – but instead knowing how to achieve the purpose, and how to find the words suited to the topic, that will help ensure the audience responds to and acts on the speech,” Doolittle said.
If an interpretation of Doolittle’s observation might be permitted – treasure the Langhorne Bond-type clients you meet in your speechwriting career. There isn’t exactly an over-supply of them.