The Speechwriter’s Life: Robert Rackleff

“Speechwriting has allowed me to do useful, important things in life. As I’ve told my kids—‘don’t worry about being happy, just be useful. If you’re useful, you’ll be happy.’”

For more than 41 years, Bob Rackleff has written speeches—for elected officials, presidential appointees and corporate and nonprofit leaders. He’s worked as a speechwriter in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and freelanced as a speechwriter and corporate writer for 27 years from his home in Tallahassee, FL. Today, he writes speeches for Ernest Moniz, the US Secretary of Energy.

“To me, my speechwriting career has been a combination of an end in itself and a means to an end. I like the sense of professional accomplishment I’ve gotten out of it—but it’s also enabled me to do all kinds of things others don’t get to do. I could juggle my freelance assignments with being a fulltime environmental activist and my political life as Leon County, FL Commissioner for 12 years, for instance, and have a reasonably steady income. I’ve put three kids through college, and I’m doing well financially,” Rackleff said during a phone conversation with Vital Speeches.

“Speechwriting has allowed me to do useful, important things in life. As I’ve told my kids—‘don’t worry about being happy, just be useful. If you’re useful, you’ll be happy.’”

One secret to Rackleff’s success is this work could be his insistence on writing in “clear, simple English” for all clients.

“When I taught speechwriting to Florida State University undergraduates in the late 1980s, I insisted that they write plain English,” he said. “One day, someone said ‘but what about style?’—and I replied that ‘plain English is a style, and it will distinguish you if you write that way.’ It’s about getting back to Strunk & White, and writing with verbs and nouns, not adverbs and adjectives.”

Rackleff expressed thanks to the late former wire service reporter, Cliff Paisley, who edited Rackleff’s work for two years during his first writing job with Florida State University’s news bureau. Thanks to Paisley’s uncompromising standards of clear English, Rackleff earned the equivalent “of two or three graduate degrees in writing.”

As preparation for speechwriting, Paisley’s editing complemented Rackleff’s study of history at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels. “History taught me about evidence, research and writing. History also teaches you that nothing ever happens for the first time, that there’s usually a precedent for some event. I like to recall this when I write, because it reminds you not to over-hype something that has just happened.”

Rackleff’s first speechwriting job was in the office of John Sawhill, head of the Federal Energy Administration under Richard Nixon. Rackleff shared a lesson in what you might call “anti-applause” lines from that time.

“I remember writing a speech for Sawhill where he wanted a mention of how we needed to raise the price of oil and gasoline, so that people would conserve energy. He’d been scheduled to speak to a general audience in Washington, DC—not industry poobahs. They booed that line. I thought to myself—‘Ok, I know what not to write next time.’”

Rackleff subsequently worked as a speechwriter for US Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME). Rackleff used one particular speech by Muskie to outline how a speech’s impact is “80% due to the occasion—the specific dramatic moment addressed by the speaker.”

“In 1975, Ed Muskie was getting ready to run for re-election the following year. We felt nervous about a possible challenge from Republican Congressman William Cohen, who had been a real star during the Watergate hearings. This was a time when the tenets of traditional liberalism were being questioned strongly.”

With these factors in the background, the Liberal Party of New York invited Muskie to speak at its annual dinner, a must-attend event for national Democratic politicians. The invitation gave Muskie a platform from which he could outline how to renew the national liberal political coalition—right at the moment when this topic was very top of mind among Democrats. The speech would help bolster what we would today refer to as Muskie’s profile as a “thought leader” within the Democratic Party.

Recalled Rackleff: “I came up with a speech [for the dinner] that synthesized traditional liberalism with the current economic realities, and reconciled the two. The speech was warmly received and widely quoted. We sent copies to every editorial board in the country and to many daily newspapers. The attention garnered by the speech helped turn around Muskie’s political fortunes in Maine. Cohen decided not to run; and Muskie was re-elected.” The speech’s impact is made more impressive when one recalls that Muskie could not deliver it himself, having been delayed in Washington due to a Senate session running into the night; an aide delivered his remarks.

The speech included the following:

My basic question is this: Why can't liberals start raising hell about a government so big, so complex, so expensive, and so unresponsive that it's dragging down every good program we've worked for?  

Yet we stay away from that question like it was the plague.

The American people have already spoken: Government must    put its own house in order before it takes on new and bigger responsibilities.  

Our challenge this decade is to restore the faith of Americans in the basic competence and purposes of government. That can come only through the hard process of reform.  

Rackleff said that “the speech did not succeed because Bob Rackleff is a brilliant thinker—but because the speech captured the historic sense of the circumstances at the time.” And he added with a laugh: “Either that – or because of my desperation at having to come up with something really good.”

Following his work for Muskie, Rackleff wrote about 200 speeches for President Carter, plus speeches for Mrs. Carter and two of Carter’s cabinet secretaries. He went on to become chief speechwriter at Time, Inc., before returning to Florida in 1986 to freelance from his home.

Asked to name his favorite speech of his career to date, Rackleff pointed to the address he wrote for J. Richard Munro, Time’s President and CEO, for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “The speech was barely four minutes long, but it was heartfelt and powerful. And Munro’s speech was by far the briefest one by the several speakers. He distinguished himself this way—there’s nothing more tiresome than to come to an event like that and have speakers go on too long.”

The two had worked together so closely, Rackleff said, that “I almost always knew what Munro wanted to say. So I knew how he felt about the Vietnam War and the unnecessary loss of life. He viewed the war as a tragedy, as I viewed it. And I knew his own experiences as a combat veteran of the Korean War, in which he was seriously wounded. He saw with his own eyes the suffering of GIs in war. So that was the approach I took to writing the speech, and he gave it pretty much word for word.”

Reproduced below is an excerpt from Munro’s speech:

For most Americans, the men and women whose names are on this wall were strangers. Yet I knew a few of them—mostly from my community and work. I knew many others who died in the war I fought in Korea as a young Marine.

For veterans of any war, the lists of the dead contain the names of men and women we knew. We knew them for their humanity, for their strengths, for their weaknesses.

Whether they were heroic or something less was beside the point. They were in battle at our side. They were just like us.

And while the nation remembers them as dying for their country, we know that they died for their buddies, too. The debt we owe them, what we feel about them, is personal and inexpressible.

That gives us veterans a special obligation. Our memories belong not just to each of us, but to future generations. We must pass them on in every way we can.

I was glad to have a small part in building this memorial to Vietnam veterans. Its grace and simplicity, and the beauty of this setting, will speak eloquently for centuries to come. It’s a fitting memorial to those who served and died in that faraway land.

But it must remind us of more.

It must remind us of what our country owes to those who served, yet have unmet needs today, and to their families. We have a continuing debt to those veterans who returned wounded in body or spirit—and to the many veterans who today live in the shadows of our wealthy nation.

It must also remind us of how precious human life is. The men and women named here did not die so that other Americans would die in future wars. They died for peace. We will honor their sacrifices by seeking peace aggressively. We will honor them by remembering that even one life spent carelessly in war is an indelible obscenity.

Rackleff closed with some speechwriting tips and tricks:

Writing Applause Lines—“This is something you can learn from watching audiences. When I attend a speech given by someone for whom I’ve written, I sit in the back of the audience and watch the audience. I want to see what works for them. Knowing the audience, knowing their orientation, you learn what people get excited about, and what will get them to interrupt the speech to applaud. For instance, I had written speeches addressed to the League of Cities while I worked for Ed Muskie, Labor Secretary Ray Marshall and Treasury Secretary Blumenthal. By the time I worked for President Carter, I had a bagful of applause lines ready to go when he spoke to the League.”

Humor—“My formula for using humor is an opening joke, and then a joke for the sagging middle. In a 15 minute speech, you can see the audience nod off at minute 12 or 13, so you want something to get their attention. Finally, I’d include a joke for next-to-last page of the speech, to get the audience’s attention again for the soaring conclusion. And I like self-depreciating humor, to humanize the speaker.”

Being Edited—“Speechwriting requires a certain temperament, because you can get discouraged very easily [when your work is edited]. It hasn’t gotten any easier for me, but I can be philosophical about it. I’ve never minded being editing when it improves this speech. As a freelancer, I would send drafts out without anyone else seeing them, so I’ve always appreciated helpful comments.”

Writing Speeches for People You’ve Never Met—“I have had clients everywhere from San Francisco and New York to Chicago and Boston. I would say I have met with the person that I am writing for just 30 percent of the time. [To help plan a draft,] I would talk with the client’s intermediaries, to get a sense of the persona the client is trying to project. I would puzzle it out by asking clients to send, for example, the last 3 company annual reports and any magazine/newspaper profiles of the boss. I could usually figure something out based on that.”

Best Advice—His first boss told him, “You’re only as good as your next speech.” Rackleff said, “It meant that you’ll keep your job to write the next speech only if your speaker is confident that it will be what he wants. Every speech is important, and every one has to be your best effort.”

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