The Speechwriter’s Life: screenwriting speechwriter Jeremy Larner (Part Two)

"Speeches are still the center of the long and grueling process of elections, and provide responses to events and provocations of the larger world, that get picked up in papers and on TV, and often change these events."

[Below is part two of Vital Speeches of the Day’s discussion with author, poet, Oscar-winning screenwriter and speechwriter Jeremy Larner.]

To write the screenplay for The Candidate, Larner drew on more than his own strong chops as an award-winning short story writer/novelist and journalist. He had spent the spring and summer of 1968 traveling the country writing speeches for Senator Eugene McCarthy during his epochal presidential campaign which knocked out a sitting President, brought Robert Kennedy into the race, and eventually was lost in the shadows of Kennedy’s assassination and the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Beyond his work on behalf of McCarthy, Larner would also write the powerful speech that Julian Bond delivered to second McCarthy’s nomination as Democratic presidential candidate. Larner wrote a book about his 1968 campaign experience, Nobody Knows, which appeared in 1970.

The book “got very good reviews – the only book I ever wrote that did,” Larner said with a laugh. It put between two covers an expanded version of the articles about his experiences during the McCarthy campaign that Larner had published in Harper’s Magazine, which sold out the April and May 1969 issues. The reception from McCarthy and his Senatorial staff was frosty, with McCarthy at one point, implausibly, denying that Larner had ever been his speechwriter.

The argument made in the book is that while McCarthy had tapped into a huge constituency after positioning himself, as Larner noted, “as the only politician at the time willing to oppose the Vietnam war,” McCarthy also had “reservations about the army of college kids ‘clean for Gene’ and ringing thousands of doorbells during the New Hampshire and Wisconsin primaries, where the surge for McCarthy caused LBJ to announce he would not be running for re-election. (This brought Robert Kennedy into the Indiana, Oregon and California primaries, which changed everything.)”

McCarthy did not want to respond to the more sweeping enthusiasm of ‘the McCarthy movement’ for a total change in matters concerning economic justice and racial equality in the US, or to reach out to potential voters not immediately attracted to his position on ending the war in Vietnam, Larner said.

“He had become very suspicious of the process of hero-making, though not immune to its power, and wanted to mean what he originally said. He insisted that he was, above all, bringing the war to the American people for a considered judgment,” Larner observed.

Most of McCarthy’s supporters wanted him “to stand for critical changes in domestic and foreign policy,” and then “convert his popular strength into political power,” Larner wrote in Nobody Knows. However, Larner continued, McCarthy himself preferred to leave audiences with the stylistic impression that he himself was not seeking power, just setting forth the issue of Vietnam, and therein “exposing the hypocrisy and self-seeking of other candidates.”

Whatever advantages McCarthy believed this attitude brought to his campaign, according to Larner, the ambiguity of his answer to the question, “Do you really want to be President?” (he said he was “willing” to be President) did little to turn the campaign into a political force, despite the enthusiasm of the crowds he drew.

“His own charisma and sense of timing naturally brought forth the expectation that he was truly, and not just formally, running for President, and that he wanted to bring to the White House a more beneficent attitude, with more promising ways of changing what ailed America. Every other would-be President hopes to elevate his campaign into the set of expectations that faced McCarthy, and to draw on the feelings that were, for a time in 1968, flowing freely.

 “McCarthy protected his inner divide by withdrawal…especially after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, toward whom he had expressed contempt. And so, despite his success in the big early primaries,

McCarthy failed to press his advantage within the Democratic Party. He kept what he had before: the enthusiasm and adoration of the crowds he drew, and their reification of himself as the embodiment, modest but brave, of their own passionate feelings about America, aroused at that point by actions and events of the ‘60s.

“McCarthy himself struggled to keep aloof from his campaign, and ironically, that struggle became, for many, a hallmark of his wisdom and integrity. Likewise Bill McKay in the Candidate, in his way, was increasingly disoriented by the usurpation of his private self, which his campaign manager treats as a useless impediment. A final irony is that the campaign manager (Peter Boyle) plays upon McKay’s very hesitations to push him into a situation where events dictate responses, with a logic all their own.”

Though Nobody Knows (and a bit differently, The Candidate) are intended to tell the story of a particular campaign at a particular time and place in US history, there is much in them that speaks to the experience of any speechwriter working for any candidate, in circumstances where the ironies of voicing public expectations through speeches designed for another personality, are pushed to the ultimate. One of these ironies, as noted by Larner, is that the deliberate distancing of a candidate from his own campaign can leave him more than ever at the mercy of mass projections which create his “image.”

 “Speeches during campaigns – that’s one place where pop concepts come from, via candidates and anti-candidates. It’s through speeches that ideas are simplified, over-simplified and popularized – and, because every disagreement loses votes, political ideas are expressed in code, or not at all, and therefore robbed of clarity and practical potential,” Larner said.

“Today, the process of public discussion and debate is so out of control that basic ideas relating to democracy (for example, the real issue of taxes, which relates to fairness and spending priorities, not to the elimination of government services and public infrastructure) are seriously falsified, to the point where no politician can point out that corporations have been gifted with enormous tax breaks, and Congress does not provide adequate money properly to audit the complicated returns of the rich. Such fictions as the idea that tax breaks should be given to the rich and then allowed to “trickle down,” for the benefit of all, are only reinforced and multiplied by the very commentators who take no notice of the actual data this policy has created since the days of Reagan.

“Yet speeches are still the center of the long and grueling process of elections, and provide responses to events and provocations of the larger world, that get picked up in papers and on TV, and often change these events, even if the ideas expressed are simple-minded and false,” Larner added.

What was the day-to-day experience like of a McCarthy campaign speechwriter? Larner replied as follows:

“I would write a speech in the middle of the night, in a hotel in one city, the culmination of a long day, after everyone else was in bed…then catch a few hours’ sleep, get a wake-up call and not know what city I was waking in, go to the bus and down the same old freeway, to the same old airport, and on to the next city.

“And while we were flying, I’d jockey with McCarthy’s Senate staff and whatever sycophantic friends were free-loading onboard to sit down next to the Senator, and go over his speech for that night’s event…and get his take on the next day’s speech. His editing, by the way, was expert and severe, and usually taught me something about what he was willing to say, and how to put it so he would say it. Our secretary would type it up, we’d mimeograph it and go down the aisle passing it out to the traveling press, and the other speechwriter, Paul Gorman, would ‘flak the speech.’ That is, he would sit down with reporters on the plane and tell them one or two at a time why the speech (or rather, the 10 minutes we wrote, responding to recent events and reports, or perhaps revealing a new proposal, to go before McCarthy’s usual stump speech, which he polished and developed from town to town) was of extreme significance, giving the reporters reasons to influence their editors to place their stories on the front page,” Larner said.

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