The Speechwriter’s Life: Veteran political scribe Rob Crouse draws on theatre experience
January 14, 2015
"Finding the voice of a character that you are playing—that helps you find a speaker’s voice when you’re working as a speechwriter. And performing different plays, and learning about different playwrights, gives you additional insights into voice."
When he was younger, the son of speechwriter and author Rob Crouse wanted to know more about his father’s work. “Daddy,” he asked, “you write so many speeches every day. What if you don’t feel like writing?”
Crouse recalled: “My joking answer was: ‘Panic is a great motivator. You have to produce, whether you like it or not.’”
“But this question about speechwriting got me thinking about my life-long interest in amateur theatre. Learning to act, or to direct others in a theatrical production—these tasks put you in touch with some of the most creative processes that you can ever be involved with. As an actor, you may not always feel like giving your peak performance, but you don’t panic. Instead, you reach into your internal reservoir of energy, and find a way to be creative and do a great job,” Crouse said.
That’s good advice for actors—and it has served Crouse well as a speechwriter, too.
“Finding the voice of a character that you are playing—that helps you find a speaker’s voice when you’re working as a speechwriter. And performing different plays, and learning about different playwrights, gives you additional insights into voice,” he added.
Crouse’s work as official speechwriter for three Missouri governors (1995-2005) makes up just one part of his career. He started off as a high school speech teacher, a job he held for 18 years, after he earned degrees in English and theatre from the University of Missouri at Columbia.
In 1987, after regular involvement with re-election campaigns for Bob Griffin, Crouse left teaching to work as a newly-minted information officer and speechwriter at the state legislature in Jefferson City. The way things work at the legislature, “any of the 163 members of the House of Representatives could request a speech [from staff]. So you had to write speeches on all kinds of topics—everything from ceremonial occasions to major issues of the day,” Crouse said.
“This included the Speaker of the House’s speech to open each legislative session. The processes for all these speeches became second nature to me. All this was perfect preparation to work for a governor—because you had some idea of the pressure and volume and demand for quality involved in producing speeches,” Crouse recalled.
By 1992, Crouse was promoted to Director of Press Communications at the legislature. When Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, was elected governor that year, Crouse was asked to assist his staff with the new governor’s first state of the state speech. Crouse and Carnahan’s team enjoyed such a strong rapport that, when Carnahan needed a new speechwriter in 1995, the job went to Crouse.
Crouse is proud to recount one particular highpoint of his collaboration with Carnahan and his colleagues in the governor’s office: Missouri’s 1997 state of the state speech.
For this speech, Crouse not only drafted the text, but also came up with a clever way for Governor Carnahan to demonstrate the positive ways that Missouri’s government was helping improve quality of life in the state.
“We collected letters from the different government departments from citizens, expressing thanks for how those departments had helped them in some way. We came up with 197 letters for 197 Missouri Senators and members of the House of Representatives, and placed them on their desks on the day of the state of the state speech. It had a deep impact on the audience and was very successful,” Crouse said.
Here’s how Carnahan introduced the envelopes:
But before we go to work, I’d like to ask you to do one thing for me. On your desk is an envelope. Would you please join me and pick yours up. In your hand, you now hold a life…Because in that envelope on a piece of paper is a story. The story of a single mom who has successfully left our welfare system to support herself and her kids. Or a child who now has new opportunities because of what we have done for education. Or a businessman or woman who is succeeding because we were there to help find and train the people needed to get the job done.
Every story is different. Every story is true. But one theme runs through them all. These are all Missourians who are successful because you helped write their stories…with your courage…your vision…and your passionate belief that we can make a difference…Right now, these two hundred people are going about their business, and they are not thinking about you. But I hope you’re thinking about them. For they are living better lives and have a brighter future because you are here for them.
The entire state of Missouri was shocked when Carnahan died in an October 2000 plane crash while running for US Senate. Per Missouri’s rules of political succession, the-then Lieutenant Governor, Roger Wilson, also a Democrat, became Governor and served out the remainder of Carnahan’s term.
Crouse recalls meeting with Wilson on October 20, 2000, the day of a memorial service for Carnahan, to help the governor draft some talking points for the eulogy he would deliver for Carnahan. Eleven thousand people were on hand for the service, which both President Clinton and Vice-President Gore attended.
Crouse went on to serve as speechwriter for Wilson’s successor, Gov. Robert Holden, also a member of the Democratic Party. Crouse helped Holden with a special address to the Legislature on very short notice soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
“No one knew anything about the horrible events of the day, so Governor Holden decided to go before the legislature to help calm everything down. I had 40 minutes to prepare what the Governor would say. It was probably the highest pressure situation that I ever faced as a speechwriter, and it turned out to be a strong speech,” Crouse said.
In 2004, Missouri elected Republican Matt Blunt as Governor. You might think that this meant the end of Crouse’s series of speechwriting jobs for governors. Not quite.
While wrapping up his work for Holden, Crouse was invited to apply for a job at the state Department of Economic Development, which hired him. Crouse got to work writing scripts for a cable TV show project highlighting the department’s work.
A new communications director for the department entered the scene, who knew Crouse and valued his abilities as a speechwriter. The director tasked Crouse with writing Governor Blunt’s speeches on economic development. Crouse was familiar with both Republican rhetoric and Democratic rhetoric, thanks to his speechwriting days at the state legislature, and was well-suited for this work.
In 2005, Crouse left state government to work in marketing and PR at Westminster College. Crouse’s current role there includes assisting the college’s President with speeches. “I have been very fortunate, wherever I worked, and whoever I worked with, to have the chance to write for people who always understood what I have been trying to do – and that definitely also covers my work at Westminster.”
In addition to his speechwriting work, Crouse has also co-written books on the Carnahan and Holden administrations, and is the author of Governor Warren Hearnes’ memoirs. Crouse is also the founder, producer and director of The Capital City Players, a dinner theatre company in Jefferson City, which he started in 1991.
Crouse offered four additional thoughts on his experience as a speechwriter:
1. A bit of amateur theatre experience could be valuable to every speechwriter. When you act, you have become conscious of the character you’re playing—including the character’s flow of thought and way of speaking. You have to learn about the character’s voice. When you apply this experience to speechwriting, it will help make you a better listener. You will catch on to speakers’ natural way of speech and the phrases they are comfortable using. Picking up on this will make speakers more comfortable with you, because they will see you have an accurate sense of their voice.
2. In both government and the corporate world, one thing that good speakers have in common is that they are never tone deaf to the feelings and thoughts of their audience, whether employees or constituents. Don’t let “bureaucratese” of any kind get in the way of speaking directly to the audience’s thoughts and feelings.
3. When you’re writing for someone and have a chance to travel with that person, don’t pass up even brief opportunities to get anecdotes that you can later insert into a draft speech. A governor’s time is so precious, but I would regularly seek spare moments with the governors I worked with to listen as they shared stories about themselves. I would write down what they shared for use in speeches.
4. I realize that, in large organizations, there are often many layers of approval (including legal review) involved in vetting a speech. So I am always amazed when a corporate leader, like a Lee Iacocca-type figure, can deliver a speech that resonates with an audience, and hits the right rhetorical notes in its various layers. The lesson here—and I know that what I am suggesting is not always easy to achieve—is that you shouldn’t let the layers of approval and legal channels stifle the creativity of a speech, and dilute the strength of its message.