You, me, and RFK

Searching for speechwriting lessons even on vacation, Vital Speeches editor David Murray shares what he picked up, poolside.

I took a Robert Kennedy biography on spring break, and all I got was six lousy insights on speechwriting.

Actually, not lousy at all, thanks to author Evan Thomas's understanding of leadership communication—how it works, and how it doesn't. This is what I learned from Robert Kennedy: His Life.

1. Leaders frustrate speechwriters because they prefer actions to words. Actions are at once more powerful, and less dangerous. As Thomas H. O’Connor laid it down in the political history, The Boston Irish: “Old-time politicians—and quite a few young ones, too—generally observed the well-known dictum … that a wise politician never puts anything in writing. ‘Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod your head.’”

1(a).  Leaders use words to make inaction look and sound like action. The CIA’s chief of covert operations Dick Helms tells a colleague who is under pressure to show progress on a dubious program, to write an elaborate memo. “There are 500,000 words in the English language,” Helms said. “Use them.” Substituting sound for action: That's another way leaders frustrate speechwriters—but it’s one reason they pay them.

2. We write, therefore we think. At a crucial moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ted Sorensen drafted a speech for President Kennedy’s speech to the nation. He tried to draft a particular paragraph that would have publicly offered a trade deal to the USSR. But he wound up scrapping the paragraph, and thus the idea. Why? “It just wouldn’t write,” Sorensen said.

3. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. (Literally.) To help RFK write his speech for the 1964 Democratic Convention, four prominent journalists from four different news outlets lent a hand. And none of them advised RFK to conclude with these lines from "Romeo and Juliet":

When he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night,

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

That idea, which served to glorify JFK and rhetorically devastate LJB, came at the last minute, from Jacqueline Kennedy.

4. The age of specialization has helped speechwriters, by making speechwriting a discrete role. And hurt them, for the same reason. In the 1960s, speechwriters—some of them, anyway—were more than just speechwriters. Ted Sorensen was famously JFK’s “intellectual blood bank.” 

But lesser-known scribes saw themselves as intellectual partners, too. Like RFK’s young speechwriter Adam Walinsky, who sought to “educate” his boss, by stuffing RKF’s briefcase at night “with articles by I.F. Stone …. Kennedy read and absorbed the material.” 

4(a). Speechwriters who wish to escape their velvet ghetto, can’t expect someone to hold the door open for them. Later, RFK struggled with what he felt were Walinsky’s too-provocative drafts of what became RFK’s most famous speech, “A Ripple of Hope,” in South Africa.

He would tone down [Walinsky’s] heated prose, only to have his aide try to slip fiery words back in. When Kennedy finally blew up, [Kennedy advisor] Joe Dolan suggested that he get rid of Walinsky, rather than struggle with him. “Oh, Sorensen was worse,” Kennedy side, thinking of his brother’s talented wordsmith who could be prickly, too, about defending his prose. Walinsky was not fired, but he was layered: Richard Goodwin was brought in to help craft the speech—which would be remembered as Kennedy’s best.

(In my experience, speechwriters are rarely if ever fired for being “prickly.” But then, these days, they’re rarely if ever prickly.)

5. So much of speechwriting and speechmaking is subtle and chemical and “feel.” Behold this passage, from RFK’s 1968 tour of Nebraska, a state full of farmers who didn’t figure to be friendly to a Kennedy:

Whistle-stopping by train, [Kennedy] used whimsical, self-deprecating humor that made plainspoken prairie folk laugh and banter back. He would joke that he came from “the great farm state of New York,” and when a gust of wind blew away a piece of paper on which he had scribbled some notes, he quipped, “There goes my farm program.” In Crete, Nebraska (population 3,546), he told a crowd of a thousand, “You probably wonder why I come to Crete. When I was trying to make up my mind whether to run for president I discussed it with my wife, and she said I should, because then I could get to Nebraska. So I said why should I get to Nebraska and she said, ‘Because then you might have a chance to visit Crete!’" The crowd clapped and cheered. “All those who believe that, raise their hands," he said. All the kids did, and their parents laughed. It was corny, and it might have been condescending coming from a different political figure. But Kennedy so clearly liked the people he met, so obviously shared their hopes, that many were moved.

Can you imagine a speechwriter confident enough in the boss’s ability to pull off a gag like that, to script it? Yet, it is often only through such edgy efforts that speakers can win over skeptical audiences, who often appreciate the risk itself.

6. Finally: Don't judge your daily work by others' careers. RFK is remembered as a charismatic speaker, but his hands often shook and his voice was flat and he rambled frequently and sometimes lost audiences entirely. He only gave three speeches that anyone really remembers, and only two of them appear in this book: the Indianapolis speech on MLK, and “Ripple of Hope,” from South Africa. (The City Club of Cleveland speech, “Mindless Menace of Violence,” went unmentioned in this 500-page tome.)

Speechwriters and speakers: You’re not going to hit a home run every time. Hit one or two, and you might be immortal.

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