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August 28, 2010

Here’s to you, Mr. Welliver

Filed under: White House — Peter Arnold

During the mid-1980s, I was fortunate to work in the White House as a speechwriter to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. This apparently caused Pat Jampol, my wonderful cousin in Charlotte, to ask recently about the genesis of White House speechwriting. “Who was the first President to use one and not write their own,” she asks. “Or in what era did the politicians first employ speechwriters?” Since Pat was kind enough to take me trick-or-treating in Rye, New York when I was about 5, the least I can do is respond with far more information than she probably ever wanted.

The first recorded White House speechwriter was Judson Churchill Welliver during the Harding Administration.  Welliver was a distant relation to the future British Prime Minister, which may suggest literary genius in the DNA. For a couple of generations, White House speechwriters labored in an enforced anonymity that would have impressed Kim Jung Il.  But cracks began in the 1970s, after The New York Times hired William Safire to be the in-house editorial page conservative.  Subsequently, Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg earned prominence at The New Republic, Peggy Noonan went to The Wall Street Journal and now Mike Gerson’s writings grace the pages of The Washington Post.

As to Pat’s other question about Presidents writing their own speeches, most do it well — far better than their speechwriters.  Many times during my years at the White House (where incidentally my office was right below that of Oliver North and Fawn Hall) I’d see photocopies of speech drafts that Ronald Reagan prepared himself in his distinctive longhand on yellow legal pads.

And there’s the rub.  In the end, even a brilliant speechwriter does not a great speech make.

As my Dartmouth colleague Peter Robinson, who wrote for Ronald Reagan at the same time I wrote for “the elder” George Bush, notes, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon all had great speechwriters. Yet they were never called The Great Communicator because they never fully mastered the ability to convey a clearsighted vision to the American people.

Thanks for your interest, Pat.  Hope this helps.