Al Gore, humorist

Filed under: White House

With the election season over, a bit of humor might be an appropriate balm to all the acrimony from the past several weeks.

Thirty years ago today was Election Day and I was on a flight from Washington to Houston as part of a White House staff migration to watch returns with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. I was a White House speechwriter for Mr. Bush and Election Day 1988 was the culmination of months of late nights and weekends in the office.

Mr. Bush’s staff had gathered in the Old Executive Office Building that morning for breakfast and Bloody Marys. Although alcohol was strictly prohibited during White House work hours, it’s possible that vodka was an ingredient.

The group took cabs to National Airport where we boarded a flight to Houston that had a stopover in Nashville. I was one of two staffers at the plane’s entrance who offered Bush/Quayle buttons to interested passengers. The rest of our team (perhaps 50) were in coach wearing elephant hats and holding Bush/Quayle signs.

More important, the vodka had kicked in.

Sure enough, the final two passengers in the plane were Al and Tipper Gore. I didn’t offer them buttons but said something along the lines of, “Senator, welcome aboard and you’re in for a surprise when you get to your seat.”

When the Gores entered the coach area, a loud roar went up from our group. To his credit, while surveying all the elephant hats and signs, he replied without missing a beat, “I’ve heard that Republicans are moving south but this is ridiculous.”

He then turned to Tipper and said loud enough for everyone to hear, “Honey, as soon as we get to Nashville, I’m firing our travel agent.”

For a public servant oftentimes criticized for being excessively serious, these were pretty good one-liners.

Remembering Barbara Bush

With former First Lady Barbara Bush’s passing, the nation mourns a wonderful, remarkable First Lady whose signature issue was a lifelong campaign for literacy. Those who knew her have posted well-deserved tributes to her and her exemplary life (click here and here, for example).

No tribute to Mrs. Bush would be complete without a reference to her sense of humor. She was a funny person but not in a comedic way. Rather, her humor was purposeful and sharp – often very sharp.

I was a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush from June 1986 to January 1989. The Bushes were exceptionally kind about inviting staff to their home for softball, drinks and jokes. Mrs. Bush would always come out for those events and more than a few times, when she offered an especially barbed or bluff bit of humor, those of us in the conversation would shoot each other a look that asked, “Did she really say THAT?!”

My favorite Barbara Bush story took place in early December 1987. That month, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev came to DC for a summit with President Reagan and Vice President Bush. Shortly after he left, the Bushes invited staff members, including me, to their home for drinks and jokes. (See photo)1988 Bush holiday party

Midway through, Mrs. Bush turned to the Vice President and said, “Tell them what Raisa [Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet Premier] said to you at the concert.” “No,” replied Mr. Bush, waving her off. “Oh go on!” she prodded and once more, he said no, shaking hs head.

At that point, she told us what happened: Gorbachev had hosted a dinner at the Soviet Embassy for the Reagans, Bushes, and other U.S. officials. The post-dinner entertainment was a Russian opera singer. Vice President Bush seated next to Raisa Gorbachev and as the singer reached for the high notes with visible passion, Mr. Bush said through the interpreter, “I think I’m falling in love.”

“Be careful,” Mrs. Gorbachev replied, “Remember what happened to Gary Hart.”

I don’t recall the look on Vice President Bush’s face when Mrs. Bush told this story but something tells me that he probably wasn’t entirely pleased. Then again, it was so typical of Mrs. Bush to dispense with formalities and share something she thought was funny.

Mrs. Bush, we will miss you. R.I.P.

What a long strange trip it’s been….

A remarkable event happened in DC this week: Something was actually accomplished with a minimum of bluster. On Thursday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a permanent ban on state authority to tax Internet access.  The House already passed the bill, titled The Internet Tax Freedom Act. The bill now heads to the President, whose aides have signaled his support.

I’ve been involved with this issue for more than 15 years and since it’s Thursday, perhaps a “TBT” is in order — namely, my first MSNBC appearance. It was back in 2001; Sen Ron Wyden (OR) and I discussed taxes and broadband regulation:


Recalling “Dictatorships & Double Standards”

Jeane KirkpatrickSorry for the long drought in blogs.  Chalk it up to global warming.

Former Slate and New Republic editor Michael Kinsley has this delightful review of Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology in Sunday’s New York Times.  Describing Scientology, Kinsley writes:

The closest institutional parallel would be the Communist Party in its heyday [including] the determination to control its members’ lives completely (the key difference, you will recall, between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, according to the onetime American ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick)….

As the Scientologists have a legal budget on par with the GDP of a developing country, they can respond to Kinsley and The Times.  But Kinsley’s remark about Kirkpatrick deserves a comment since the sway of history during the past few decades puts her once-derided thesis in an increasingly vindicated light.

First a disclosure: During much of 1985, I worked with Amb. Kirkpatrick, helping her prepare her UN speeches and papers into a book, Legitimacy & Force.

Kirkpatrick’s distinction about authoritarian and communist dictatorships came to public attention in a November 1979 Commentary article, “Dictatorships & Double Standards.”  It was a critique of American policies that sought to undercut authoritarian pro-Western regimes (Somoza, the Shah, Lon Nol) while minimizing the destruction of human freedom in totalitarian regimes and movements (Soviet satellites and funded insurgencies).

Her article was often called a criticism of a “human rights” foreign policy – ironic because the phrase “human rights” never appears in the text.

What she did posit was that America’s foreign policy would be better focused on undercutting through trade, food aid, and yes, even foreign aid those governments that were trying to shut down all aspects of unsanctioned behavior (read: Jaruzelski’s Poland, other Soviet satellites).

With 30 years of hindsight, the insight of Amb. Kirkpatrick’s distinction has become blindingly obvious. Precisely as she and like-minded Reagan Administration colleagues (especially CIA director William Casey) predicted, once the aura of “invincibility” came off the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s due in no small part to aggressive American efforts, its empire crumbled with stunning swiftness.  In turn, once the Kremlin was no longer able to maintain an empire, those “wars of liberation” in El Salvador, Colombia, and Africa suddenly came to ignominious (for the rebels) conclusions.

A blog is not nearly long enough for a full discussion of issues that could easily consume tomes.  But suffice it to say from this member of a group occasionally labeled “the Kirkpatrick Mafia,” it is pleasing beyond belief to know that Amb. Kirkpatrick was able to see her views vindicated prior to her passing in 2006.

Incidentally, for the trivia minded, Prof. Kirkpatrick also holds the distinction of being the first Cabinet-level female appointee whose duties focused on international policy.

A class act

Filed under: Jody Powell,White House

Sheila TateAnyone wondering if remarkable people still rise to the top in Washington, D.C. should take a moment and read the email below. Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan and spokesman for the 1988 George Bush Presidential campaign, is retiring after a remarkable career proving that Alan Alda was half-right when he said, “It’s better to be wise than smart.”  In Sheila’s case, she was both.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Washington intelligensia was rocked with the news that Sheila and former White House press secretary Jody Powell had created an eponymous firm, Powell Tate.  It was the summer of 1991 and the firm quickly established itself as “the” place for corporations in need of crisis help.

Sheila brought me into Powell Tate about six weeks after the company started which only goes to show that her judgment even in those glory years was remarkably fallible.  I had had the privilege of working with her on the 1988 Bush campaign, where she was chief spokesman though it should be noted that I did not write a certain line about the California raisins.

Everyone who ever worked with Sheila has favorite anecdotes and this writer is no exception:

  • At a surprise birthday party for Sheila in 1991, a senior Powell Tate consultant gently ribbed her during a toast about a client problem that happened when the two worked at a different PR shop.  When the toast was over, Sheila smilingly replied, “Michelle, we always hated you back then.”
  • After the first President Bush had an unfortunate stomach incident during a state visit to Japan, Sheila went on CNN and was asked if this represented a “burp” on the Bush Presidency.  Not missing a beat, she replied that “I think it’s more of a ‘yurp’ than a ‘burp.'”
  • My favorite: a photo taken shortly after the rather bitter 1988 Presidential election showing Sheila standing between George H.W. Bush and Mike Dukakis.  As I recall, the incoming Prez wrote underneath it, “To Sheila, Only you could referee this one.”

Sheila, if you’re reading this, there are two things you should know.  First, you and Jody were a remarkable influence on me that I will never forget.  Second, I was underpaid.

As I sit at my computer on a very cold Christmas Eve day, I can’t help think about the fact that when Jody and I started Powell Tate in 1991 we didn’t have computers.  Nor did we have cell phones or blackberries; social media would have sounded like a disease.  Hmm.  Maybe not a bad definition.

Powell Tate started with about 10 employees and far fewer clients.  We were in very cramped quarters in the Metropolitan Square Building.  The great part was we got to design our new space at 700 Thirteenth Street from scratch.  And now, a mere 20 years later, you’re leaving it!

Back in the “early days”, I was an early bird, usually at work about 7:30am.  Jody showed up about 10am.  I left by 6pm and he worked into the evening hours which was great for West Coast clients and a few European clients as well.  We grew rapidly and we all worked as hard as we needed to, even overnight on occasion, and created great memories while doing great work for our clients.

On January 1st I will be erased from the IPG systems and my new address will be: ______.  The company has allowed me to slide slowly into retirement and I now embrace it with enthusiasm!  Before that happens, I need to wish each of you a wonderful Powell Tate experience, a long and rewarding career and great memories.  Don’t lose the essence of our culture where the individual and hard work is valued and the team is valued more; and above all, stay loyal to your clients and give them your very best.  I hope each of you can look back when you are about to retire and know you did your best, you loved your work and you truly admire your colleagues.  And, if you want me to be really happy, vote Republican.

Sheila Tate

David Broder, R.I.P.

BRODERNearly 27 years ago, the great columnist David Broder wrote the inscription on the left for a college student with the temerity to ask for an audience with America’s most influential political columnist.  Though it was a presidential election year, Mr. Broder welcomed the student to his crowded office at The Washington Post.  For the next 30 minutes, he proceeded to critique in gentle but scholarly terms that student’s political science thesis.

A few years later, after graduation, this student was a speechwriter at the White House for then-Vice President Bush. Occasionally he would see Mr. Broder, usually on West Executive Avenue, which separates The White House and the Old Executive Office Building.  Brief conversations were typically of the “what have you been hearing” variety and always enlightening.

In a town where egotism is considered an honored and highly competitive aspiration, Mr. Broder was always gracious and quietly impressive.

R.I.P., Mr. Broder.  You will be missed.

Camelot Rises Again

john kennedyJim Cicconi, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff and AT&T’s senior executive vice president, just posted this wonderful blog about the new online John F. Kennedy Presidential Library archives, launched to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the President’s inauguration.  (Disclosure: Yes, I’ve worked for Jim for more than a decade.)  Anyone interested in Presidential history should be as fascinated by these digitized records as Charles Darwin was by the Galapagos.

Even if the most famous line in JFK’s repertoire wasn’t quite an original, there is still an amazing amount of information online.  My favorite so far: the recorded call between Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower on October 22, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So spend some time on the site and prepare to be amazed at how quickly a few minutes can turn into hours.

Theodore Sorensen, R.I.P.

Filed under: White House

Recognize the following?

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

A generation before John Kennedy’s famous “ask not” line, Khalil Gibran spoke those words and the great Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen crafted his boss’ most recognized line based on Gibran’s question.  Sadly, Sorensen passed away today in New York.

While not taking anything away from Sorensen’s greatness, this Gibran incident is a timely reminder that even among great speechwriters, the art of “borrowing” is a time-honored tradition.  (It’s even possible that this former White House speechwriter might have inadvertently borrowed a line or three from a previous president’s remarks while scrambling to finish a last-minute speech during the 1988 campaign.)  Indeed, the late William Safire, a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, used to tell the story of how, frantic to meet a deadline, he “borrowed” the text of a speech given by (as I recall) President Eisenhower.  After Nixon gave the speech, Safire called one of Ike’s aides to admit the transgression.  According to Safire, that aide merely laughed and said that they had taken the section in question from a speech that Calvin Coolidge once gave.

R.I.P., Mr. Sorensen.  Between you and the late William F. Buckley, there’s little doubt that God and St. Peter are thumbing through the dictionary more often.

Here’s to you, Mr. Welliver

Filed under: White House

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.