In Case You’ve Ever Thought About Becoming a Speechwriter

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 3.18.10 PMA book titled The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics is making noise. It might better be called Revenge of the Speechwriter; its author, Barton Swaim, ends up eviscerating Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor he worked for. Swaim, a native of South Carolina and graduate of its state university, actually was a communications officer for Sanford—that means writing many more press releases than speeches, but the book is scathing and entertaining enough get some attention.

My experience as a political speechwriter was a very short story. In 1968 I was a Congressional Fellow in the Senate office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. The fellowship is designed to give journalists and political scientists a chance to spend a year on Capitol Hill and see how politics actually is done—you’re then expected to go back to where you came from. Almost all the political scientists went back to their colleges and universities; most of the journalists stayed in Washington. It did seem that the main reason journalists applied for fellowships was to change jobs.

In January 1968 I started the fellowship in the Senate office of Vice President Humphrey (the Vice President of the United States also is President of the Senate, which means he casts a vote in the event of a Senate deadlock). At that point in 1968 everyone assumed President Lyndon Johnson would run for re-election and Humphrey again would be his running mate.

My boss was Norman Sherman, the Vice President’s press secretary, and my first job was to send telegrams to organizations that had invited the Vice President to speak but he was saying no. My job was to express the Vice President’s admiration for the organization and deep regret that he couldn’t accept the invitation.

Writing telegrams quickly got old and I thought it’d be educational to write a speech for the Vice President. I went to Doug Bennet, Humphrey’s speechwriter, and he said sure, the Vice President is speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce next month, go ahead and write a speech for him.

I worked at the speech for maybe 10 days. My first job in journalism had been writing the UPI broadcast wire in Minnesota and the Dakotas so I thought I knew something about how to write words that would be spoken. I gave Bennet a speech draft—he glanced over it and said something about it reading very well.

It came time for the Vice President to give the speech and early that day the text of Humphrey’s speech was released to the media. I eagerly picked up the advance text and discovered that Bennet hadn’t used a single phrase I had written.

Not the end of the story: I went to the Chamber of Commerce dinner. Humphrey gave a good speech and didn’t use a single phrase Bennet had written.
A few weeks later, on March 31, 1968, President Johnson spoke to the nation about the war in Vietnam. At the end of the speech, he surprised everyone:

“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.

“Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

From then on Vice President Humphrey was running for the Democratic nomination for President and I was out on the campaign trail with Norman Sherman. He rode on the Vice President’s plane and I rode on the plane carrying the writing press. Another assistant press secretary rode on the plane carrying the broadcast press—that was known as “the zoo plane.” The rest of that year was as good an education in politics as any journalist could get.
I asked Norman what he remembers about Humphrey’s speeches. Here’s one anecdote:

“Humphrey told me about a speech he had given during his first run for the Senate. He was addressing an audience, mainly of Finnish farmers, in New York Mills, a small town in central Minnesota. Stereotypically, the Finns did not express public emotion easily. Humphrey said, ‘I gave them the goddamnedest speech I could. No claps during the speech and an unenthusiastic few claps at the end. You know how I am. I gave them another speech without stopping. I sweated. My shirt stuck to my skin. I got the same result. So I gave them a third speech and finished exhausted and deflated. When I shook hands at the door as they were leaving, one after another said, ‘Best speech I ever heard.’”

The most important speech Humphrey gave was on September 30, 1968, in Salt Lake City. He said if elected he would end the bombing of North Vietnam and call for a ceasefire. It infuriated President Johnson but Humphrey began to gain in the polls and almost won the November election. Here’s how Norman remembers that speech:

“What Humphrey ultimately said did not come easily or quickly. He labored over the phrasing for a day and night and through endless meetings. Staff worked on it, offering ideas and words. Outsiders from Larry O’Brien to George Ball criticized it or made suggestions. Humphrey listened, argued, balanced the different views, and revised.

“Getting the proper tone and content was hard. The end position was clear in Humphrey’s mind, but finding the right words remained a challenge. Anything he said was politically risky with the voters at home and an audience of one in the White House.”

Humphrey described the scene in The Education of a Public Man, his autobiography:

“Ted Van Dyk appeared with a handful of speeches, and he and I and Norman Sherman sat in a dining alcove in the suite talking about the various suggestions.”

Norman Sherman’s recollection:

“The basic draft had been cleared with Averell Harriman, still in Paris trying to negotiate an end to the war, but Humphrey found that it was not what he wanted to say or the way he wanted to say it. None of the variations struck him as on target.

“He sent Van Dyk off with his suggestions and comments scribbled on the pages with the job of drafting an essentially new speech. But even that, as good as it was, didn’t satisfy him. At one point, ten of us, staff and political operatives, gathered to discuss it.

“What flowed around the room was a mishmash of useful ideas, words, and attitudes toward the war, but there was no possibility of consensus or clarity of statement. Humphrey described the situation: ‘One by one, people left—hungry, tired, or simply wanting a change of conversation and scenery.’

“Finally all were gone except for Connell, Van Dyk, Welsh, and me. (Bill Connell had been his chief of staff since 1960. Bill Welsh a legislative assistant with long political experience, and Van Dyk was primarily a speech writer.) For them, loyal associates, hunger, boredom, fatigue could be set aside….

“Humphrey did the final draft himself, and it was typed while we flew on to Salt Lake City.”
Doug Bennet went on to work at the State Department from 1977 to 1981 and again from 1993 to 1995, when he was Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. From 1983 to 1993 he was president of National Public Radio and from 1995 to 2007 he was president of Wesleyan University. One of his sons, Michael Bennet, is a U.S. Senator from Colorado; another, James Bennet, is editor of The Atlantic.

Here’s how Norman Sherman describes his career: “I first worked as a Humphrey volunteer in the 1954 Senate campaign. In 1959-1960, I worked in a St. Paul office with Karl Rolvaag on the presidential primaries against John F. Kennedy.

“In 1963, I joined Senator Humphrey’s D.C. staff. Humphrey had a press secretary who handled national press. I was on the staff to handle Minnesota and constituent stuff, and Minnesota press when Win Griffith was busy. Soon, whether he was busy or not, Minnesota was mine.

“In 1965, a year into the VP term, I became the press secretary pro-tem. If Humphrey liked me in the role, I could stay.

“After he lost the presidential election in 1968, I went back to Minnesota and edited his autobiography. I added an afterword after he died.”

Sherman has his own memoir coming out this summer. He says it’s titled From Nowhere to Somewhere. He explains:My Yiddish accented father had once said, ‘Norman, go somewheres.'”

As  for his career in journalism, Norman says, “In 1956, my full-time job was as a night-side janitor at the Minneapolis Tribune.”


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