Speechwright: An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric

Speechwright: An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric

by William F. Gavin

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For almost thirty years, William F. Gavin wrote speeches at the highest levels of government. Speechwright is his insider’s view of politics, a shrewd critique of presidential and congressional rhetoric, and a personal look at the political leaders for whom he wrote speeches. While serving President Richard Nixon and candidate Ronald Reagan, Gavin

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For almost thirty years, William F. Gavin wrote speeches at the highest levels of government. Speechwright is his insider’s view of politics, a shrewd critique of presidential and congressional rhetoric, and a personal look at the political leaders for whom he wrote speeches. While serving President Richard Nixon and candidate Ronald Reagan, Gavin advocated for “working rhetoric”—well-crafted, clear, hard-hitting arguments that did not off er visions of the unattainable, but instead limited political discourse to achievable ends reached through practical means. Filled with hard-earned wisdom about politics and its discontents, Speechwright describes Gavin’s successes, his failures, and his call for political rhetoric built on strong argument rather than the mere search for eloquence.

Editorial Reviews

Jeff Shesol
…Gavin is faithful to his own advice and to that of Messrs. Strunk and White: He omits unnecessary words. But the ones he includes here are insightful and often self-effacing. He writes throughout with restraint, but also evident passion…
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher

Gavin has written a must-read book for anyone interested in the American presidency. Both scholars and practitioners of political speechwriting will want to have this book on their shelves.

—Martin J. Medhurst, Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Communication, Baylor University

Imagine a high school teacher who sends a letter to Richard Nixon and ends up in the White House, writing heartfelt speeches for Ronald Reagan and almost every other Republican of note for thirty years. It actually happened, and Bill Gavin is that guy!

—Richard Reeves, author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination, President Nixon: Alone in the White House, and President Kennedy: Profile of Power

Bill Gavin is hardly alone in his recollections, but only he could bring them to life with such candor and “heart.” No account of these moments or the people who lived them would be complete without such insights, which for too long have gone unrecorded.  However unlikely Gavin considers the string of events that led to his career as a “speechwright,”this book reveals his gifts and inspires others to respond to such a calling.

—Linda B. Hobgood, Speech Center Director, Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies, University of Richmond

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Michigan State University Press
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Copyright © 2011 William F. Gavin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-017-7

Chapter One

A Speech at the Beach

On Thursday, March 8, 1990, twenty years since I had last seen President Richard Nixon, he visited Washington, DC, to give a speech to the Republican Conference, meaning all the Republican members in the House of Representatives. Although most conference meetings consisted of weekly members-only sessions (sometimes excluding staff), occasionally an outside speaker would be invited, and this time it was the former president, once a member of the House himself. My current boss, House Republican Leader Bob Michel, for whom I had been working for thirteen years, designated me to be the official greeter.

At the appointed time, I left the House minority leader's suite, in the second floor of the Capitol Building, and walked down the same narrow, uneven, winding stairs that British troops had used when they came to burn the Capitol Building in 1812. I waited outside, at the Document Room entrance to the Capitol.

I was eager to see Nixon again, but just a bit uneasy. I was going to meet not just a former president but a legend—a controversial, admired, hated, strange, enigmatic man who had changed the direction of my life when he hired me in 1968 as a campaign staff writer. After leaving the White House in 1970, I had lost contact with him. But then, unexpectedly, in 1979 I received a copy of RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, inscribed: "To Bill Gavin, with appreciation for his service to the nation, from Richard Nixon, 3-6-79." After that he sent me inscribed copies of some of his other new books. I wrote thank-you notes, but these were my only communication with him. What would I say to him this morning, after all these years and all that had happened to him? He had been through a dozen kinds of hell, his reputation forever tarnished, his dreams shattered, his enemies triumphant, and many of his truly great accomplishments either forgotten or obscured by Watergate. How could anyone endure all of that and be the same confident, bold leader I had once served?

And, of course, I had also changed. When I worked for Nixon in the White House, I was thirty-three, inexperienced in practical politics at any level, caught up in the wonder of it all, and not in any way a full-service speechwright, just a guy with a skill—a rare gift among speechwrights, Nixon believed—for writing a certain kind of emotionally charged prose he thought he needed occasionally. But now my hair, headed northward in its inexorable march to baldness, was gray, and I was a few months away from becoming a grandfather. Since the last time I had seen Nixon, I had established a solid reputation in Washington. I was no longer the ardent amateur I had been on the 1968 campaign. I was an accomplished speechwright—and proud of it. My life had gone in one direction and his in another. I feared that the Richard Nixon I was about meet again would be merely a ghost of Washington scandals past. I did not want to greet such a man, especially a man I still admired. I wanted to see him leap out of his limousine and give that awkward, Nixonian, V signal with his arms. I wanted what I could not have: the wish that history had not happened.

A limousine drove up to the Document Room's outer entrance. The driver got out, went to the rear door, and quickly opened it. Richard Nixon got out.

He had changed, of course, visibly older, a bit stooped, his hair gray, and his famous jowls larger. But it was unmistakably Richard Nixon, not a ghost, not an obviously beaten man, but the old unconquerable Nixon, establishment outsider, survivor, enigma, his intelligent eyes lively, his smile the same one I remembered. Oddly enough—because until that moment I had been steeled for whatever was to come—when I saw him, a quick, unexpected rush of emotion came over me. This wasn't only Richard Nixon I was looking at; it was part of my past standing there before me, reminding me of a brief period in my life when so many things seemed possible, for Nixon and for me.

John Taylor, his assistant, gestured to me to come up to Nixon. I walked over and we shook hands.

"Mr. President," I said, "it's been a long time."

"Hello, Bill, how are you?"

With John, we walked to the Document Room door and strode the few paces to the elevator. I noticed Nixon was limping. When we got off on the second floor, Bob Michel's staff and many others lined the narrow hallway and applauded Nixon. Bob shook hands with him.

"I see you have your old writer with you, Mr. President," Bob said.

"Yes," Nixon said. "Bill helped us on that acceptance speech. Good stuff."

He turned to me, smiling, and put his hand on my shoulder as he had done the day after his 1968 acceptance speech in Miami Beach, the day when everything changed for me.

"Gavin?" he said to Bob, but still looking at me. "Why, Bob, we raised Gavin!"

We went to Bob's office, overlooking the National Mall, with a great view of the Washington Monument. A House photographer took pictures as the three of us exchanged small talk.

"Are you still a conservative?" Nixon said to me, smiling.

"Yes, Mr. President. More than ever."

Bob said something nice about my writing, and Nixon said, "Oh, I know, I know. He writes with heart."

We walked with him to one of the large House committee rooms where the conference was being held. He received a raucous, cheering, stomping, standing ovation from the assembled Republicans. Bob introduced him, using remarks I had prepared. Nixon then offered a tour d'horizon, covering topics such as post–Soviet Russia, the Middle East, and other international hot spots. He delivered his remarks flawlessly, for about forty minutes, with no notes, not missing a beat or dropping a word. Later Bob and I accompanied him down the steps of the Longworth House Office Building. His limousine was waiting.

As he began to get in, he thanked Bob for the nice introduction.

Then he said, "Bob, my speech wasn't too intellectual, was it?"

Bob assured him it had been just right.

He began to get in the car, but suddenly turned and, poker-faced, said to Bob, nodding to me, "I leave that intellectual stuff to Gavin."

He got in the car and it sped off. It was the last time I ever saw him.

At his funeral in Yorba Linda, California, in 1994, I saw an old friend, then–California attorney general Dan Lungren. Dan's father, "Doc" Lungren, had been Nixon's personal physician, and as a teenager, Dan had been in Miami Beach during the 1968 convention.

We talked for a few moments, and then Dan said, "Last night a bunch of us were talking about the 1968 convention. And we all remembered how you were the only one Nixon talked to privately the morning after the speech, in the ballroom. That was one thing we all remembered."

The eulogies began. Like most speechwrights who listen to oratory by politicians, I wondered who had written the remarks. I made every effort to listen intently, but my mind kept coming back to what Dan Lungren had said about the 1968 convention. I sat there in the unexpectedly cool California air, trying to listen to speakers saying nice things about Nixon. But I wasn't hearing their words. I was instead hearing applause, cheers, from a distant time, another place, long ago. Friday morning, August 9, 1968, the day after the acceptance speech ... the American Scene Room of the Hilton Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach. Nixon thanking campaign workers for our hard work ... applause, shouts, the room filled with hope and joy and triumph. I heard again the blaring trumpet sound of political victory, a sound like no other in the world. We all knew Nixon would win the presidency and would be a great president, we just knew it. His time at last had come. He was, as they said, tanned, tested, and ready. Last night he had been given the presidential nomination of his party and ...

And, as I sit at the eulogy, I am back there again, in Miami Beach, 1968. I am standing next to Richard Nixon. He puts his arm around my shoulder—a most uncharacteristic gesture by this most private of men—and, smiling broadly, guides me away from a cheering, whistling, applauding crowd of admirers (his, not mine).

The night before, he had delivered his nationally televised acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. I had made a small, but significant, contribution to that speech. This was why he sought me out in the crowd, to my great surprise, and walked with me to a deserted part of the big room to chat.

My fellow campaign aides, still applauding and cheering, looked on in amazement and, I suspect, incomprehension. Why was the brand-new 1968 presidential candidate of the Republican Party, a world-class political figure, talking privately with this guy? The few who recognized me knew I was a high school English teacher. Beginning with a letter I wrote to Richard Nixon in 1967 urging him to run for president, I had gone from the payroll of my high school to the payroll of the Nixon for President campaign—four months before the convention—and would (although of course I had no way of knowing this) go on the White House payroll in January 1969. It was as if some clueless kid from Nowheresville showed up one day at a practice session of, say, the Los Angeles Lakers and made the team after taking a few lucky shots. A dizzying, near-incredible climb, indeed. It was even stranger because although I was hired as a speechwriter, I had never written a speech for anyone, let alone a presidential candidate. As one reporter would later write of me, "He is still very much an amateur among the pros." A piece in the New York Times would describe me as "the greenest in the group [of speechwriters]," which was exactly right.

Now, as we stood together near an exit of the room, Nixon kept his right hand on my shoulder and said, with a big smile, "I just want to thank you for your contribution last night. You could tell I used your themes. After the speech I was looking for you, but we couldn't find you."

I didn't tell him that the reason I could not be found was that I had not gone to the convention hall. I had stayed in the hotel, disconsolate, ready to go home to Abington, Pennsylvania, if not in ignominy, at least as a failure. For a week in Miami Beach I had wandered through the campaign headquarters, looking for something to do. But I was never asked to write anything and never contacted by any of the campaign hierarchy. It had never occurred to me that a convention wasn't a place to start writing—all the speeches should have been written by then. On the night of the acceptance speech, I had my pity party in the Nixon hospitality suite of the hotel with my campaign pal Jack Caulfield, a New York City detective, who had been doing security work for Nixon.

Nixon started off his speech with a pledge that this time (as opposed to 1960) he would win. A few minutes into the speech I heard a little contribution I had made, just a phrase, nothing big. But I was surprised and delighted. So Nixon had read the material I sent in at the last minute, before the staff flew from the New York campaign headquarters to Miami Beach, and he had thought my words worth using. A triumph. A minor triumph, of course, but as a speechwriter, you take what you can get.

The speech moved along quickly, with Nixon on the attack. In his 1960 acceptance speech, he had to defend the eight-year record of the Eisenhower administration, allowing John F. Kennedy to go on the attack. But in 1968 Nixon had the luxury of blaming the Democratic administration for everything, including what was euphemistically called by Democrats "urban unrest."

"As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame," Nixon said. "We hear sirens in the night.... We have had enough of big promises and little action.... I see a day when Americans are once again proud of their flag ... when we will again have freedom from fear in America and freedom from fear in the world."

He offered a long passage about "the quiet voice" of those he called "the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators," and he made sure they all understood Dick Nixon was on their side.

It was good stuff, exactly what an acceptance speech should be: relentless in pursuit of a politically wounded opposition, confident, inspiring to the party faithful, hitting every topic from Vietnam to crime in the streets, reminding television viewers of the mess the Johnson-Humphrey administration had left, and telling everybody that he, Dick Nixon, was the guy to set things straight. In retrospect, however, seeing the speech through what we know about Watergate, some of the best lines have a tragic, or perhaps comic, irony:

• The time has come for honest government in America.

• And if we are to restore order and respect for law in this country there is one place to begin. We are going to have a new attorney general of the United States of America.

• Time is running out for the merchants of crime and corruption in American society.

• I see a day when the president of the United States is respected and his office is honored because it is worthy of respect and worthy of honor.


But in August 1968 what Nixon said about the failures of the Great Society was true. The United States of America did have major cities, including the nation's capital, in which neighborhoods had been burned and looted, not by foreign invaders, but by the people of those neighborhoods themselves. Academic freedom, the very heart of the American educational enterprise, was suspended in many of the nation's elite institutions of higher learning (Columbia University, for example) in order to placate mobs of rioting students. The New Left, once seen as the brightest hope of the best and brightest generation, had degenerated to such an extent that it had spawned terrorists who planted bombs, robbed banks, and called for bloody revolution. President Lyndon Johnson was widely seen as a man not to be trusted, by Democrats as well as Republicans. Nixon had plenty of material with which to work.

Jack and I sat at the hotel hospitality suite listening to the speech. I knew, just by the way Nixon was punching home those cheer lines, that he was really enjoying this, feeling the words, not just saying them. And then, toward the end of the speech, he said: "And tonight, therefore, as we make this commitment, let us look into our hearts and let us look down into the faces of our children. In their faces is our hope, our love, and our courage. Tonight I see the face of a child. He lives in a great city. He's black. Or he's white. He's Mexican, Italian, Polish. None of that matters What matters, he's an American child. That child in that great city is more important than any politician's promise. He is America. He is a poet, he's a scientist, he's a great teacher, he's a proud craftsman. He's everything we ever hoped to be and everything we dare to dream to be. He sleeps the sleep of childhood and dreams the dreams of a child."

"Jack," I said, arising from my chair, "that's my stuff!"

I let out a yell that must have been heard on the beach. This was my stuff, about children. Nixon had taken the risk of using my emotional, thoroughly un-Nixon-like, atypical material that, with bad delivery, or just one misstep, could turn into sentimental mush and make him a laughingstock. But he was in control of the material all the way. The changes he had made in the few muddled paragraphs I had sent to him gave my words deeper meaning, because he had taken what I had written and made it his own. He had developed the children theme, speaking of the blighted lives of some American kids:

And yet when he awakens, he awakens to a living nightmare of poverty, neglect, and despair. He fails in school. He ends up on welfare. For him the American system is one that feeds his stomach and starves his soul. It breaks his heart. And in the end it may take his life on some distant battlefield. To millions of children in this rich land, this is their prospect for the future.

But this is only part of what I see in America. I see another child tonight. He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of faraway places where he'd like to go. It seems an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade sacrificed everything so that his sons could go to college. A gentle Quaker mother with a passionate concern for peace quietly wept when he went to war, but she understood why he had to go. A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way. A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also in defeat. In his chosen profession of politics, first there were scores, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions worked for his success. Tonight he stands before you—nominated for president of the United States of America. You can see why I believe so deeply in the American Dream.


Excerpted from Speechwright by WILLIAM F. GAVIN Copyright © 2011 by William F. Gavin. Excerpted by permission of MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

William F. Gavin is a former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and the author of the novels One Hell of a Candidate and The Ernesto "Che" Guevara School for Wayward Girls.

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