Purpose-Driven Prose

“Have you ever written political speeches? It’s a particularly low form of rhetoric.”

Thus did Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who knew a few things about writing political speeches, welcome me to the guild. It was early 1998, and I was just preparing to join the White House staff as a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton—who, by the way, did not disagree with Mr. Schlesinger. Mr. Clinton’s face soured when he said “rhetoric.” To him it was an epithet. “I don’t want rhetoric,” he’d complain. “I actually want to say something.”

Political rhetoric has a bad rap. Except in certain college courses—where the speeches of Lincoln and Churchill are pinned down like dead frogs and inspected for signs of logos, elocutio, and aposiopesis—rhetoric is held beneath contempt. And not without cause. The speeches of this wretched campaign year have brought to mind what H.L. Mencken said of President Warren G. Harding’s rhetoric: “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges…of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

Former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol on the art of the political speech.

I’ll concede that speechwriters are part of the problem. We tend to blame the person at the podium, but the enemy, let’s admit it, is us, too. Speechwriters have an unhealthy affection for alliteration (“nattering nabobs of negativism”). We cling to clichés (see above, “the enemy is us”). And we tend to believe that phrases like “take back our country,” if repeated enough, might come to mean something.

But smart speechwriting still has the power to inspire, educate, entertain—and to make a difference. As a writer, the first thing to remember is that a good speech has a point. It is purpose-driven. It is ends-oriented. Its true test is not whether it gets quoted in Bartlett’s, but whether it gets people to embrace an idea, support a bill, throw a bum out, invest in plastics or stop feeding their kids potato chips for breakfast.

But how is this alchemy achieved? Google “speechwriting,” and you’ll enter a thicket of rules, tips and tricks of the trade. Many of them work as advertised. But formulas only carry you so far. Speechwriters reach for whatever tools they need—reason, emotion, repetition, humor, statistics, stories—to frame and win an argument. Organization is always important. To give the speech forward momentum, a kind of inevitability, certain ideas must be established in a certain sequence.

Every word should serve that goal. “Why is that in there?” President Clinton would ask us, before drawing a neat, black line through the offending phrase. Occasionally, we’d return the favor: under cover of darkness at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, I struck a sentence the president had dictated about his administration’s success in reducing the rate of salmonella infections.

This single-mindedness was apparent in every line of the 2008 speech in which Bill Gates introduced his concept of “creative capitalism.” Through real-world examples and a rousing call to action, he showed how institutions can “stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.” Or consider Steve Jobs. In his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, he told very personal stories, including one about “facing death” as he battled cancer, to inspire graduates to live by their own intuition.

Such speeches redeem the promise of the spoken word and show that, this campaign season notwithstanding, rhetoric need not be at odds with reality.

Jeff Shesol, a partner at West Wing Writers, is the author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”

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