Speaking between the lines

Nicholas Underhill


Interview with Robert Lehrman, speechwriter
for former US Vice President Al Gore


From Future Perfect Issue 2, Summer 2014–15. Buy a copy here.

 
 

I’m sadly getting accustomed to being corrected by the people I’m interviewing. In Issue 1 the CEO of Hachette America, Michael Pietsch, gently chastised me for thinking editors needed recognition: “we’re supposed to work in the background!” This time around I spoke to speechwriter Robert Lehrman, and I assumed after years working in a political echo chamber he would be somewhat cynical towards the political process. Instead I received a moral cuffing: “People in politics aren’t cynical at all... The work is worth doing—even if what you write doesn’t change the world.” Once again, I’m left looking a little shallow.

You’ve probably never heard of Robert Lehrman, but there’s a good chance that you’ve caught soundbites of his work. Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democrats, professionals and celebrities. Most notably, he worked directly for one of the most powerful and influential men in the world. For more than two years, during the Clinton administration’s heyday in the early 90s, he wrote the official words of Vice President Al Gore. The role required a versatility that’s unusual in most professions: he would put together everything from an address to the official Tea Cosy Collectors of America to (one of his proudest moments) Gore’s speech at Mandela’s historic inauguration. 

For whatever reason, there’s something incredibly romantic about the White House. Maybe it’s years of too much West Wing but the thought of working long hours on vital issues with the most important people in the world has a certain allure. After speaking with Lehrman I’m not sure that this romanticism translates into real life. It’s not only the incredible time committment (if you left at 6.30pm after 11 hours of work people would say: “What, only working half a day?”), but in a climate of constant deadlines you have to be really productive. During his marathon days as Chief Speechwriter, Lehrman was pumping out a massive 25,000 words a month. Considering the extent to which I procrastinated writing this intro, I find that number suitably intimidating.

Lehrman was a speechwriter at an interesting juncture—right on the cusp of the mainstream internet and its disruptive ways. He was one of the last presidential speechwriters with the luxury of focusing on the people in the room. In today’s smartphone-enabled society, speechwriting is less speech and more soundbite. These days nothing is forgotten—for better or worse everything lives online. 

Since his tenure as vice-presidential speechwriter, Lehrman has lectured at the University of America and written a bestselling title on, you guessed it, the art of talking: The Political Speechwriter’s Companion. As well as lecturing, he travels the world workshopping the art of speechwriting with diplomatic teams.

So what does it take to write a brilliant speech? And how has technology changed political speechwriting? Lehrman took me through the basics and gave me a behind the scenes look at life in the White House.


What is a speechwriter’s goal? Is it solely the communication of an idea?

I’m glad we start with that, because so many people think political speeches are about nothing—sound and fury, signifying nothing. In politics most speeches communicate ideas. We should go to war. We should negotiate. We should or shouldn’t pass this three-point plan. And that’s why you rarely see everyone approve of a speech as if it’s literature. Because half of your audience hates the ideas in your speech—so much they can’t appreciate all the skilful ways you’ve used story or language.

So is it about persuasion and, to some extent, manipulation? 

Yes, that too. In politics most speech is persuasive. You’re not just saying, “Here’s an idea”. You’re saying ,“Here’s an idea—and it’s good. And I want your help getting it done.” Manipulative? In the sense that a lawyer manipulates. You make the best case for the idea, which means giving short shrift to the weaknesses and playing up the strengths. 

But I wouldn’t want you to think we lie or make up things—usually. Every politician I’ve worked with or known mostly believes in what they’re saying. I’m a Democrat. When I would hear George Bush’s ideas it made me furious. But I’m sure he believed them. And maybe still does.

How has speechwriting alerted you to the power of language? 

It has taught me about one kind of power. I started out writing fiction. I wanted to move people—not necessarily urge them to act. When I began writing speeches, I saw how they could create action. There’s this old saying: when Cicero finished, people said, “Nice speech”. When Demosthenes finished, they said, “Let’s march”. John F Kennedy in his Inaugural, or King in his “Dream” speech? They made people want to march. Literally. I wanted to do that.

How has technology impacted your approach to writing speeches? Do you write for those listening in the room or the punters watching on YouTube?

It’s had tremendous impact, both on who I write for and how I write. When I worked for Al Gore in the White House, the Chief Clinton speechwriter once said, “The difference between you and me is, you write for the people in the seats. We don’t care about them.” He meant, who cares about a thousand people sitting in front of you? He only cared about the snip people would see on TV. Today millions of people can see speeches they never could before—as they happen. You can go on the White House website and read and see every one of the five hundred speeches Obama made last year. 

And if you make a mistake it’s there forever. Here’s an example—although it’s not really about speech. A few months ago, an American Congressman was bored at a hearing. So he picked at his ear. Then it looked like his fingers went into his mouth. The camera was on him. The headlines read: “Ew. Congressman eats his earwax.” It’s still there. Just Google “Congressman eats ear wax”. Politicians used to deny saying things. Now they can’t. Technology makes the good things you say have an impact never before possible. And it makes your mistakes more costly.

And one more thing about how I work. In the White House we used to have to get books. Go to the library. As a speechwriter running my business people would courier big packets of stuff. Now, the websites are so rich I don’t use books. Going online is faster—and better.

You’ve previously mentioned that when writing you’re always mindful of the fact that 40% of Americans can only comprehend a Grade 7 level of English. For starters, why is it so low? And does it impede your ability to communicate a message?

Hey, come on. Because I knew you would ask this I looked it up. 44% of Australians read at 6th grade or lower. That’s the reality. In the US you have immigrants and a tremendous gap between African Americans and white Americans—the legacy of slavery, segregation and other results of white racism. That lowers literacy. But no, it doesn’t impede the ability of speechwriters. English is a rich language. You can convey lots of things in words of one syllable. Like, “I have a dream”. It doesn’t hurt communication to say “now” instead of “currently”. Or “use” instead of utilise.” But you have to know your audience. If your Prime Minister’s speaking on TV to the whole country, would you want his speechwriter to tell him, “Here’s the draft. Of course 44% of your listeners won’t know what you’re saying”?

“When I began writing speeches, I saw how they could create action. There’s this old saying: when Cicero finished, people said, ‘Nice speech’. When Demosthenes finished, they said, ‘Let’s march’.”

 

When talking about speech writing, you often mention antithesis. Can you explain what this is exactly? 

The secret of power in speech is repetition. That’s why Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a dream” once. He said it nine times. Each time, he could get a little louder, emphasise a little more—he carried the audience along. Well, antithesis is one kind of repetition. You use the same grammatical structure twice—separated by “not” or other word. That shows contrast, and makes people remember it if you do it well. The most famous example? “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Or Obama’s, “There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.”

Because it’s so memorable, Obama will use ten more examples of antithesis in a single speech. For the same reason, so do I. 

What motivated you to become a speechwriter?

I came of age during the Vietnam War. At the time I didn’t care about politics. I wanted to be the next Tolstoy. These days people have forgotten—I was there just a few months ago in July and met many nice Australians who think it’s a great spot to vacation. But what we did to Vietnam was so barbaric, it made me want to get into politics. I said, why not be Gandhi instead of Tolstoy? Meanwhile, there was a strange coincidence. My advisor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop was Kurt Vonnegut. He got me a teaching assistantship where I had to teach speech. So when I went into politics I knew something about it. I didn’t want to give up writing under my own name. But I’ve written speeches ever since.

How does it feel to hear your words coming out of the mouth of someone else? Is it frustrating that the orator usually receives all the credit?

Usually it doesn’t feel so great—but not for the reasons you’re alluding to. There’s too much pressure. Did I make a mistake? Get a date wrong? Will he use the joke I gave him? Will people laugh? Once I gave a client a joke for a speech in front of 3000 people. He came back and called me. “The joke? Not one person laughed.” Then, just as I was about to go into cardiac arrest, he said, “But I still love the joke!” You know what is satisfying? Seeing it come out of the printer, and thinking you’ve done a good job. Or seeing it quoted in the paper or online, and knowing it’s reached people. I’ve written four novels. But once I wrote a speech heard by about 30 million people. I was complaining about how it should have been larger. My wife—in a very diplomatic way—pointed out that it was more people than had read all of my novels. Or ever would. She’s right. That’s the satisfying part. 

About getting credit? It’s a tradeoff. You sacrifice writing in your own voice and having people see your name to write something that might help influence ideas you care about. I wouldn’t be satisfied to do one or the other. I’ve tried to do both. I haven’t done a perfect job. To write a 3000 word speech means you sacrifice a 3000 word short story. But my life’s not over—yet.

You’ve said before that at your peak you were writing 25,000 words a month. How did you train yourself to be so productive? 

How to be productive? Sheer panic. Once one of my bosses told me he wanted to give a speech on the House Floor... in ten minutes. Then he walked away. In ten minutes I wrote a speech, called my mother to tell her she could see me running onto the floor, then raced up and handed it to him just as he was getting up. You can’t stew over word choice in this life. When I came back I called my mom. She said, “Were you wearing a yellow tie?” “Yep.” She was very happy.

Did you ever get downtime? 

In politics you don’t relax. In the 2004 Presidential campaign I worked 6 and a half days a week, 20 hours a day, every day. But many speechwriters eventually go into corporate life which is way less demanding and pays infinitely better. Which, at time to time, I’ve done.

I’d say that in the White House or Senate I’d work an 11 hour day and maybe half of a weekend day. But even that’s pretty tough—especially if you have kids. My wife and I were both on Capitol Hill at one point. At 6:30 we had to pick up the kids from daycare. But not a single person had left in either office. If you walked out people said, “What, working half a day?” It’s hard to sustain that year after year. That’s why the average Hill job turns over every 2.9 years.

"I came of age during the Vietnam War. At the time I didn’t care about politics. I wanted to be the next Tolstoy… But what we did to Vietnam was so barbaric, it made me want to get into politics. I said, why not be Gandhi instead of Tolstoy?”

 

It seems more than ever that politicians aren’t connecting with voters. In Australia, at least, we’re switching off. Is this a failure of politicians? Or communications strategists? Or focus groups? Or speechwriters?

Another question that made me go to Google. It doesn’t seem to be true. Popularity waxes and wanes. If you can show me some polls, say over the last 25 years, that show that’s true, I’d be interested. But you’ve left one group off your list that might get some blame. Voters. They have busy lives. They don’t know much about issues. They get angry about things because they don’t know enough. Here’s an example of where that shows up. If you ask American voters what they think of “Obamacare", the Republican nickname for the Obama healthcare plan—they disapprove. If you ask what they think of the “Affordable Care Act”, the official name for the same bill—they favour it. Whose fault is that?

You’ve said previously that people generally become speechwriters because they want to promote policy that they’re passionate about. Have you ever had to defend a policy or issue you didn’t agree with? 

I’d say that’s true in politics. The biggest market for speechwriters is corporate. The incentive in corporate life is making money not making policy, which is why I don’t like it as much. So, yes, people in corporate life separate their personal politics from what they write. And I don’t want to sound purer than anyone else. In the 1980s I wrote for Texaco. I had to write something attacking gasohol—gasoline made from grain. I did. But they never used it. Six months later, my boss said, “Bob, rewrite that gasohol piece. But now we’re for it.” I asked why. He told me we’d gotten a big contract to produce gasohol with a partner. I went back to my office, talked with the same engineer I’d worked with before—and did what they wanted. Does that tell you why someone who was passionate about ideas wouldn’t like corporate life?

Sometimes it would be necessary to write speeches about issues that you mighn’t be knowledgeable about. How do you write about topics that you’re not well versed in?

Speechwriting is a collaborative art. Yes, we sometimes write every word of a speech—but if you write for someone famous or powerful, lots of staffers pitch in. They are happy to give you material—people love to know they’ve gotten a line into a speech. Sometimes a word. One time in the White House we were working on a draft. A friend came over and said something like, “That’s cool. I’d love to have just one WORD in the Vice President’s speech.” One of us said, “What word?” He thought. “Purse?” I typed a line about the government’s purse strings. He still talks about that.

Much more difficult than knowing the issues is finding the story, example, concrete detail, or ways to use repetition that will make the speech compelling. There we are on our own. And that’s the value we bring to speeches. 

So would you say you were, forgive the cliche,
making a difference? Or was everyone much more cynical?

Oh, you definitely feel like you’re making a difference—even though you know that’s not rational. There’s plenty of research that shows the influence of a President’s speech on any issue is small. But it’s hard to feel cynical when you listen to people cheering, and have people in the White House clapping you on the back, and hop into a motorcade with police cars clearing the way, and see a sentence or two in the news the next day. 

People in politics aren’t cynical at all. With good reason. Democrats—my side—mostly hated the war in Iraq, wanted health insurance for everyone, supported same-sex marriage, supported raising the minimum wage and closing tax loopholes for the rich. Republicans were—mostly—on the other side of all those issues. Isn’t that worth working your ass off? And Republicans feel as passionately on the other side. They work just as hard. That’s why I’ve always loved politics. The work is for something worth doing—even if what you write doesn’t change the world. I mean, you’re part of a team. Let’s say you’re a marking back on a soccer team. Do you have to score to think it was worth going all out? 

More in Issue 2

Buried at sea

Unpacking the insane rhetoric behind our government’s immigration policies, featuring drawings by children in detention