Becoming a Bill Clinton Speechwriter

Question: How did you start working for Bill Clinton?

Michael Waldman: Politics is tremendously fun.  It’s for young people.  It’s for people who have the capacity to work all night, and then work all night again the next night and the night after that.  The Little Rock campaign for Clinton was considered very aggressive and very state-of-the-art for the Democrats who were used to getting cuffed around in these elections.  And we prided ourselves on responding to charges in the first news cycle, and that was considered a very big deal, but what that means was within 24 hours.  Now that was before the Internet.  It was really before there were a lot of cable channels.  It was before Blackberries.  If someone waited 24 hours to respond to a charge or a crisis, they would be committing political malpractice, but back then, it was considered very, very state-of-the-art.  And you know campaigns are always full of young people, and even White Houses are always full of young people.  What was more unusual for Clinton was there weren’t as many old hands around, so whoever wins next time should pay some close attention to that.

Question: How did you become  a speech writer?

Michael Waldman:  I didn’t train to be a speech writer and I didn’t start as a speech writer on Clinton’s campaign.  I was a lawyer.  I was a writer who had written books.  I had a policy background.  And that’s really the best training to be a presidential speech writer.  Clinton made me chief speech writer, not because of my liquid pros.  I mean I’m sure I had to be good enough and I’m sure I was, but because he thought I understood his policies.  And so I worked on the campaign and my writing caught his eye.  He had me work on the first Inaugural and State of the Union Address, but then I went and did other things.  I was a policy aid in charge of campaign finance reform for two years, and then became head speech writer during one of these various power struggles, policy intrigue.  But when a president speaks, it’s not about the words.  It’s not about them sounding good.  It’s about the policy.  And the presidential speeches are where presidential policy, and personality and politics all come together.  That’s part of what made it fun and a great thing to be part of at a young age.

Question: Any favoriate speeches?

Michael Waldman:  Well I was always proud to work on the issues that I cared about the most, so for example, when I had drawn up policies on campaign finance and other reforms, and then got to write the speech for the President announcing the policies, that kind of thing’s pretty cool.  I always enjoyed working on the State of the Union Addresses, and with Clinton, I did four of them as the Chief Speech Writer. And with Clinton, those were his big moments, as you recall, every year.  They were very long.  And he really would dive in and he would scrub his schedule and focus on that for a month before the speech, go through 20-25 drafts, endless consultations with policy aids, with cabinet secretaries, with old friends of the President from college and everything else, because that was where he laid out his program for the year.  And of course, he got to be very, very good at it and the public really liked hearing from him during those State of the Unions.  They would go on and on, and the pundits on TV would say oh my gosh, another terrible, disastrous speech from Bill Clinton.  They never would end.  And then they would learn that the polls showed, first of all, that he was very popular, and second, that his TV ratings went up the longer he talked.  The public had a very great thirst to hear directly from their elected leaders about things that mattered to them.  So with those State of the Union’s, the one that was most memorable for reasons good and bad was the one in 1998, which was a week after the world learned, and I learned about Monica Lewinsky.  You can imagine it was a very crazy way to write a speech, driving into work, having the car surrounded by camera crews to see if I was anybody, and then looking disappointed and walking away when I wasn’t, the people on TV saying well he’s going to resign and the only question is when.  And then all kinds of speculation again on the cable shows about what was in the speech draft, and I knew what I had in my draft, but there were all kinds of rumors.  And through it all, Clinton, who obviously had done something he shouldn’t have done and was obviously under a great deal of pressure, focusing in, focusing in on the work at hand, which was doing this speech and the policies and it was quite something to see.  And then here he was, he was at the lowest point of his public credibility, of his personal credibility, and he got up and said-- this was just when the budget had turned into a surplus, which seems like a long time ago now-- he got up and said, “What should we do?”  And the Republicans in Congress wanted to, as we saw it, spend the surplus on a tax cut.  He said, “What should we do with our new surplus?  I have a simple four-word answer.  Save Social Security first.”  And when he did that, the Democrats in Congress stood up and applauded, and they were pretty much applauding anything he said at that point.  And Gingrich, who was the Speaker of the House, was sitting right behind him and you could see he was thinking about it, and then he decided he had better stand up and applaud.  And the Republicans were all looking at Gingrich and then they stood up and applauded.  And at that precise moment, a trillion dollars in the budget shifted from the column marked “tax cuts” to the column marked “Social Security,” and that was because of the power of the bully pulpit.  It was because Clinton was very good at using it.  And it was even at his lowest personal moment, he could still command the country by making a strong argument.  So that was hard to top for drama for a speech writer.  

 

With four State of the Union Addresses under his belt, Michael Waldman gave Clinton his rhetoric.

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