Monday, November 1, 2010

The Torch Has Been Passed

Last month I was invited to join a good friend at a panel presentation put on by the Smithsonian that featured the speechwriters for half a dozen Presidents. The most renowned of all of them was Ted Sorensen, who died yesterday. He didn't seem in great shape and had to be helped onto the stage but his mind was clear and he told some wonderful stories. It helped that he was joined by a great group of former Presidential speechwriters, beginning with Chris Matthews, who wrote for Jimmy Carter before he became an MSNBC regular. The others were Michael Waldman, Clinton; Michael Gerson, Bush II; and Landon Parvin, Reagan, who amazingly is a regular for GOP Presidents and others when it comes to injecting some humor. He came up with that Second-hand Rose takeoff for Nancy Reagan.

In good Washington style, the first angry questioner asked why there were no women on the panel. The unanimous response was that Peggy Noonan had been invited but was unable to attend and that she was the best Presidential speechwriter except for Sorensen (who stayed out of this one). Sorensen recalled some of his experiences with JFK, including a speech the latter delivered at Rice in Houston. Kennedy was justifying the space program (at a place fairly receptive to it) and observed that we needed to keep trying even if the odds were against any partiuclar project succeeding--he added in the margin to Sorensen's draft: "Why does Rice keep playing Texas?"

Some of the speechwriters had had experiences similar to Sorensen's but few had worked with their principal for as long as Sorensen had. Parvin told some funny stories about getting to know Bush 2d in Texas and then related his own excruciating experience visiting George and Laura while they were in one of the Lafayette Square guest houses that former and future Presidents enjoy using (Bush Senior and Barbara were using the first floor). Parvin goes upstairs to try to teach his candidate how to project while delivering a speech and to get some distance from him, is urged by Bush to go into the bedroom. First he pauses when he sees that Laura Bush is still in bed and then when Bush is shouting at him to sit down next to the bed, he sees that she's left a pair of black panties on the chair. Somehow she realizes the situation and deftly snatches the panties away as he moves to sit in the chair. Sorensen deftly suggested that he would resist continuing the panel discussion at this level. But the humor element was welcome.

Matthews described how difficult Carter was to work with, especially on speeches. He had been used to writing his own, but as Matthews emphasized, Carter was no Lincoln in this respect. The chief writer was Rick Hertzberg, who now pens the opening comment editorial for The New Yorker, maintaining with some success the tradition established by E.B. White. One might think that writers as politically attuned as Hertzberg and Matthews might be able to satisfy most clients but Carter remained immune to their talents. He apparently liked writing his own stuff...and it showed. Matthews grinned as he noted that there was one reference to the duo in Carter's recently-published diary. Carter said that they had sent him a draft of the state of the union address and he didn't like it.

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