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Blog No. 25 The Speechwriter’s Pulitzer

WASHINGTON, DC --- In my 40-plus-year career, I’ve written or given about 700 speeches, maybe more.

United Way dinner speeches, eulogies, wedding toasts, corporate board meetings, sales kickoffs, new-product announcements, retirement dinners, contract awards, trade show events, acquisitions of companies, divestitures of companies, closings of companies, launches of new companies --- I’ve pretty much written speeches for all of them.

Each and every time I had to write or give a speech, I worked hard on it. Because, as the name of our website suggests, Words Matter. I wanted to get it right. I wanted it to be good. And, I wanted it to be funny. A good speech should have a little of all those ingredients.

Being a speechwriter is a little like being a ghost. You’re there, but you’re not. People don’t really know you, they may know your principal; they may even think they know what your principal believes and says --- but in reality they have no idea who really writes the words. They know the speaker, but not the speechwriter.

In many companies and political campaigns, writers work to craft and shape speeches. To find the right phrasing, the right facts, or just the perfect tone to make the rhetoric sound professional, genuine and trustworthy.

As a former speechwriter for multiple corporate executives all over the world, it often fell upon me to write speeches to help my clients introduce a new product, tell a tale of success or failure to shareholders, or to paint a vision for a future strategic direction that would make people understand the virtues of a position point.

Later, as a CEO myself, I found writing my own speeches to be cathartic. It helped me to get organized and focused before a major meeting. Researching as many of the facts and talking points as possible by myself, and then organizing them into some form of cogent presentation, helped me tell the story I wanted to convey. I would ask the CFO, or members of the senior staff, to review the speech in advance, to help flesh out some facts, or to shorten the copy to meet the time allotted.

And I was always looking for a good joke or punch line.

Speechwriting is gritty, tough work. It’s often done in the wee hours of the night. Speechwriting can be a lonely job; and if done properly, requires hours of fact-checking and a keen sense of attention to detail. Most of all, it needs the writer to have an “ear” that allows you to capture the voice and cadence of your principal, without compromising their style or integrity.

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Great modern speechwriters -- like Robert Sherwood, for FDR; Jon Faverau for Barak Obama; Ted Sorenson for John F. Kennedy; and Peggy Noonan for Ronald Reagan -- stayed out of the limelight, but helped make their famous bosses sound great.

Your job, Sorenson famously said, “is to stay in the background, but to make your boss look smart.”

For instance, John F. Kennedy expounded during his Presidential Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy may have said it, but Sorenson wrote it.

It was Sherwood who wrote many of Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” radio broadcasts, and who helped FDR explain after Pearl Harbor, the importance of “keeping Democracy alive,” not just for America, but for the entire world.

Many people know that President Reagan didn’t write “That Great Shining City upon the hill,” or in his address to the nation after the Challenger explosion, evoking the poet John Magee's famous words about astronauts who "slipped the surly bonds of earth... and touched the face of God."

Reagan said those magnificent words, but it was Peggy Noonan who wrote them.

Some speechwriters remain craftsmen and skilled writers all their lives. Others graduate to senior roles themselves. But, no matter how high up (or down) the food chain, you always get tagged to help with someone’s speech. In effect, once a speechwriter, always a speechwriter.

So, as a member of the speech writing fraternity, I was very happy to see one of our own, Margaret Ellen “Peggy” Noonan, be awarded a Pulitzer Prize last week. Officially, it was for her current work as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

The Pulitzers, for those of you who may not know, are the equivalent of the “Academy Awards” of Journalism. A highly select committee of journalists gives out the top writing, editing and photography awards for journalism excellence annually. The awards --- named after the famed newspaper Publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who originally allotted in his will $250,000 for “recognizing good journalism,” --- have been given out since 1917.

Noonan won her Pulitzer last week for columns she wrote for WSJ. Her focus, on trying to convey the ethics and values of traditional Republicans in the face of a new Trump regime, was recognized by the Pulitzer Committee for its excellence. Her award was in the category of “Commentary.”

Here’s the citation for the award:

“… Awarding her the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, judges said Noonan earned it for “rising to the moment with beautifully rendered columns that connected readers to the shared virtues of Americans during one of the nation’s most divisive political campaigns.”

A native New Yorker, Noonan was born in Brooklyn in 1950. She is also the author of six books, four of which are best sellers. She’s a popular guest on radio and TV talk shows, including the Sunday morning shows such as NBC’s Meet the Press and ABC’s This Week. Noonan got her start working as a writer and radio producer for CBS. She’s a noted scholar, writer and a member of the New York literary scene. In 2010 she was given the Award for Media Excellence by recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. She has been a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and has taught at Yale University.

Still, no matter how great her WSJ copy is, or how well written her books, it’s Noonan’s work as a speechwriter that probably will always be remembered.

Here’s more on her speechwriting prowess from Wikipedia:

In 1984, Noonan, as a speechwriter for President Reagan, authored his "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan’s Challenger Speech is ranked as the eighth best American political speech of the 20th century, according to a list compiled by professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University and based on the opinions of "137 leading scholars of American public address." The "Pointe du Hoc" speech ranks as the 58th best speech of the century.

Later, while working for then Vice President George H. W. Bush, Noonan coined the phrase "a kinder, gentler nation" and also popularized "a thousand points of light," two memorable catchphrases used by Bush.

I was starting to write a blog on Noonan’s April 1 column in the WSJ, entitled “Mistakes, He’s Made a Few Too Many,” about the tone and direction of the new Trump administration, when the Pulitzer award announcement changed the direction of my story.

By now, you can tell, I’m a Peggy Noonan fan. I think her work is exceptional. She is a professional of the utmost integrity and style. I admire how she has conducted herself before, during and after her White House years.

At the downstairs bar at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington several years ago, I was introduced to Michael Deaver, who was deputy chief of staff to President Reagan. Deaver was a California public relations executive who helped shape Reagan’s campaigns for governor of California, and later as president.

We had more than a couple of drinks together, and I asked him about the great Reagan speeches. “Was Peggy Noonan really that good?” I asked Deaver. “Did she really write all that stuff?”

“Yes,” Deaver said. “She was, she did, and she still does. Peggy Noonan is a speechwriting genius.”

We all still have much to learn from Peggy Noonan. For some, her ongoing work today inspires us to keep working, to keep writing; to keep finding “the right words to fit the moment.”

As Deaver said, and the Pulitzer committee finally recognized last week, Peggy Noonan’s “genius” is a journalistic treasure worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.

And from speechwriters everywhere: Way to go Peggy!

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