The Speechwriters Speak: A Conversation with John McConnell and Brian Bolduc
Free the Facts hosted its election-eve special event on Monday
Your first official act as president-elect of the United States is to give a speech on Election Night, not only to your joyous supporters but also to your erstwhile opponents and everyone in between.
So how does it all come together?
On Monday, Free the Facts heard from two veteran speechwriters who’ve been in the room where it happens: John McConnell, a longtime senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and Brian Bolduc, who’s written for 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and U.S. Senator Tom Cotton.
Kicking off their virtual conversation -- which Bolduc joked was like “getting brunch in front of 64 of our closest friends” -- McConnell explained that every presidential candidate goes into Election Night with two sets of remarks prepared: a victory speech and a concession speech. He noted that, in a historical anomaly, on Election Night 2000 then-Governor Bush ended up using neither draft -- because the night’s results were inconclusive.
Instead, in the weeks running up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, Bush often had to give quick updates on the status of the recount on very short notice -- and his speechwriters had to write them on even less. In some cases, his three-person speechwriting team -- McConnell, along with Michael Gerson and Matthew Scully -- would have only one hour to draft their candidate’s speech.
“It helps a lot when you have several team members,” McConnell said, “the weight doesn’t fall on any one person’s shoulders” -- even if that means three people are inevitably huddled around a single computer.
Speechwriters are often crunched for time, and when in a jam, it helps to draw upon the reading they’ve done in their free time. Bolduc, an avid reader of American history, shared that he has read a biography of every U.S. president and, when racing to draft Ryan’s first speech as speaker of the House, used a quote of Harry Truman’s he once read in a biography of the 33rd president when he was in college.
“Time is the consistent unalterable complaint of the speechwriter,” mused McConnell.
But after giving an Election Night speech, a president-elect must then shift gears and prepare an inaugural address, which can present its own challenges.
After especially contentious elections, inaugural speeches can help heal a divided nation, McConnell observed. Having helped write President Bush’s second inaugural address after a close race in 2004, McConnell said that the speech must be a “bridge between campaigning and governing. The language needs to be softer and unifying. No more contrast, no more division, no more talking about what’s at stake. All those things have been decided not by the winning candidate, but by the nation.”
So there are many pitfalls elected officials must navigate when giving speeches, to be sure, but speechwriters face perils of their own: Sometimes, they have to write speeches they don’t agree with.
What do you do then?
Bolduc argued that because writers work in teams, they often can divy out each assignment to the writer most likely to agree with the boss.
McConnell, on the other hand, emphasized that writing such speeches isn’t necessarily difficult, it’s just not as fun. He said it requires the same writing skills you need for any other speech: persuasion and analytical rigor: “You have to remember it’s not your body of work that you’re contributing to.”
Later on, a member of the audience asked the two how heavily their old bosses would edit their speeches. Bolduc and McConnell agreed that every politician has their own quirks. McConnell recalled that President Bush was meticulous; in the 10 years that McConnell worked for him, there was only one speech for which he had no edits.
As the conversation came to a close, Lindsay Hayes, president and CEO of Free the Facts, asked the two to reflect on the importance of the other speech given on Election Night: the concession speech.
McConnell said the concession is vitally important because it’s tradition. It symbolizes “the laying down of arms” and gives the candidate the opportunity to leave the American people with a good impression.
Noting that this year’s election was a hard-fought contest, Hayes asked the two Republicans to mention a Democrat whose speeches and life’s work they admired.
“One of my favorite people in American politics, all of my life, is Hubert Humphrey,” McConnell said. At a young age, McConnell saw Humphrey, who served as vice president to President Lyndon B. Johnson, give a speech in public and has admired him ever since.
“I enjoy JFK’s speeches,” Bolduc said, while also giving credit to two of Kennedy’s most famous speechwriters, Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger. He also shared that he admires the keynote address the late Ann Richards, a onetime governor of Texas, gave at the 1988 Democratic Convention.
It was a fitting reminder that, even in the rough and tumble of politics, true excellence knows no party.