The Role of Speechwriters on Policy

I wrote a short paper for a government class on how speechwriters exert influence on U.S. policy. I had a strict word count constraint. Printed below. Enjoy.

This paper will briefly explore the role of speechwriting on policy by examining the creation of three important phrases in American presidential history: Ronald Reagan’s "evil empire" remark in 1983, Ronald Reagan’s "tear down this wall" remark in 1987, and George W. Bush’s "evil axis" remark in 2002. I will argue that in these high profile cases the influence between policy experts and speechwriters was bi-directional, with speechwriters creating policy (or a presidential attitude) as much as interpreting and verbalizing it.

On March 8, 1983 in Orlando President Reagan said, "…I urge you to beware the temptation…to ignore…the aggressive impulses of an evil empire…". By using such strong language, Reagan "alarmed moderates of the West, delighted millions under Soviet oppression and set off a global chain reaction that many believe led inexorably to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to freedom for most of Eastern Europe."  All that from a single phrase? Yes. When a U.S. president speaks, the world listens. This is why aides to the president fight over every word. The internal debate is usually between the speechwriters / political aides and the various "experts" on the topic at hand. In the evil empire case, chief speechwriter Anthony Dolan dueled against various NSC and foreign policy personnel such as Deputy National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane who wanted to tone down the "outrageous statements". Still, Dolan and his team were savvy at managing internal politics, and presented a draft with the controversial "evil empire" reference to Reagan, who professed initial support for the phrase. By limiting input from potential objectors to the phrase ("It was the stealth speech," said one Reagan aide) and leveraging the president’s own initial support, the speechwriting office succeeded in having the president ultimately deliver a speech with "evil empire" on page 15.

In May, 1987 Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson was at a dinner party in West Berlin. His hostess, Frau Elz, told him that "if Gorbachev is serious…he can get rid of this Wall."  He incorporated that phrase into a speech he drafted for Reagan to deliver in Berlin. Reagan, upon reviewing the draft, liked it. But virtually the entire foreign policy apparatus did not. Tom Griscom, director of communications in the White House, fielded criticism and seven alternative drafts from State and NSC – none containing "tear down this Wall," which they saw as "gimmicky" and giving Berliners false hope. The speechwriting team stood firm, especially since Reagan seemed to support the first draft. When Reagan boarded Air Force One that morning for Berlin, the State Department, in a last-ditch effort, forwarded yet another alternate draft. It was never shown to the President. He delivered the speech later that day, dinner-party phrases and all.

George W. Bush’s State of the Union address on January 29, 2002 referred to North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as the "axis of evil."  Almost immediately the loaded phrase reverberated throughout the foreign relations world and threw a wrench in U.S./Iran relations. Some say it alienated democracy supporters and moderates within Iran; others say it gave hope to the oppressed citizens of the state. Speechwriter David Frum, said to have coined the phrase, thought it was an important phrase within an important speech on national security. But was the phrase the result of careful policy deliberation? No. Michael Gerson, head of speechwriting, told Newsweek in February that Iran and North Korea were added to the axis of evil in order to avoid focusing solely on Iraq. Bush was preparing to topple Saddam, but wasn’t ready to say so. Condoleezza Rice said to insert Iran and North Korea. Commentator Matthew Yglesias: "In short, Michael Gerson and Condoleezza Rice, purely in order to make a speech that (a) sounded good, and (b) pretended not to be exclusively about Iraq, set the United States on a collision course with Iran. That’s really got to be a historic speechwriting blunder."

All three examples show the large impact – for better or worse – of speeches and phrases, and the people who write them. Former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully took note of such power, writing in the Atlantic recently:

Education speeches in particular—with their endlessly complicated programs and slightly puffed-up theories, none of which we could ever explain quite to the satisfaction of our policy people—were always good for a laugh. As John observed…in the typically chaotic revising of an education speech, “We’ve taken the country to war with less hassle than this.”

Wait – the speechwriters had a hard time explaining the programs and theories to the policy people? What an extraordinary reversal of roles.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly who in presidential administrations comes up with certain ideas and words; how many come from speechwriters versed in rhetorical flair versus wonks who know the policy but cannot communicate it. Naturally, speechwriters defer credit. Reagan speechwriter Robinson said, "We were not creating Reagan; we were stealing from him." Reagan speechwriter Dolan said, "They’re the president’s phrases. I wrote a draft. The president gave a speech." It could be put another way: I wrote a speech, the president read the speech. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, for example, served five years as speechwriter and met Reagan only three times.  The point is that speechwriters play an integral role in determining U.S. policy and presidential posture, but unlike other thinkers in the White House, they are largely invisible and not credited (until much later), which make their role all the more intriguing, and – assuming their credentials are in rhetoric more than policy – potentially dangerous.

2 Responses to The Role of Speechwriters on Policy

  1. Krishna says:

    The *axis of evil* phrase cracked me up, really.

    The man who half-coined the phrase was speechwriter David Frum, who left the White House a few months after Bush used it. In a recent book, Frum said his assignment for the State of the Union last year was to extrapolate from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to make a case for “going after Iraq.”

    But Hussein’s Iraq wasn’t an “axis,” which in the popular mind consists of three aligned powers. To fill it in, Frum added two other troublesome nuclear wannabes — Iran and North Korea. Frum acknowledged there was no formal alliance among the three, as there had been among Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II, but argued there were still important similarities.

    It epitomizes how dim-witted speechwriters using abstract phrases, exert their own distractive influence on serious issues affecting US foreign policy that exacerbated the dangers that they were supposed to contain. Meanwhile the real enemy was still live and kicking in some cave busy releasing tapes over the media. The fancy phrases kept coming, in speeches that conveyed a surreal justification for daily bumbling setbacks in Iraq further urging American forces to prepare for War no.4 (with Iran or may be even for no.5 with North Korea, anytime soon) – all within just a couple decades.

    In the end they found no WMD in Iraq. May be the outdated intelligence satellites will track down some empty domes on top of Iranian mosques and interpret it as nuclear reactors to the by-now-confused American public. Tony Blair will have yet another kid and may retire deeper into a lucrative lecture circuit or even write a book.

    Some San Diego based soldiers stationed in Iraq will escape the wild bushfires much worrying what may have happened to their beloved families back home….

  2. Tom Kelly says:

    Am I reading you correctly?

    “evil empire”= good
    “tear down this wall”= good
    “axis of evil”= bad

    At the time the first two were uttered, plenty thought they were “bad”.

    If you only had three choices, where would you prefer to live and invest your personal resources today- North Korea, Iran, or Iraq?

    One of them appears to me to have a much brighter future than the other two.

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