Portrait Of A Nixon Speechwriter
Aram Bakshian, Jr. was a rhetorical strategist and essential member of President Nixon’s speechwriting team. He worked his way up through the ranks in the sixties and early seventies as a speechwriter for Bob Dole (then chair of the RNC) and a conservative commentary writer for publications such as The National Review and New York Times. In 1972, senior members of the Nixon administration invited Bakshian to join the staff. He served as a speechwriter for Nixon through the end of his term, assumed a similar role when Gerald Ford took office, and served for a third administration when Ronald Reagan was elected. Today, Bakshian is the editor in chief of American Speaker.
In 1976, Occidental College professor Gage William Chapel interviewed Bakshian for an article that appeared in the Journal of Communication. Here are some of the insights that he shared when asked about the speechwriting process in the Nixon administration:
In addressing staff operations, he said, “There’s one writer who coordinates the whole thing, but the input may come from many people, even on middle range speeches. But at any time the President is going to say anything that involves policy, it will end up going through between three to eight drafts, even more in some cases. And someone from the Domestic Council or National Security Council will be looking at it, the budget people will be going over it, and there’ll be constant changes. There’ll be a dozen or more people that’ll receive circularized copies of the several drafts.”
When asked if the committee approach resulted in a watered-down compromise, he replied, “The same basic principles apply to policy making and speechwriting. In terms of policy, the budget people, concerned from the budget point of view, haggle with the program people who want new programs. There’s also a tendency among the program people, when there is a conflict, to want the speech to say as little as possible. Therefore, strong commitments get objected to by these specialists.” He added, “When we think of the famous addresses and the very decisive, sharp rhetoric of the past, it’s usually been either in time of war or when the topic concerned very fundamental issues that didn’t involve level upon level of bureaucracy.”
In describing Nixon’s strengths as a speaker, his rhetorical assets, and his rhetorical limitations, Bakshian explained, “In terms of his limitations, he had trouble being light. His most successful speeches were serious moments when he addressed issues on which he was credible. By the time you’re president, it’s no longer whether you’re that good a speaker in the abstract, but what your public persona is, where you’re credible, and where what you are saying seems to make sense to an audience.” Additionally, “When he was at his best, he had a lawyer’s ability to organize and structure his case and state it decisively. And he had a good radio voice.”
Aram Bakshian was truly a gem of a presidential speechwriter.