Yesterday I attended the highly illuminating and interesting discussion at George Washington University’s Morton Auditorium in which after an introduction by Geoff Shepard, formerly of the Nixon White House’s Domestic Council, five of the thirty-seventh President’s speechwriters – Ray Price, Pat Buchanan, Bill Gavin, Ken Khachigian, and moderator Lee Huebner – told an attentive audience what it was like to write for Richard Nixon. The remarks began with three-time Presidential candidate Buchanan vividly describing the tumultuous events of the mid-Sixties which preceded Nixon’s return to the political limelight after his defeat in the California gubernatorial race in 1962.
Ray Price, the President’s head speechwriter, emphasized something that is often lost sight of nowadays – that Nixon had been an accomplished debater in high school and college (and, despite his unfortunate visual appearance in the first debate with John F. Kennedy, still performed impressively in verbal combat) and, always, was highly sensitive to the power of the spoken word, always looking for a way to improve the drafts he was given and the passages he composed himself. The president “was his own best speechwriter,” Price noted.
Bill Gavin, who drafted the “I see a child…” passage in the 1968 Republican National Convention address which was one of the highpoint of the era’s political oratory, recalled how the candidate carefully changed a word here, tightened a phrase there, to give the address maxium impact.
Ken Khachigian, later head speechwriter of the Reagan White House, described the technical limitations of an age long before computers, when speeches had to be fashioned and refashioned on the typewriter, the final result a clean copy, triple-spaced and with wide margins, into which the President would sometimes insert last-minute changes. As Khachigian pointed out, RN never used a teleprompter, and never spoke from notes; he believed in careful preparation for each address.
Between the remarks of each panelist, Lee Huebner introduced videoclips of some of the most notable Nixon speeches – ranging from the 1969 inaugural address to State Of The Union appearances to the resignation speech – which ably illustrated the points made during the afternoon.
After the discussion, questions followed from the audience. Those who approached the microphone to talk included a man who acidly asked the panelists how it felt to work for a man “who should have been driven from office.” This moved Pat Buchanan to give a forceful and rather eloquent defense of RN’s Vietnam policy, which can be seen at the 1 hr 12 min point of the C-SPAN video.
Lee Huebner used that to lead into a quick discussion of the issue of how a speechwriter should handle his or her disagreements over policy or the viewpoint of the speaker for whom he or she is toiling. In this respect, Gavin mentioned a case from his days working to Sen. James Buckley of New York after leaving the Nixon White House. In March 1974, Buckley became one of the first Republican senators to call for the President’s resignation. This speech was written by James Burnham, long a prominent conservative intellectual, but Buckley asked Gavin to look at it and, although the latter disagreed with its argument and conclusion, suggested some verbal changes and improvements.
CLICK HERE to watch C-SPAN’s coverage of the forum.
Click here to view the photo gallery.
For another account of the discussion, here’s a post by Reid Davenport from the GWU student newspaper, the Hatchet.
Top Photo: Five former Nixon speechwriters participated in the 11th Nixon Legacy Forum, “Writing For 37.” Pictured (left to right): Ray Price, Pat Buchanan, William Gavin, Ken Khachigian, and Lee Huebner.