From the school house to the White House: In an exclusive interview with TNN, William Gavin recounts his storybook rise from high school English teacher to presidential wordsmith, and how he honed his craft as a protégé of America’s 37th President. His new memoir, Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric hit bookshelves in November.
Speechwright is interesting and unique in that it’s both an autobiography and a guide to the craft of speech writing. What inspired you to write a book of this scope?
Serendipity, pure and simple. In 2000, I was looking for a document in my files and came across an old manuscript I had given up as hopeless. But I saw some things I liked, so I did a lot of cutting and re-writing. The result was an article in The Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2001, “His Heart’s Abundance: Notes of a Nixon Speechwriter”. That was the genesis of Speechwright.
What is a “speechwright?”
I believe writing speeches is something less than an art, but something more than a mechanical exercise. I prefer to think of it as a craft, and that is why I prefer the word “speechwright” instead of the usual “speech writer”. A speechwright puts together a speech out of separate pieces (introductions, one-liners, policy statements, jokes, exhortations to action, contributions made by policy experts or other writers, the boss’s additions and deletions to the drafts), the way a wheelwright puts together a wheel. Authors write to make something lasting and beautiful; speechwrights hammer, drill, saw, and otherwise push around words to craft something ephemeral but useful.
What sparked your interest in political rhetoric?
I was born and grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, where, under the Democratic Party machines of The Boss of Bosses, Mayor Frank Hague, and his successor (and enemy), John V. Kenny, hard-ball politics was part of everyday life. Like most boys, I was not interested in politics and knew little about it. But in Jersey City politics was in the very air we breathed (along with the usual urban industrial pollutants), so when I started to pay attention to politics, it was natural for me to listen to the words politicians used, and wonder why and how they used them.
At the heart of my youthful reading was fiction. From famous writers like James T. Farrell, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and John O’Hara (especially his Appointment in Samara) to best-selling books like Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, I read omnivorously, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I might add I learned a lot from John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths, an examination of the philosophical foundation of the United States, seen from a sophisticated, balanced, scholarly understanding of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the philosophy of natural law.
And then, one night, an epiphany: quite by accident, I came upon William F. Buckley, Jr. being interviewed on television. I had never heard him speak, although I was vaguely aware he had written a notorious book, God and Man at Yale. What could a Yale snob who talked like Little Lord Fauntleroy have to say to me? At first I found him affected and slightly ridiculous, but as the interview continued I began to listen to what he was saying in that unique aristocratic drawl. I liked what I heard. The wit, the easy manner, the civility, the reasonable, if not always persuasive, arguments–all quite captivating. I subscribed to National Review and, in 1960, had my first paid article published in the magazine, a satire on Japanese student riots called “Rave, New World”. (Oh well, it sounded clever at the time). I began telling people I was conservative, although I was not totally sure what that meant.
It is difficult to explain how important National Review was to me in its early, scrappy, confident, irreverent, tough-minded, happy-warrior days. Every two weeks I awaited the newest issue and read it straight through, learning about conservative principles not in some text-book fashion but in the slam-bang, head-on collisions of clashing ideas and current controversies that constituted NR’s unique glory. Those ideas and controversies were not always about the magazine’s differences with liberalism. Many of the most fervent arguments were among conservatives themselves as they tried to define and explain conservatism from differing viewpoints. So National Review was not simply a by-the-numbers catechism of conservative principles but an intra-family battleground where arguments over freedom and virtue and libertarian and traditional values were fought. There was a lot I had to learn and NR proved to be my post-graduate school of political and cultural education.
I learned that sometimes important arguments are not those you have with your opponents but with your allies (the most important, of course, are the arguments we have with ourselves). NR proved to be my post-graduate school of political and cultural education.
How did you become part of the Richard Nixon’s speech writing team?
One day in April, 1967, in the University of Pennsylvania library, I read a magazine article portraying Nixon as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968. This was not a consensus view at the time, and the argument for Nixon deeply impressed me. Although he was held to be ritually impure by most activist conservatives, I had always found him intriguing. I had, in fact, cast my presidential vote for him in 1960, a decision frowned upon by members of my family who took their Democratic politics straight, no chaser. When I left the library that day, I went back to my office at the Graduate School of Education, where I worked in a Master Teachers program, and quickly typed a letter to Nixon, urging him to run for president. Here, in part, is what the letter said:
Dear Mr. Nixon:
May I offer two suggestions concerning your plans for 1968? 1. Run. You can win. Nothing can happen to you, politically speaking, that is worse than what has happened to you. Ortega y Gasset says in “The Revolt of the Masses: “. . these are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission . . .”. You, in effect, are lost. That is why you are the only political figure with the vision to see things the way they are and not as leftist or rightist kooks would have them. Run. You will win . . . Good luck, and I know you can win if you see yourself for what you are: a man who has been beaten, humiliated, hated, but who can still see the truth.”
Near the end of May I received a letter from Leonard Garment, a lawyer in the Nixon Mudge firm. He said he was impressed by my letter and that I should have a talk with him. So in June I went to New York and met Len. Aside from being an excellent lawyer, he was a talent scout for Nixon’s political operation. Len was fast-talking, witty, friendly, and a fellow jazz lover, not at all the idea I had of a Wall Street lawyer. He was a birth-right Brooklyn Jewish non-ideological liberal and I was a street corner conservative Irish Catholic from Jersey City. We were outsiders among Republican insiders, but we had one thing in common: we both admired Nixon for his brains and his grace under pressure (see the Hiss case for details). Len suggested I send him anything that came into my head–slogans, one liners, ideas, gimmicks, anything. That, essentially, is how my speech writing career started, not with complete speech drafts or even inserts for speeches, but with little things, words and phrases, and especially one-liners.
Can you describe the first time you met Richard Nixon?
In December of 1967, my wife Katherine and I received an invitation to a Christmas party at the Nixons’ Fifth Avenue apartment. When we walked out of the elevator, which opened to the apartment itself, Nixon was standing amidst a crowd, unmistakable, even with his back toward us. He shook hands, looked me in eye, grinned and said: “Oh, yes, Bill Gavin, the one liner man.” So there I was, sipping wine at a party given by Richard and Pat Nixon. Being a study-hall monitor in Abington High School was nothing like this.
You talk about the importance of writing to the voice of your speaker. What was President Nixon’s voice?
Richard Nixon had two great strengths as a speaker, aside from his fierce, manifest intelligence. First, he had the ability to deliver a rousing speech, a talent honed in decades of speech making, all over the country, on the Republican political “rubber chicken” circuit. Second, he had a good voice, maybe even a great one for a politician. Time Magazine once called his unique sound “a buttery baritone”, smooth, rich, and masculine. I believe his voice was superior to that of any president in my lifetime.
President Nixon liked your ability to write with “heart”. What did he mean by that? How did you relate your style to his voice?
I think heart meant to him a quality of writing that evoked aspects of what I later came to think of as “depth rhetoric”, words and images that are derived from and speak to the imagination rather than to the intellect. Heart is not necessarily eloquence because its object is not to provide a quick thrill but to take the listener away from the everyday world of politics into the hidden word of myth and mystery that lies just below the surface. Nixon did exactly that in his 1968 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Miami.
You were the central contributor to the 1968 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. What did you help him write?
Just before the 1968 acceptance speech I sent in a few paragraphs to Nixon about the importance of American children. In the speech, he developed the children theme, speaking of the blighted lives of some American kids. And then he delivered what many believe is the most moving passage of the speech (and it was all Nixon; he used what I had given him, but then wrote something I had never thought of):
But this is only part of what I see in America. I see another child. He hears the train go by at night and dreams of far away places he would like to go. It seems an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything so that his sons could go to college. A gentle Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, wept quietly when he went to war but understood why he had to go. A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way. A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and defeat. In his chosen profession of politics, first scores, then hundreds, then thousands, and finally millions worked for his success. Tonight he stands before you–nominated for President of the United States. You can see why I believe so deeply in the American Dream.
He read the words with precision, with conviction, and, most importantly, he had a propulsive rhythm going, the words moving inexorably forward, no hesitations, no glitches, until he reached the culminating line about the American dream. There was an instantaneous roar from the crowd, and he had a slight smile on his face, but it was not one of triumph. He didn’t have to gloat. He had nailed it. For a man whose critics condemned him for cold-blooded political decision-making, lack of feeling, and an obsession with the gritty details of political maneuvering, he had taken a risk in talking about something deep beneath the surface of political programs and policies, a place where dreams and fears and longings live. This was the kind of thing Nixon had avoided during his career. His heart was not a place he liked to visit publicly, and he offered no guided tours. But he had taken the chance, and won.
What did he say to you after the speech?
On Friday morning, August 9, 1968, the day after the acceptance speech, in the American Scene Room of the Hilton-Plaza hotel in Miami Beach. Nixon, thanked his campaign workers for our hard work. He was on his way out of the ballroom when one of his aides said to me, “Gavin, we‘ve been looking for you. The Boss wants to speak to you.” Nixon walked over, put his arm around my shoulder–a most uncharacteristic gesture by this most private of men–and, smiling broadly, guided me away from his cheering, whistling, applauding crowd of admirers. My fellow campaign aides looked on in amazement and, I suspect, incomprehension. Why was the brand-new 1968 presidential candidate of the Republican Party, a world-class political figure, talking privately with this guy? Nixon kept his right hand on my shoulder and said, with a big smile, “I just want to thank you for your contribution last night. You could tell I used your themes. After the speech I was looking for you, but we couldn’t find you.”
We talked about the speech, and then he said words that changed my life and the life of my family:
Now Bill, I know I haven’t been using a lot of your stuff recently, but I can’t overdo it or else I’ll sound corny. I don’t want to sound corny. But I want you to make the campaign tour. You’ll be on the plane with Buchanan and Price and Safire. You write with heart. There aren’t many who can write with heart.
Nixon did not have to take the time to talk with me. There were no cameras present, no media. The incident never was reported in the press. There was no political payoff in his kindness, no hidden agenda. He, one of the most important people in the world, came looking for an obscure staffer at the magic moment of a great, improbable triumph, to say thanks, and he did it solely out of the kindness of his heart, a motive his fierce and (still) unforgiving enemies could never comprehend. It is hard for me to imagine any other presidential candidate in either party, in my lifetime, who would have done what he did that morning.
In April, Gavin participated in a special Nixon Legacy Forum with fellow Nixon White House speech writers Ray Price, Pat Buchanan, Lee Huebner, and Ken Khachigian. Broadcast on C-SPAN, “Writing For 37” featured vintage footage of the President’s most important speeches.
Does the speech giver have to be a speechwright? Was Richard Nixon a speechwright?
He was very much a speechwright, and a good one. At one point in the 1968 campaign, all the writers got a memorandum (“From: RN”), outlining what he wanted for the rest of the tour:
“I don’t think we are yet hitting the mark,” he wrote. He then offered some general guidelines:
“Don’t be cute or gimmicky–just hit hard with crisp one-liners whenever they are appropriate. . . most of our excerpts suffer from not being current and livelier. This could be corrected by simply spending a little more time reading the daily news summaries and zeroing in on some of those problems . . . we should drop in regular statements, about two a week from now on, that are meaty, substantive, they will not have any impact on voters but they will impress the press.”
Nixon’s memo can still serve as a handbook for political speech writers, especially during a campaign: Hit the mark. Hit hard. Be crisp. Zero in. Don’t be cute or gimmicky. Be current. Put your opponent on the defensive. Try to shape press coverage.
Tactical. Direct. Doable. Pure working rhetoric. Pure Richard Nixon. He was content to make solid arguments with his words, so he could get the chance to make history with his actions.
The original Nixon White House speech writing team with the President (left to right): Ray Price, Lee Huebner, Pat Buchanan, William Gavin, James Keogh, and Wiliam Safire.
How would you rate President Nixon among the great American political orators?
I do not think of President Nixon as an “orator” a word which has overtones of old-fashioned, nineteenth century grandiloquence, bombast, and “speaking-to-posterity“ grandeur. He could deliver a rousing speech with the best of them, but to me his heart and his mind were concerned chiefly with the problems directly before him. He usually did not aim for the big, sweeping rhetorical moment–although he could pull it off when he had to– but he wanted a speech to be something more than a friendly chat. Time and again, during his presidency, he went beyond mere political goals and spoke to deeper aspects of political reality. Yes, he could be eloquent when he needed to, but I think at heart he was what President Eisenhower used to call “a meat and potatoes” speaker.
What is President Nixon’s greatest legacy?
I believe his legacy falls into three categories:
–His comeback, from 1962 to 1968 is the greatest in American history, and students of politics will be –or should be–reading about how he did it for years to come.
–In 1969, when Nixon came to office, he was opposed by the most powerful political force in America, then and now–the left liberal media-academic-political complex. But four years later President Nixon won an overwhelming victory over a candidate who clearly articulated and fervently believed in the message of Nixon’s most savage enemies. His victory under such circumstances is unique in American history, and shows that intelligence, persistence, courage and fortitude can achieve victory over what appear to be insurmountable odds.
— His success in foreign affairs, involving a mixture of “soft force” (the opening to China) and hard force (the bombing that brought the Vietnamese Communists to the negotiating table) was a masterwork of experience, skill, and an uncanny sense of timing. In the tired phrase we use today, Nixon was always willing to “think outside the box”. No one else in his generation of leaders–and certainly no one today– could have achieved what he did in foreign affairs.
— He came within a hairsbreadth of creating a lasting new majority, combining traditional Republican votes with those of previously Democratic union, ethnic, and religious groups. He targeted voters with traditional conservative values who didn’t like what left ideologues had done to the Democratic party. His astounding success in 1972 wasn’t an accident. President Nixon knew that these voters, the heart of the New Deal coalition, were ready to make the big switch.
Watergate, of course, is not part of his legacy, but it is part of his history. Pathological Nixon haters still claim that Watergate was the inevitable result of Nixon’s fatally flawed character. To them, Watergate defines Nixon, the Great Satan. Others, and I count myself among them, see Watergate as a tragic, avoidable, unfortunate, but aberrant series of uncharacteristic blunders and misjudgments made by one of the great political minds in American history. But the legacy that I have listed above cannot be denied by any fair-minded observer.
Click here to read Gavin on his memories of President Nixon’s kindness.
A perfect gift! Get Speechwright just in time for Christmas. Click here to order now.
Photo: President Nixon, House Minority Leader Robert Michel (center), and William Gavin (right) in Michel’s Capitol Office in 1990. After writing for RN, Gavin wordsmithed for Michel, Senator James Buckley, and President Ronald Reagan.