Interview with Jeff Nussbaum

The first speech Jeff Nussbaum wrote was to defend himself against suspension from high school. It was unsuccessful. Since then, Jeff has served as a senior speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, and most recently served as Vice President Joe Biden’s speechwriter on the Obama-Biden campaign in 2008. He’s been profiled by Rolling Stone and is currently a principal at West Wing Writers—a private PR firm established by former White House staffers.

Here’s a transcript of a chat we had back in 2007—Barack Obama was still a Senator, Kevin 07 was in full-swing and people were still using MySpace.

Firstly, tell us a little about West Wing Writers. What do you do, and why did you start up?

Not to sound like our promotional materials… well, actually to sound exactly like our promotional materials,  in January 2001 three of President Clinton’s speechwriters essentially took the White House speechwriting operation, and moved it to the private sector.  I joined these former colleagues of mine a couple of years later, after I had completed a stint with Senator Tom Daschle (who was the Majority Leader in our Senate at the time) and co-authored a couple of books.

Because the activity of speechwriting, at least as we practiced it, existed at the nexus of research, strategy, policy, and communications, we now work for people in business, philanthropy, entertainment, and politics who also see their public presentations as similarly strategic, and we help them to advance their message and promote their goals.

 

So, speeches matter. Churchill’s oratory is understood to have had an immense impact upon the British suffering through the Blitz; Eisenhower’s farewell speech introduced the world to the murkiness of the Military-Industrial complex. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was, well, brilliant, and even Bush 43 had his moments following S/11. On that matter, I’m reminded of two other moving speeches given just days after that tragedy by two TV funny men—David Letterman and Jon Stewart. What makes a great speech, and are catastrophic circumstances necessary for its birth? What are some of your, dare I say, favourites?

Well, you’ve run through a greatest hits list, for sure.  And you make a good point that most great oratory seems to rise in the aftermath of tragedy, but I would argue that it’s in the aftermath of tragedy that most people are listening.  So really what you’re talking about isn’t the aftermath of a tragedy but a very clear sense of occasion.  Venues matter.  Time and place and historical context matter.  I always tell clients that a successful speech is one that puts their efforts in the broader sweep of history.  In essence, I’m telling them to create that sense of occasion, the idea that we’re at a moment of choice and possibility.

As for my favourite speeches, I’ll refrain from recommending specifics—but they fall into these categories: any eulogy that can make me laugh or cry about someone I didn’t know, any wedding toast that can tell me something new about someone I do know, and any university commencement remarks that offer true wisdom.  They must also satisfy another criterion—they must be under 7,4, or 15 minutes, respectively.

 

It seems that all political speeches are some ratio of idealism and pragmatism. What are the conditions required for a speech to be, say, more parts idealistic, or vice versa?

Speechwriting is both an art and a craft, and on the craft side of things I actually find real value in a technique called “Monroe’s Motivated Sequence,” which was developed in the 1930s by a Professor named Alan H. Monroe.  The sequence has five pieces that a successful speech will include:

1. Get attention:  Monroe argued that no matter how compelling your ideas they wouldn’t persuade people who weren’t paying attention.  Audiences are fickle.  You need to get them absorbed as close to the first sentence as possible.

2.  Present your problem:  Most persuasive speeches want to convince audiences that something is true, a good idea, or something to value.  But why is that important?  Only if the idea solves a problem important to the audience.  This gives the typical persuasive speech a problem-solution format.  Before presenting your good idea, you need to convince the audience they need it by outlining the problem it solves—and making it seem urgent.

3.  Present your solution:  Now they’ll be willing to listen to your ideas.  But you have to use evidence to show them it’s good.

4.  Describe vision of the future:  It’s not enough to show how you can solve a problem.  To truly motivate an audience, Monroe advocated showing them what the future would be like once your idea was adopted.

5.  Call to action:  Why let your audience off the hook?  If they agree with you, get them to do something about it.  And so Monroe suggested ending by urging them to act.

That’s a long way to get to answer your question, which is how you make something more idealistic or pragmatic.  To me, that comes down to the relative emphasis you put on step three versus step four—the ratio of solution to vision.

 

Let’s turn to strategy in speech-making: if we view the current 8 Democratic Presidential candidates, and the 8 Republicans, as having their own assured bases of voters, and as having potential claim to others, what is the level of research and strategy required for the speechwriters of a candidate? I’m thinking of the volatility of appeal—the need to be aware of this great juggling act.

Certainly, campaigns take a lot of time trying to figure out who a persuadable voter is, and a pollster can tell you who that person is empirically.  But if finding new groups of voters feels like a “juggling act,” a candidate is already doing something wrong, because “juggling” implies trying to be different things to different people.  The trick is to unite different groups of people around a common vision—working to articulate that common vision is where a speechwriter’s strategic value is really felt.

 

What about John McCain’s speeches and campaign style? His “Straight Talk Express” drummed up support and national attention in former campaigns, and yet now it’s possible that he’ll have to drop out of the race before the primaries even begin. Was “Straight Talk” simply insufficient in the face of McCain’s continued support for the war in Iraq?

Actually, it’s not that straight talk was insufficient, nor is it the unpopularity of the war alone.  American voters have a pretty high tolerance for a leader with whom they disagree on some issues, so long as those disagreements are honourably reached and purely held.  John McCain’s problem, in my view, is that in trying to become a better—more conservative—candidate for the Republican primaries, he sacrificed his greatest appeal, which was his willingness to be a truth-telling iconoclast within his own party.  If you can’t vote for John McCain the maverick, why vote for John McCain at all?

 

You were a speechwriter for Al Gore during his Vice-Presidency, and most of your colleagues have worked as political writers in the public sphere. Has the move to the private sector changed how you work?

We often asked ourselves how we would find a similar level of purpose if our work wasn’t in the public sector, and the truth is that helping a company change their behaviour—for the better—provides real excitement and satisfaction.  So, in that sense, not a huge amount has changed.

 

And, on Al Gore, I have to ask: are you still in his employ?

Nope, though I continue to hold him in the highest esteem.  He has had more success as a prophet than as a politician, and I hope the world will be better for that success.

 

The Washington Post recently ran a long 6-part expose on Dick Cheney which was really damning. Hendrik Hertzberg, a political editor at the New Yorker, read it, and then described Cheney as being “pathologically secretive”. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about that anymore. What does this mean for Cheney’s speechwriters? Does their role differ much from, say, yours, when you worked within the Clinton administration?

Those articles spoke more to how he holds the levers of power, while his speechwriters help him operate in the public sphere.  So, in a sense, their role isn’t that different from what mine was.  The real differences are probably personal – does he see the people who writer for him as true collaborators or low-level scribes.  Lord knows, I’ve been treated as both.  That said, I’m sure Cheney’s quasi-apocalyptic worldview gives his speechwriters more leash to paint terrifying images of “mushroom clouds,” attack political detractors as “unpatriotic,”  and the like.

 

It may be that Bush’s unpopularity—the gradual erosion of faith in his underlying “action is much more important than words” ethos—may provide a more hopeful arena for future political discourse, if only as a swing away from this administration. Barack Obama, for instance, seems like a gifted writer and speaker. Are his gifts going to be more highly sought and appreciated given Bush’s funk? Or is this too hopeful?

I hope it’s not too hopeful.  One of the things I admire about Senator Obama is that his personal writing is powerfully introspective.  It’s been a long time since we’ve seen any personal reflection in the Oval Office.

 

The CNN/YouTube debate—where the 8 Democratic candidates were questioned by people appearing in 39 YouTube videos—received a lot of attention, but largely for the debate’s structure, rather than its substance. If attention was paid to the substance, you would note that the candidates’ responses were in no way different than those offered in a traditional debate—they all gave canned answers. This is hardly surprising, but can we lean further on the internet or so-called citizen journalism to demand more from the mouths of our politicians?

I disagree with your premise.  I loved the YouTube debate.  I thought the questioners were really sharp and direct, which served two purposes—it made you realize how spineless the media questioners are, and it made it all the more clear when the candidates were failing to answer the question.  As a result, you saw more real answers in that debate than any of the previous ones.

In that sense, citizen journalism is a real positive.  But until blogs and meet-ups and virtual campaigns show the ability to deliver real votes, the true potential of this technology won’t be realized.

 

We’re in a Federal election year here, in Australia, and a lot of attention has been given to the Opposition party (the Australian Labor Party) making use of MySpace. Given media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s quote “the medium is the message” (or “massage”) what are the strategic functions of the internet in political communication?

I recently wrote a column asking why, if you can make your announcement speech online, and do practically everything else that way, why not just skip speeches (and other real interactions) entirely?

My premise is that those technologies are still enhancing technologies.  They help you communicate faster and without filter, but they’re still better at getting you in front of existing supporters than earning you new ones.  However, social networking sites like MySpace do have the potential to change that, and that’s why you’re seeing Labor—and a whole lot of other people—there.

 

Finally, what does your office look like? Is there a copy of Lincoln’s writings in there somewhere?

No, no copies of Lincoln’s writing, but we do have some neat political memorabilia, including a ticket to FDR’s second inaugural speech.  We also have a bunch of classic advertising posters for typewriters (we’re not luddites, but sometimes we act that way), a bunch of New Yorker Magazine covers and cartoons poking fun at speeches or speechwriters, and framed magazine covers featuring our more photogenic clients.

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