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Veteran Presidential Campaign Speechwriters Share Insights on the Current Candidates

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Speechwriters from past political campaigns discussed the rhetoric of current presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the Professional Speechwriters Association’s third annual world conference Sept. 26-28, hosted at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

The panel was composed of David Kusnet, chief speechwriter for the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign and chief speechwriter during the first two years of the Clinton administration; Andie Tucher, campaign speechwriter for Clinton-Gore in 1992; and Lindsay Hayes, director of speechwriting for Romney for President, speechwriter for Sarah Palin, speechwriter for the Republic National Convention in 2008, and White House speechwriter in 2002. The session was moderated by political scientist Michael Cornfield.

Referencing the first presidential debate the previous night, the panelists drew on their unique experiences to compare the candidate’s remarks and speeches.

“The styles [of the two candidates] are so extraordinarily different. One candidate speaks like social media, and the other candidate speaks like the written word,” Tucher said. “When they meet in the middle it seems like they are not even on the same stage.”

During the conversation, the speechwriters spent more time talking about Trump’s rhetoric than Clinton’s style. Hayes argued that Trump speaks in a narrative that engages the anger felt by many Americans.

“What [Trump] is really doing is building a story, and the story is itself an argument,” she said. “He says ‘you, you’re hurting’ in a Bill Clinton ‘I feel your pain kind of way’ and ‘let me tell you who is responsible for that’... [and] he gives you many villains to choose from. [But] the thing about a story is [that] it has no policy point. The only endpoint of the story is not ‘some heroic thing I am going to do,’ it’s just [that] ‘the hero is me.’”

The panel continued to compare the candidates, arguing that part of Trump’s appeal is that he seems authentic.

“[The electorate] feels like [speeches] are all manufactured… [and so] they are craving an authentic moment,” Hayes said. “And what [viewers] have started to think is that restraint isn’t authentic… and for somebody like Hillary Clinton, restraint may legitimately be who Hillary Clinton is... [Viewers] like [Trump] because it is interesting to watch, it’s fun, and because it feels real.”

In response to the charge that scripted speeches often make political figures seem less genuine, Kusnet reinforced the role of the speechwriter.   

“[The job of the speechwriter is] to help [the client] find their best voice, which is an authentic voice, which is also a voice with a responsible filter and a voice that speaks not only of themselves but also speaks to the people about what they and the people can do together,” he said.