Here are some things you should know about Washington’s up-and-coming conservative speechwriters. They won’t have time to see you. Or talk to you on the phone. Or even email you, really, to let you know that they can’t talk to you on the phone and that they certainly won’t have time to see you.
Jonathan Horn, the 25-year-old speechwriter for President George W. Bush, says maybe he could meet you for lunch at Teaism, the little Asian place that sits back on H Street just across from the White House where he works.
“This sounds interesting,” he emails. “I’ll get back to you next week. I’m a bit swamped at the moment.”
Chris Michel, the 26-year-old number three speechwriter at the White House — recently promoted to “special assistant to the president for speechwriting” — is also happy to meet with you. Except that he can’t. Not right now, at least.
“I’m traveling in Canada with the president the first part of this week, but will be in touch when I return,” he writes, from his government-issued email address.
And then, later: “My turn to apologize again. I’m just slammed with all the Iraq stuff going on. Would it be ok if we waited until the week of [the] 17th? Thanks for your patience!”
Twenty-eight-year-old Chris Brose, the tall, lanky, red-headed chief speechwriter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, writes you back more than two weeks later and offers: “Terribly sorry to be so long in getting back to you. I left for vacation the day I got this and am only now digging out of about a billion emails. I would be happy to get together. Next week looks pretty free for me. What works for you?”
Even 26-year-old Elise Jordan, one of the two speechwriters who work under Brose in Secretary Rice’s office, isn’t free for a few weeks (“vacation to Mexico”), but she’s good about making phone time — anytime before 10 a.m. on her work extension, or around 10 p.m. at night, on her cell — and the most chatty and laid-back of the four.
“I know that of all the group, I am probably the most flexible, so when it comes down to scheduling, I will make myself available depending on Chris Michel and Jonathan and Chris Brose’s schedule,” she writes, helpfully. “Hope all has been well with you!”
You should also know that they’re not going to give up the goods on “the principal,” as they call their respective bosses, and that even after only a few years inside the Beltway, they’re all well-practiced in the art of circumspection and judiciousness. They will never let on if they ever disagree with the policy they write, or if they ever feel anything other than honored and privileged to be doing what they’re doing and working where they’re working.
So things were never… tense? What, with the Iraq war and the falling public approval ratings and the rather public feud between former Bush speechwriters Matthew Scully and Michael Gerson, played out in the pages of The Atlantic, of all places, and that mass exodus, right around when…
“I’ve been there for an interesting sweep of history,” Michel says, cutting you off and looking not unpleased, but like he’s heard this all before. “I came right after Iraq started. I’ve seen the excitement of the transfer of sovereignty and the Iraqi elections. I’ve been there for the nomination and confirmation of the chief justice. One of my best days in the White House was when [former staff secretary] Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a federal judge — a good friend, a lifetime appointment. I’ve gotten to travel around the world.”
“So for me, it has not been a troubled time,” he concludes.
He’s sitting at a window table in The Diner, his suit still on but his tie already yanked off and tucked in his pocket, and with his gelled blond hair and quick smile, he seems like anyone else who might be grabbing a late dinner in Adams Morgan on their way home from work. Which he is, of course, except that along with Brose, Horn, and Jordan, he’s also writing the speeches that will help shape America’s future for some time to come.
So that, at least, is what you should know about the current crop of preternaturally talented young Administration speechwriters: You can’t track them down, and when you finally do, they’re all deferential and polite, all friendly and discreet.
Otherwise, they’re a very nice bunch.
No, they tell you, their job isn’t like The West Wing, not even a little bit.
Brose, Horn, Jordan, and Michel are sitting around a long, patio table at Open City café one Sunday night, just as it’s starting to get cool, and they do seem awfully subdued for the barking, scribbling antics of Aaron Sorkin’s Pennsylvania Avenue crew.
“I’m a little overwhelmed by that description,” Horn says, laughing.
Michel agrees: “I don’t think it’s as energetic or exciting as the TV show.”
He says that the actual West Wing is much smaller, and people are never conveniently running into each other with something witty to say.
“For us, it’s very much feast or famine,” Brose says. “Running up to the Secretary’s office with another draft. Or it literally might be getting in a little late, leaving a little early, taking a nice long time to catch up.”
As for the running around, he adds, “the State Department is a much bigger building, so most of the things are done by email and phone.”
“A much uglier building,” Jordan offers. “It’s very sterile.”
“Those very long tracking shots — In the State Department, there would just be long shots of long white halls,” Brose finishes.
Listening to them go back and forth, clear distinctions begin to emerge. Horn, with his green plaid button-down and wire-rimmed glasses, is the most cautious. When Michel, his boss, mentor, peer, and friend, compliments a speech he wrote, Horn asks if the compliment can be off the record. There’s an office policy about not taking credit for speeches, he explains, and then calls you a few hours later, just to be sure.
“Hey, I wanted to thank you for getting us all together tonight,” he says, and then pauses, adding that he really hopes that compliment can be Off The Record because, well, he doesn’t want to take credit for anything, and it’s really a team effort, and even though, yes, he wrote that speech, it’s the whole office who writes the speeches, and he’s learned so much from everyone, and…”
Consider it stricken.
Jordan, with her Mississippi accent and smooth, light brown hair, seems the poster child for Good Republican Woman. She’s pretty and cute and almost porcelain in her creaminess, the kind of person who’d be easy to talk to and fun to sit next to at a dinner party. She’s also the most ingenuous of the four, giggly and honest and willing to speak without self-censoring.
Brose, then, is the least likely one. He says the best job he ever had was as a bike messenger in Philadelphia, and he still looks a bit like an overgrown Philly kid — the red Phillies cap, the white t-shirt, the loose jeans.
They all came into speechwriting in different, if equally chance, ways. Michel got an internship at the White House after he graduated from Yale in 2003, and was hired on as a researcher at the end of the summer, but it wasn’t until October of 2004 — when the new chief of staff demanded that everyone who wasn’t going to stay through the end of the administration leave, and a lot of people did just that — that Michael Gerson asked him if he wanted to take a crack at actually writing speeches. In February of 2006, he was promoted to his current job, special assistant to the president.
“I basically have the job that Scully had,” he grins, “but without all the resentments Scully had.”
Horn, too, landed a White House internship after he graduated from Yale in 2004, but his first speechwriting job was for Secretary Margaret Spellings in the Department of Education.
“I got into it a lot because of Chris,” Horn says.
Michel was his editor at Yale’s newspaper, the Yale Daily News, and he’d interned for the president the summer before Horn did. When a spot opened up at the White House in late 2006, Horn landed the job.
Jordan also entered speechwriting through the White House. After graduating from Yale, she came to D.C. to work as an assistant to Gerson’s deputy, John McConnell, and as a researcher in the speechwriting office. Through a White House connection, she heard about her current job in the State Department.
For Brose, September 11 was the pivotal moment. The Kenyon College political science major had been thinking about theory and philosophy, but after 9/11, he “decided to come to D.C. and see the more practical side.” He graduated in 2002, and moved to D.C. that summer to work for the National Interest magazine. When then Secretary of State Colin Powell was looking for a junior speechwriter, a former National Interest colleague gave Brose a heads up.
“It was completely overwhelming,” he says. “Suddenly I found myself on the top floor of the State Department, several doors down from the Secretary of State.”
More overwhelming still was the State Department at that time. Powell was feeling the backlash from his uranium speech at the United Nations the previous year, and was clearly on his way out.\
“The whole time in 2004, it was kind of holding our breath, waiting for this and that to happen,” Brose says. “The whole time I was looking at this through the lens of job security.”
“So the election happened. Ok, we got through that. Powell resigned. What happens now? Rice was nominated. Well, she’s going to have a whole army of unemployed Stanford grads.”
Brose need not have worried. He is, by all accounts, Rice’s wingman. He travels with her almost everywhere, tweaking speeches up until the last minute, and he captures her voice and vision better than anyone else.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” he says. “I wouldn’t go that far at all.”
Because, in addition to being good — and they are all good — they have to be humble.
“First thing I’ll say is, it’s a tremendous honor to do it,” Horn says, over the phone. “I feel privileged to have the chance. I get to work for someone who I really believe in.”
“I definitely am young,” he adds. “There’s no way around that. What I take away most from my age is that I’m having a real learning experience at 25, and I’m able to see things that a lot of 25-year-olds aren’t able to see.”
When talking about his first time in the Oval Office, he cuts himself off with, “I should clarify — I’m rarely, rarely in the Oval Office.”
Ditto the rest. Not that they’ve rarely been in the Oval Office, or rarely done amazing things, but they’re certainly not going to brag about it.
“I’ve definitely written plenty of bad speeches,” Jordan says, laughing.
And from Michel: “You recognize very quickly how limited your own experience is, and how impressive these people are. I’ve just viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.”
He rattles off a list of mentors and teachers: Mike Gerson, John McConnell, Brett Kavanaugh.
Michel, of course, was one of only two speechwriters, and only a handful of administration officials, who knew in advance about Bush’s surprise Labor Day stop-off in Iraq. (“I had been kind of recklessly speculating about it,” he says. “I was saying, ‘There’s no way he’s going straight to Australia without stopping in Iraq.’ I was just talking out of my ass, but…”)
Brose is also quick to self-critique.
“If I’m lucky, and if I’ve done my work, it will only go through several drafts,” he says.
This humility is part personality type, part job description, and part age. These young D.C. speechwriters are just that — young — and while they’re all quick to say that the current administration is a meritocracy where good work speaks for itself, they also know that being 20-something and asking a senior policy official old enough to be their father to be more clear with his free trade proposal is a fine line.
“You want to stay in your lane, as they say,” Michel says. “I’ve always found it useful to not be undermining someone on the policy. If you’re with someone who has spent 30 years working on the Middle East, he probably doesn’t want to hear my opinion.”
“Obviously if I wanted to step in and say, ‘I have some recommendations on our counter-terrorism policy,’ I think they’d stop taking me seriously,” he says, then laughs, and adds, “I hope they’d stop taking me seriously.”
Horn chimes in: “The flip side to that is, you’re also part of a process and able to say something that’s bigger than yourself and may make a difference. Like nobody cares what Jon Horn says. If I said it, I’d be laughed at.”
Then there is the pressure. Brose talks about starting at the State Department when he was only 24, working in an office that had already taken a chance on hiring him, and being “someone who was very unproven.”
“I felt a lot of pressure to perform and live up to the standards they had and Powell had,” he says.
He remembers working long days, in at 6:30 a.m. or so, home for dinner with his wife, and then back to work, up in his wife’s studio with a pot of coffee, and just not getting it. His speeches were getting edited and re-edited, and he just couldn’t seem to capture Powell’s voice.
“Then there was this one speech where it felt like [Powell] was giving dictation, and I was just taking it down,” Brose says, “and I felt like I was getting the tone and the ideas and the gist.”
He pauses, then says, in typical fashion: “And I think the next speech was a disaster.”
But, like a student struggling to learn a foreign language, he’d reached a turning point — the moment when suddenly the words seem to conjugate themselves, and the word you’re looking for arrives in Spanish (not English quickly translated to Spanish), and maybe you even dream in that language. Which in Brose’s case was actually the language of his boss.
Because, more than anything, being a speechwriter means writing in the voice of your boss — writing in the ideas of your boss, the language of your boss, even the two-second pauses between sentences of your boss. A good Bush speechwriter inhabits George W. Bush, not Jon Horn channeling George W. Bush, or Chris Michel doing Chris Michel with a George W. Bush twist. A good Bush speechwriter is George W. Bush.
“Speechwriters who run into trouble don’t run into trouble because they’re bad speechwriters,” Michel says. “They run into trouble because they’re not capturing the president’s voice. You have to remind yourself that you’re not writing for yourself, you’re not writing your speeches, you’re not writing your foreign policy. You’re writing the president’s foreign policy.”
Writing in the voice of their boss is something they’ve all struggled with, especially since the Yale contingent — Horn, Jordan, and Michel — all wrote, in their own voice, for the Yale Daily News.
“When I was writing for Secretary Spellings, I would take really religious notes in every meeting,” says Horn, explaining how he tried to “get” her voice. “I’d write down verbatim what she was saying, and then I’d work those phrases into speeches.”
Now, Horn does the same thing when writing for the president. As soon as he’s assigned a speech, he goes back and looks at previous speeches, focusing especially on what Bush has said before on the topic. Then he’ll do some general research, start calling policy people for their opinion, maybe read over some more transcripts, and then sit down to a first draft.
But really, it’s the transcripts, learning what the president has said before, and saying it again, in the same voice, and the same style.
“The editing process in a certain sense is a drill in learning the president’s voice,” he says. “They fix things that don’t sound like the president, and in that, you learn the president’s voice.”
Jordan cuts in.
“And just reading all the transcripts, anytime the secretary does an interview,” she says.
“My goal was never to be Chris doing George Bush,” Michel says. “My goal was to be Chris doing Mike Gerson doing George Bush. You can’t spend a lot of time around the president, but I can spend a lot of time around my boss.”
He pauses, then laughs: “My Mike Gerson. I mean, Matt Scully.”
Everyone is sitting around the table and nodding, sharing tales of people they knew who just couldn’t write in their boss’s voice, or who just didn’t want to, because they wanted to write their ideas under their name.
“At some point, sometime, somewhere, they couldn’t separate themselves from their own egos or thinking and just realized that it’s not their line of work, and there’s no shame in that,” Brose says.
But these kids can — they say age might have something to do with it; it’s easier to get someone else’s voice when you’re younger and less established — and they can all rattle off their boss’s tics and idiosyncrasies without thinking.
“I would call it: elevated but direct,” says Michel, summing up Bush’s speaking style. “Certainly he prides himself on being plain-spoken and direct. He likes short, crisp sentences. He doesn’t like pondering, meandrous, circuitous thoughts. One thing I hadn’t necessarily expected but learned quickly was he’s a real stickler for order and structure in a speech.”
Horn, without having heard Michel’s description, reiterates it almost exactly.
“The President’s speeches are very logical,” he says. “The nice thing about writing for him is you know where he’ll stand on an issue.”
Voice is important in speechwriting, and these writers are students of voice.
“You find yourself writing emails to people where you’re writing emails in the voice of the person,” Michel says, and everyone laughs. “The president likes dashes in his speeches, so I wrote a law school essay, and I showed it to someone, and they said, ‘This has a dash in every sentence!’”
“But it was very logical,” Jordan says.
“Yeah, it followed. No repetition.”
This banter, however, belies a deep emotional connection between the writer and the principal, and the speechwriters have trouble coming up with another person they’d want to write for. McCain, maybe? Another GOP 08er?
“The truth is, I haven’t really thought about that, because I’m so focused,” Horn says. “I think it’s hard to think about writing for someone else when you’re so into someone’s voice. It’s impossible to think past January 20, 2009.”
“I think you get very into the person you’re writer for,” he adds later. “You get very attached to the person, to their voice.”
Michel seems to be the most attached to Bush’s voice and Bush himself. His parents and sister have all met the president at White House Christmas parties, and he even has his own, if not-entirely-unique, nickname — Junior Bird Man. (“It’s a hunting term for the low person on the totem pole,” he explains, grinning.)
He says he “certainly” cannot see himself working for any of the 08 candidates, and even imagining himself as a speechwriter to someone else — anyone else — is difficult.
“Part of it is an emotional thing,” Michel says. “I don’t want to write for another president, but also logistically, I think it would be hard for me to get the voice of another president.”
“I’m sure I could go be a speechwriter to a governor or senator or something, but I think it would be a letdown,” he says, adding that he’s thinking about applying to law school, which “would be such a different experience that it wouldn’t be as much of a letdown.”
In fact, of the four, only Horn thinks he might want to stay in speechwriting, and even he is not entirely sure. Michel sees law school in his future — probably Yale, you get the feeling — and Jordan, who’s done stints at a small Mississippi daily and Fox News, and helped Steven Brill with his book, After, says she’s interested in journalism. Brose, though he wants to stay involved in the D.C. scene, says he doesn’t think he’ll do that through speechwriting once his tenure at the State Department is up. He’s a member of Secretary Rice’s policy planning team, he explains, not a lifetime speechwriter.
“Speechwriting has always been a means to an end for me,” Brose says. “The writing of speeches is great, and I enjoy all of that, but for me, the writing is really just a means to be involved in the policy and the ideas and to be close to that.”
Sure, they concede, there are a handful of professional speechwriters, but it’s a hard job — long hours, strict deadlines, high pressure — and also, they’re young. They want to try something different.
“I mean, Bob Shrum wrote for 7 or 8 candidates,” Michel says.
All successfully, you say.
“He writes a good concession speech.”
As the night winds down at Open City, the speechwriters start joking around. Jordan starts telling a story about the time she and Horn were chasing some story for the YDN up by the Divinity School in the middle of winter, and Horn, somehow, ended up with mono.
Michel explains how “no feedback is good feedback,” and everyone agrees.
“The president once commented that a speech was ‘adequately prepared,’ and it felt so good,” he says. “That’s about as good as you get with the president. ‘The remarks on the Supreme Court were adequately prepared.’ Thank you.”
He nods his head, one short, solemn nod.
Then the topic of laugh lines comes up. Which actually comes up, somehow, when they’re talking about their worst nightmares — the pages somehow ending up in the wrong order, getting a fact wrong, just not delivering on a speech, and, of course, writing a clunker.
“When you give a joke, and then you hear chirping in the audience, it’s like, ‘Thanks, Chris, great joke,’” Michel says.
“Applause lines that lead to no applause,” Brose says.
“You’re sitting there in your office, going ‘Oh, sh–!’”
“And moving on!”
“The good part for us is that the president is very good at telling jokes,” Horn says.
The consensus is that if Bush is trying to be funny, the audience will generally try to laugh. Self-deprecating jokes are trickier.
“I was worried he was going to call me up and say, ‘Who is this 22-year-old a—–e who’s telling me this?’” Michel says, but adds that Bush is pretty good about jokes about his time as a student.
“What did the president say to you?” Michel asks, turning to Horn.
Bush, it seems, can give as good as he gets.
“I was sitting in the Oval Office, looking very stern.”
Horn hunches over the table, curling his shoulders and jutting out his chin.
“And they were saying, ‘This speech has a joke,’ and the president was asking, ‘Who’s writing the joke?’ and someone said, ‘Well, Jon is writing the joke,’ and the president looked at me and said, ‘Looks like a funny guy!’”
And on the topic of Elis seeming to dominate the D.C. ranks of young speechwriters (Laura Bush’s speechwriter is also a recent Yale grad):
“I do think there are more Yale people in the administration that you would think,” Jordan says, and the group goes from there.
“But not an unhealthy amount.”
“I don’t think we want to get into a debate about if there’s an ‘unhealthy’ amount of Yale people at the White House.”
“Yale is a bastion of conservative thought.”
Only the waitress, check in hand, cuts them off. They reach into their pockets and start puzzling over the bill. Michel has it at one point, then it gets passed to Horn, who stares at it some more.
“Speechwriters: Not math geniuses,” Brose says.
“That’s why we’re policy people,” says Horn, before passing the bill along.
– Ashley parker is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin