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From Speeches to Tweets: Why Presidential Rhetoric Matters

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Speeches to tweets

Thursday, October 21, 2021, 5:30 - 6:30 PM

On Thursday, October 21, 2021, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate hosted former presidential speech writers from both sides of the aisle for a discussion on the importance of word choice by the President of the United States and how presidential communications have changed over time. Moderated by Tamara Keith, White House Correspondent for NPR and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast, the conversation included Ambassador Carolyn Curiel, former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton; Cody Keenan, former chief speechwriter for President Barack Obama; and John McConnell, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. The conversation touched on the differences of presidents’ speechwriting and speech-giving styles, and the impact presidential rhetoric has on news reporting.

When asked to remember a particularly challenging or extraordinary speech they had to write, John McConnell remembered how quickly the post-9/11 speech for President George W. Bush had to be drafted: “President Bush was a very serious editor, speeches generally took four to eight days, that was our general expectation. But after September 11, of course, we had a series of speeches that had to be put together really quickly, including the speech that Friday to the service at the National Cathedral, and then the speech to Congress on Thursday September 20. That speech, my colleagues Mike Gerson Matthew Scully and I got that assignment on Monday morning September 17, and we were told that the President wanted to draft by the end of that day. And we did, but that that was the rare instance when you had to turn around something very fast, but we had very good guidance on the front end from the president.”

Cody Keenan remembered a similar process that took roughly three days, but noted that President Barack Obama was more involved and considered it “a collaborative process.” Keenan shared one extraordinary speech that President Obama gave at during the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, where he led the chorus in singing “Amazing Grace”: “He stood up just after we landed and said ‘You know if it feels right. I might sing it,’ because we inserted the lyrics toward the end … So, I just kind of shrugged and said, ‘You know, you do you, man.’”

When the topic steered towards Twitter and social media as a platform for Presidential rhetoric, none of the panelists believed it was a good venue for presidential communications. “It’s a little bit like electroshock therapy,” said Ambassador Carolyn Curiel. “People go to it because they’re looking for something that will zing them … It’s supposed to inform, of course, but that’s not always going to be the case. And I’m pretty sure most people don’t click if it says, ‘read full text here’ … so you get this little bit of something that doesn’t really tell you much of anything.”

“I think we’ve seen pretty clearly that there are words you can use to damage our democracy,” said Cody Keenan. “I don’t want to dwell on it, but the first ones to come to mind were our last president denigrating pretty much anyone under the sun … it takes a toll and makes a difference.”

“President’s words do matter,” said John McConnell. “I think that every time a president gives a serious speech on a serious matter, it’s a great opportunity … I would just say to anyone in the two parties right for a precedent, especially in times like these, resist the impulse to try to hurt or provoke someone.”

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