Speechwriting for a president. Writer struggles with switch from familiar Reagan style to Bush
Washington — Josh Gilder put himself on the map recently. He wrote the speech that Ronald Reagan, poised dramatically under a bust of Lenin, delivered to students at Moscow State University. The event was a highpoint of the Moscow summit.
Now Josh Gilder is working for George Bush - crafting the first of many speeches which he hopes will help put the vice-president over the top in the fall elections.
``I'm struggling with the transition, because I'm writing for a candidate versus the President,'' says the youthful Mr. Gilder, even though he is not a newcomer to the Bush operation. He worked as a Bush speechriter for two years before being tapped for the presidential job in late 1985.
The struggle is understandable. The President's delivery is so impeccable that even a bad speech can be made to sound good. Vice-President Bush, on the other hand, does not have the reputation of a good speaker, especially when he is viewed on television.
But Gilder ardently defends his candidate. ``I don't think George Bush has to be transformed,'' he commented in a makeshift office at the Bush campaign headquarters. ``People just need to see him - and they'll like him. Dukakis will need help because he's cold and, when he's angry, he doesn't look too good.''
Reagan and Bush are two very different people addressing audiences, Gilder says. Where the President is ``very controlled and perfect'' in delivery, Bush at his best ``has a passion and sweep that can carry you along.''
``Reagan is always contained,'' Gilder remarks. ``Bush is not.''
Bush, he adds, although he is younger than Reagan, is a more old-fashioned politician who got his experience on the stump in Texas, delivering extemporaneous remarks on the back of a pick-up truck five times a day. Reagan, by contrast, is a politician of the television age.
If Bush does not come through well on TV, says Gilder, his strengths lie in his knowledge of the issues and the fact that he is an honest man. ``He couldn't dissemble if he tried,'' says the speechwriter.
What themes Gilder will highlight he does not yet know, he says. He is studying the Democratic ``opponent.'' On the bare floor are newspaper clippings, with Dukakis's remarks crayoned in yellow. ``A negative campaign is an important adjunct to a positive one,'' he muses. But, he quickly adds, ``it's secondarily important. It doesn't win elections.''
It is clear that Gilder already is thinking in terms of Bush as a doer, perhaps in response to the Democrats' effort to build up Dukakis as a pragmatic manager. ``Reagan is the great visionary and Bush is the man that can implement that vision,'' he says.
He cites the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Arms) Treaty. The ``vision'' was the two-track policy of negotiation and deployment that led to the treaty. But it was George Bush who convinced the allies to move ahead with deployment of the nuclear missiles in the face of domestic opposition.
Gilder recalls a Washington Post headline at the time: ``Bush Did It.''
``We'll probably hear about that,'' he says. ``If any one man deserves credit for INF it's Bush, whose diplomatic skills and moral stand convinced the allies to deploy the missiles.''
In Gilder's experience, the American people do not care whether a president is a good or bad speaker. What they really care about is the issues. ``So the job of speechwriting is to frame those issues as clearly and succinctly as possible,'' he says. ``If we can do that, we'll win.''
A political speechwriter does not make up his own ideas, of course. He seeks to capture and embody his client's views and values. In the case of Reagan, says Gilder, he went back to the President's 1964 ``A Time for Choice'' speech in support of Barry Goldwater to understand his most fundamental views.
``As writers we had 25 years of rhetoric to draw on, most of which was written by Reagan himself - in his GE [General Electric] speeches and radio talks,'' says Gilder. ``So one part of the job is to immerse yourself in his vision and rhetoric.''
It helps, of course, to share those views. Although he attended Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts institution where he studied literature and music, Gilder is an unabashed conservative. After graduation he wrote for such conservative periodicals as American Spectator, the Wall Street Journal, and New Criterion.
After joining the White House in 1983, Gilder's first speech for Bush was for a Rose Garden ceremony celebrating entrepreneurs. Later he wrote more substantial pieces, including the speech Bush delivered at a foreign policy conference in Vienna in 1983 on Yalta, in which he declared that the West would never accept the division of Europe.
During his two years with Bush, he says, the vice-president penned a great deal himself. Sometimes he wrote out his ideas on a legal pad aboard a plane and handed it to a writer for crafting just before a public appearance.
There is an art to writing for presidents and politicians. Gilder takes issue on which - when writing for someone for who is not a brilliant speaker - short, choppy sentences are called for.
``Those are impossible to deliver,'' he comments. ``What makes a speech easy to deliver is if it's written well, if the candidate feels comfortable with the text and what's being said. ... It's the rhythm and candence rather than the length of sentences.''
Speechwriting for the President is not a solo operation. A draft speech is vetted by many people, from White House and National Security Council aides to State and Defense officials. All can and often do suggest changes. Finally, the draft is shown to the President himself, who frequently makes substantive as well as editorial changes.
While the White House has a stable of writers, many of whom earn a reputation in their own right, they do not tout their authorship of presidential speeches. The whole idea is to fashion a speech which, infused with the President's ideas and delivered with the rhythm uniquely his own, becomes ``his'' speech.
In the case of the Moscow University address, Gilder travelled to the Soviet capital before the summit meeting in order to get an idea of the surroundings. At first glance, he says, the White House thought the bust of Lenin and a red banner would have to be covered. But it was quickly realized that it would be ``dramatic to have Reagan walk into the lion's den.''
At first, says Gilder, he had writer's block, wondering how to write for such an alien audience. But then he decided to ``let Reagan be Reagan'' and ``trust that his humanity would come through the cultural and ideological barriers.''
In working on the speech, Gilder sought advice from James Billington, head of the Library of Congress and author of ``Icon and the Ax.'' He also talked with Yakov Smirnov, the Soviet 'emigr'e and standup comic who is becoming known to US audiences for his witty comments about Soviet society.
The President, Gilder says, wanted to talk about the importance of freedom and what it means. Yakov, he says, helped make the theme concrete in terms of Soviets' own experience. Reagan ended up talking about freedom in churches, freedom in the schoolroom, freedom in the courtroom. He mentioned his own experience leading a union strike as president of the Screen Actors Guild.
He spoke of the new technological or information revolution and of an emerging economy ``in which there are no bounds on human imagination and the freedom to create is the most precious natural resource.''
``We are breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny,'' the President declared.
Drawing on ideas uttered by Reagan over the decades, Gilder sought to make the speech not a ``challenge'' to the Soviet students, he says, but an ``embrace of the possibilities'' if the USSR opened up its system. Reagan praised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform effort and voiced hope for its success.
``In this Moscow spring, this May 1988, we may be allowed that hope - that freedom, like the fresh green sapling planted over Tolstoi's grave, will blossom forth at last in the rich fertile soil of your people and culture.''
Reagan's speech was laced with the names of literary and other figures, among them Gogol, Pasternak, Lomonosov, George Washington. Even an Uzbek poet - Alisher Navoi. Though Reagan could not have known about all of them, the name-dropping had a purpose.
``He's not articulating a literary essay but making a political speech,'' Gilder says. ``It's like going to a local ward and saying, 'My good friend John Doe. ... No one thinks that's his best friend but he's embracing him politically.'''
``It's important for the President to make these references, whether or not he's read Uzbek poetry,'' Gilder explains. ``The Uzbek reference was important because too often we treat Russians and [other Soviet citizens] as if they they were synonymous. We wanted to recognize the cultural diversity - especially in Islamic republics.''
The Gilder draft went into circulation twice and, unlike many other speeches, ``sailed through,'' with a few presidential changes Gilder declined to describe.
``It's one of the easiest speeches I had to work on,'' Gilder says. ``Maybe it was dumb luck or the hand of God, or maybe it's so much what Ronald Reagan likes to say ... so many of the words are his.''
For Gilder, the challenge now is to find Bush's words.