Speechwriting for a president. Writer struggles with switch from familiar Reagan style to Bush
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.