WASHINGTON — At "speech prep" sessions in the Oval Office, President Clinton reviews a draft with his aides, felt-tip pen in hand, glasses perched down his nose - and a fuzzy boom mike pointed in his direction.
The man holding the microphone is chief speechwriter Michael Waldman. His tape recordings are his insurance that he won't miss a possible Clintonian riff or verbal nuance. Having served Bill Clinton for seven years, he knows the best speeches are those that play back the natural phrases the president himself uses.
"If someone says to me, 'Michael, that was a great speech, it really sounded like you,' then I've failed," says Mr. Waldman. After writing or editing nearly 2,000 presidential speeches, he shut down his White House computer for the final time last week.
Waldman says he wants to spend more time with his family, and he's off to teach a seminar at Harvard University until he figures out the next step.
Unlike many speechwriters in the modern presidency, however, this one belongs to that school of wordsmiths who still live by the unwritten oath of anonymity. "You don't want to do anything that takes the spotlight away from the president's message," says the self-effacing penman.
He still has plenty to say about his role as chief "collaborator" on speeches, and about working in the shadow of a man some consider a more gifted communicator than Ronald Reagan. According to Gene Sperling, economic adivser to the president, Waldman "shines" at the State of the Union, an admittedly long speech but one that political observers say Clinton uses effectively.
During the months-long planning and drafting process, "Michael keeps everyone on track," says Mr. Sperling. He effectively herds a stampede of personalities - including Clinton, of course - who all want their ideas incorporated into the most important policy address of the year.
A collaborative process
"Writing for this president is at best a very collaborative process. It's hard to even know where [one person's] line begins and where it ends," says Waldman.
A case in point is the 1998 State of the Union. In a final draft kept secret from all but a handful of senior aides, the president implored Congress to "save Social Security first," a plea he repeated this year. An earlier draft merely stated "Social Security first." Clinton's addition of the word "save" at a rehearsal "made all the difference," recalls Waldman.
That speech, he adds, also illustrates how Clinton has come to rely on the bully pulpit to pressure an opposition-controlled Congress. Up until the president sprang the saving Social Security idea, the talk on the Hill was tax cuts. In the moment when House Speaker Newt Gingrich stood up and applauded the president, "billions of dollars shifted in the budget from the tax-cut category to the Social Security category," says Waldman.
A lawyer by training, Waldman directed Public Citizen's Congress Watch, a Ralph Nader group. After working on the Clinton campaign, he joined the White House domestic policy staff. He became chief speechwriter in 1995.
The public impression that Clinton is such a gifted speaker that he doesn't need a text is not quite accurate, according to White House officials. While he may ad lib at fund-raisers, and even at some policy events, there are many times when precision counts and he sticks close to the text.
Last September, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was extremely nervous about the potential market impact of a Clinton speech on how to contain the world financial crisis. Rubin didn't calm down until he learned that Waldman personally was writing the speech.
Fun with TelePrompTers
Clinton, says Waldman, "really understands speechwriting. For him, giving a speech is not just intuition, it's a craft also." Waldman cites Clinton's deep knowledge of history, the Bible, and poetry - all tools in a speechwriter's workshop.
But the job also has its challenges, of course. Around the White House, the joke is that Waldman's time as head speechwriter could be subtitled "Fun with TelePrompTers."
In the 1997 State of the Union, for instance, Waldman made one simple change on his laptop in the motorcade to the Capitol. When he inserted the updated disk into the TelePrompTer, the entire speech turned into one huge paragraph. As Clinton worked his way through lawmakers to the podium, Waldman worked frenetically to insert hundreds of paragraph marks.
"There's always some problem," says Waldman, recalling the president's announcement of the end of the Yugoslavia bombing campaign. Before that address, broadcast live, Clinton made heavy edits that left his speechwriter feeding the TelePrompTer at the last minute.
Political experts agree with Waldman that Clinton stands apart from other presidents in his conversational style of public speaking. And because of the presence of 24-hour cable news channels and Internet outlets, he makes far more public statements than his predecessors did.
"The president's style is highly conversational. It's extraordinarily effective with audiences," says Benjamin Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
But Barber also sees a tradeoff. On paper, conversation doesn't carry much weight. Other presidential speechwriters have simply gotten a sense of their presidents, and then written for history.
That results in memorable phrases such as "Ask not what your country can do for you" (John Kennedy), and "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" (Franklin Roosevelt). What's the most remembered Clinton phrase? Probably his finger-wagging denial in the Lewinsky affair - hardly the verbiage he'd like immortalized.
But Waldman doesn't see it this way. The president, he says, was eloquent in his Oklahoma bombing speech. And his 1996 proclamation that "The era of big government is over" redefined the Democratic party.
This, though, is a debate he can continue with his Harvard students at the Kennedy School of government.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society