Interviews – Jeffrey Shesol

Jeffrey Shesol, 30, worked as deputy chief speechwriter for US president Bill Clinton from 1998 – 2000. Before this he wrote books on political history and reviews and opinion pieces for magazines and newspapers. He also wrote and drew Thatch, a syndicated political comic strip that appeared daily in 150 US publications

How did you became a presidential speechwriter?
I had written a book on a feud between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy published in the fall of 1997. A couple of months later I got a handwritten note from President Clinton, saying he was reading the book and enjoying it. About a month later I got a phone message from the chief speechwriter at the White House, asking if I would consider a speechwriting position that had come up. After a long lunch together, I left thinking that not only would I enjoy the job, but actually possessed the skills to do it. I started in March 1998.

Does the White House have a standard method of recruiting?
No. We all come from various backgrounds. Some speechwriters are journalists, others, speechwriters for cabinet members, and others have come from magazine backgrounds.

Do you have to be of Clinton’s political persuasion?
You have to be pretty comfortable with the ideological angle of this administration, but there is no litmus test.

What does the job involve?
You get an assignment and are told where the speech will be. You determine exactly what it is you should say about that subject. I will have discussions with a range of political advisors about the issues involved to try to decide what exactly we want to convey. The challenge is to bring everything together and put it down on one page. It is my job to tease out the contradictions.

How many speechwriters are there?
Six at present, with one chief speechwriter. I am his deputy.

Are you all wise old men?
Not at all. I’m 30, but we have had speechwriters as young as 25. There are people in other positions — research directors, or executive assistants for instance who are in their early twenties.

How much input does Clinton have on a speech?
It is a rare day when the President will stand up and read what we’ve written word for word. He is a terrific speechwriter and a careful editor and very interested in the process itself. On the podium he is a remarkable guy to watch — he will add or improvise as he goes along. We all genuinely regard him as being the best speech writer in the audience — and no one knows an audience like he does. Reagan saw the importance of speeches, whereas Bush failed to appreciate them as much.

Do you have much personal contact with Clinton
Yes we do. He’s a very accessible president to all the people that work in the building. Reagan hardly ever saw his speechwriters. We all take it for granted. It’s important because we spend the majority of our time trying to inhabit his head, so contact is vital. If I write a speech, I will go and brief the President personally. On a big speech one might have several meetings with him.

Are there any bad points to your job?
The least gratifying experiences are when the President gets up and says to an audience, ‘You know I’ve got this speech here, but I’d really just like to talk to you guys.’ He will push it to the side of the podium and all that work is effectively for nothing.

Did you write for the President during the Monica Lewinsky affair?
In those fraught times he did much of his own work. There were lawyers involved and obviously a case in the courts, so it wasn’t really a speech-writing issue.

Is the White House a frustrating or a fantastic place to work?
Both of those things all of the time. It is exhilarating for all the obvious reasons, and at the same time exhausting. You live in fear of the buzz of the pager, as you never know how quickly you might have to respond. News is now a 24-hour thing and we have to be ready at all times.

How different is the White House from a normal office?
I haven’t got a lot of office experience, but I think the office politics here are no different from any office. The difference is the people you work with are the best at what they do.

Are you well paid?
Reasonably so for public office, but speech writers in the private sector are far better compensated. Mine is not a job you do for the money.

Do you have any opinions about the forthcoming election?
My instinct is that Vice-President Gore is in a strong position. I think he’s right on the issues, and that will count for more than anything else that might be considered. He is definitely ready to be President.

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