From the immortal rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln to the resonant one-liners of John F. Kennedy, the way a president speaks can profoundly influence the course of their administration and the effectiveness of their policy.
On Tuesday, the Information Society Project at Yale Law School hosted a panel of former presidential speechwriters to discuss their experiences working in the White House. The panel, which was moderated by Chris Haugh LAW ’18, included two speechwriters from former President Barack Obama’s administration, Terry Szuplat and Sarada Peri, and one who wrote for President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, Vinca LaFleur.
“My hope is that folks will come away with a better understanding of the role of presidential rhetoric in our democracy and the role presidential rhetoric has in defining and shaping the relationship the president has with citizens,” Szuplat told the News.
He added that he hoped the panel would give attendees the chance to consider “our role as consumers of information” and think about how we “process, dissect and understand words that are being spoken to us.”
Haugh began the panel session with a series of questions before opening the floor to questions from the audience. The topics covered ranged from the 2016 presidential election and President Donald Trump’s relationship with words and truth to the opportunities and limitations of presidential rhetoric and how social media has changed the way speeches are written.
Nearly 100 students, professors and staff members came to the event, which was open to the entire Yale community. Much of the talk focused on recent trends in presidential rhetoric.
“Throughout the course of the 2016 campaign, and continuing today, President Trump has given the American people an unedited and unfiltered sense of who he is, how he thinks and how he speaks,” said LaFleur, who wrote speeches relating to foreign policy for Clinton. “President Trump’s total lack of self-restraint, combined with his eagerness to bully, brag and taunt, isn’t just undignified — it’s reckless.”
Szuplat echoed this statement, saying that Trump’s rhetoric is unique in that it appeals exclusively to his “dwindling” base of supporters and does not attempt to unify the country.
He added that it is important for presidential speechwriters to recognize the scope of their audience.
“Whenever a president speaks, they’re never just speaking to their immediate audience,” Szuplat said. “When a president speaks, the whole world is watching, and the whole world is the audience.”
LaFleur and Szuplat added that this is especially true for larger speeches, such as State of the Union addresses, for which presidents typically work much more closely with speechwriters to ensure that the speech reflects their policy objectives.
Other speeches, however, are overseen less directly by the president. Szuplat said he thought there may have been a few speeches or remarks on less formal occasions that Obama had not read before delivering them, adding that Obama laughed at some of the jokes in the speeches as if it was the first time he had seen them. Nonetheless, he and Peri told the News that they do not think this detracts from the authenticity of the speeches.
“We [were] just there to help him articulate his ideas,” Peri said. “His words can move markets, and they can change countries.”
They both noted that it would not be feasible for presidents to personally oversee all of their speeches, citing the demanding schedules presidents face.
Kamel Ajji, a resident fellow at the Information Society Project, said he appreciated the opportunity to engage in a discussion about how the government communicates with its citizens.
“It was a rare opportunity to get the insights from people who literally were the voice of the United States over the past 25 years,” he said. “In a context as complex as today, the speechwriters explained why words matter more than ever. Words are inextricably linked to the health of our democracies.”
The Information Society Project was founded in 1997.
Niki Anderson | firstname.lastname@example.org