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Lots of speechwriters came from journalism; this speechwriter went to journalism

The distinguished journalist and author Victor Navasky got his start in speechwriting.

Just prior to graduating from law school in 1959, Navasky was invited to apply for a job as a speechwriter in the office of G. Mennen Williams, also known as “Soapy” Williams. (The nickname was a wink at Williams’ wealthy background as an heir to the Mennen personal care products fortune.)

Williams was a six-term Governor of Michigan, known for his strongly liberal politics and ambitions for higher office, his popularity with diverse groups including blue collar workers, African-Americans and Eastern Europeans, and his constant wearing of green bow ties with white polka dots.

Navasky’s job application included a copy of the Monocle, a satirical magazine he had founded in 1957. Navasky was subsequently invited to Lansing to “spend a day talking to the Governor and his staff, and at the end, they offered me a job,” he recalled.

As it turned out, Navasky had been wise to send the copy of the Monocle. “In the copy that I sent, we had a centerpiece that was a mock game of how to be elected President—move two steps forward, and three steps back, that kind of thing. One joke in the game was to promote your candidacy by saying ‘I don’t want to be president, I just want to be good a governor.’ That was a joke which they appreciated when I went for my interview,” he said.

“I had not written speeches before. And there was no writing test during the interview. But I had completed a course with Fred Rodell while at law school, where he stressed the use of common English, not legalisms, when writing about the law. It was probably the only writing course I took,” Navasky said.

Navasky accepted the job, and moved after his June graduation to East Lansing, rented an apartment, and started to get to know the Governor.

“The first speech I wrote was a foreign policy speech,” Navasky said. “The Governor was going on a trip to Israel, walking in the steps of Jesus as it were. He spoke to me about his goals for the trip, and I wrote a speech about his views about Israel and the Middle East. The next major speech that I remember was a Labor Day rally speech, which was a big deal in Michigan.”

In a typical week, Williams might deliver two major speeches (about 20 minutes in length) plus shorter addresses. “In most cases, the Governor would just talk in a very informal way to me about he wanted to say at an event, and after about six months, I knew enough to put it into language that he would comfortable with. He would brief me on what he wanted to say, and I would write it up,” Navasky said.

Where further background information was necessary, Navasky said: “I would go to the library—we didn’t have computers—and gather facts, and do what you would do if you were writing an article or a paper.” Navasky also had an assistant with a PhD in English literature.

I asked Navasky what speeches stood out in his memory, and he referred to two. One was Williams’ remarks at an October 1960 event organized by the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. “I met Joan Baez there,” Navasky recalled with a laugh. “Soapy supported SANE, and spoke there about peace and nuclear disarmament, at a time when few mainstream Democrats would appear at SANE’s gatherings,” he said.

Another was Soapy’s address opening the 1960 Democratic Party convention at the Los Angeles Coliseum. “I got to write Soapy’s speech, which was delivered outdoors. It was fun, but no one paid much attention [as he spoke]—people were filing in and waiting for John F. Kennedy,” Navasky said.

“Working with Soapy gave me a sense of the art of crafting speeches that would avoid [creating] political problems, and yet still have an integrity of tone, and adhere to his beliefs and values. In writing for him, you had to get out his message, and reinforce the idea that it was part of his larger and consistent world view—and that he was honest,” Navasky said. For example, although Williams was not a pacifist, the case for nuclear disarmament became one of his top priorities. Navasky added that the experience was helpful preparation in many ways for his future career as a writer and editor. 

Governor Williams’ view of politics was perhaps best captured by his close ally Neil Staebler—“Politics is a lot of people, good ideas, and coordination of the two.” Governor Williams fought passionately for such ideas as, to cite one recent biography, “improvements in housing, hospitals, schools, roads, prisons and health care”—as well as protecting civil rights and ensuring corporations paid their fair share of taxes.

I asked Navasky how he, as the founder of a satirical magazine, handled the task of incorporating humor into Williams’ speeches.

“Soapy had his own anecdotes and stories, and I would faithfully record them, and then I would put this humor into the speeches when it seemed appropriate. But I did not put myself in his speeches. I did not see that as my job. My job was to make his remarks accessible to the audience, to illustrate the points he wanted to make, and insert jokes when they were appropriate—but not the kind of satire that we did in the magazine, which aimed to be withering and wounding.”

Navasky described his time as a speechwriter as “a great job. I learned a lot about how politics works”—especially from Soapy himself.

“He wore these green bow ties with white polka dots, and handed them out wherever he went. He was seen as a corny guy, but who wasn’t manipulative. I remember once going to the Jefferson/Jackson Day dinner in Detroit with him. And I expected Soapy to shake hands with lots of people, going up and down the rows, like the local politicians. But he didn’t. At the end of the event, he stationed himself close to the door, so that no one could leave without shaking his hand. He knew where to stand, and he knew his way around.”

Following his election as President, John F. Kennedy appointed Williams as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. “I was asked if I would to go along with Soapy to Washington, but I wanted to go back to New York and start my own magazine,” Navasky said.

That may have been the end of Navasky’s work as a gubernatorial speechwriter, but it wasn’t the end of his connection with Soapy Williams. In 1978, Navasky became editor of the Nation. But his writing had appeared there much earlier. While they worked together, he said, “Soapy wrote something for the Nation, and I edited the article for him. That’s how my work first appeared in the magazine I later edited—under Soapy Williams’ name.”

To learn more about Victor Navasky’s career, visit his personal website: http://victorsnavasky.com.

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