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The Speechwriter's Humble Truth

The latest volume of Robert Caro’s biography on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power, should be read, cover to cover, twice, by any and every self-described leadership communication professional in America.

That said, I got a nice fat poolside vacation to read it and otherwise might have settled for media excerpts too.

If that’s what you’re doing, I’ll offer over the next month, a series of excerpts of sections of the Caro book specifically speechwriting related. Even in these brief excerpts, there's a lot here for speechwriters and speakers: humility and humiliation, love and devotion, and—in rare moments of grace—triumph, as we use rhetoric to do real good.

Kennedy and Sorensen, and Johnson had Busby—speechwriter Horace Busby, who knew how to get the best out of Johnson, an uneven but occasionally brilliant speechmaker.*

For instance, in 1963, when Vice President Johnson was helping make President Kennedy’s case for civil rights legislation, he was invited to make a speech at the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

A few days before the Memorial Day weekend, he had Busby come out to The Elms, and they sat by the swimming pool and talked, with Johnson doing most of the talking, about what should be in the speech. He expected Busby to follow their usual practice and turn his rough views into a polished speech, but this time the speechwriter didn’t think much polishing was required. “I knew what I had heard,” he says. He had been writing speeches for Lyndon Johnson for 15 years, and he felt that this time Johnson had said exactly what he wanted to say. In Busby’s car was a large, clumsy recording device, and, he recalls, as he was driving away from The Elms, “I stopped the car a half a block away and recorded what we’d been saying pretty much as” he remembered it, and the next morning took the recording to his office and had the secretary transcribe it.

To the transcription he added two introductory paragraphs, one at the end, and turned it in to Johnson, who delivered it to great acclaim. Its core:

One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.” … To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough. … The Negro says, “Now.” Others say, “Never.” The voice of responsible Americans—the voices of those who died here and the great man who spoke here—their voices say, “Together.” There is no other way.

Often, mastering the speaker’s voice simply means using the speaker’s voice. That's the humble truth a speechwriter must know. Next week's excerpt will illustrate the humiliation speechwriters and speakers must endure.

* Uneven, and also occasionally clownish. Caro confers this yarn, from the whistle-stop tour of the “LBJ Special,” a major factor in winning the South for Kennedy in 1960.

As he was talking, Lyndon Johnson had of course gotten “worked up,” and often, as the train pulled out, with “The Yellow Rose [of Texas]” blaring again, he would think of additional points he wanted to make, and, with the train already in motion and pulling away from the crowd, would turn back to the microphone, waving and shouting to make them, so that as the train disappeared down the tracks, the sound of his voice remained behind with its final message, as when he shouted while the train was chugging away from the station in a little town in Virginia named Culpepper: “Goodbye, Culpepper. Vote Democratic. What has Dick Nixon ever done for Culpepper?” Since often the public-address system was still turned on as the train left, his audiences could also hear his asides to his staff. “Good-bye, Greer,” he shouted to a little South Carolina town rapidly vanishing down the tracks. “Good-bye, Greer. God bless you, Greer. Bobby, turn off that ‘Yeller Rose.’ God bless you, Greer. Vote Democratic. Bobby, turn off that fuckin’ ‘Yeller Rose.’”