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The Speechwriter's Life: Doug Ross

Speeches and press statements are used as more than a vehicle for expressing [a] politician’s specific views on official affairs of state. They are often devices for flattering certain groups, forestalling the criticism of others, creating a congenial climate of opinion for a planned future action, threatening and intimidating opponents, or sometimes just convincing certain people that the politician is really not a bad fellow.

Clearly, many of these are situations in which a frank, serious presentation is neither advantageous nor necessary, so we must be careful not to erect standards of political behavior which no man can hope to meet and still survive the struggle for power…

These general comments ought to make it obvious that accepting all portions of a politician’s public record at face value is simply naïve. No senator, congressman, mayor, or state legislator believes everything he says or writes. Nor does he even intend all his words to be taken literally.

from Douglas Ross’ introduction to his book “Robert F. Kennedy: Apostle of Change” (1968)

Doug Ross was just shy of his 26th birthday when he finished the book from which the above words are excerpted. “I was asked by Simon & Schuster to write the book, as I’ve told the story before, because I was inexpensive and obscure,” he said during a discussion of his experiences as a speechwriter.

At the time of writing Apostle of Change, Ross had built up experience as a speechwriter working for two Democratic Party members of Congress from Michigan—Neil Staebler and John Dingell. He went on to write speeches for Senator Joseph Tydings (D-MD). The public service side of Ross’ CV is extensive and includes roles such as Assistant Secretary of Labor during the Clinton Administration and Michigan State Senator. Today, he is CEO of American Promise Schools in Detroit.

Reflecting on his earlier writings on speeches, Ross began by taking a top-down view of how elected officials think about speeches. “Generally, almost all thoughtful politicians will look at a speech in terms of capital gained, or capital lost,” he said. “That’s not to say that they also don’t make speeches for their own self-image and satisfaction—we all have our own needs for recognition, etc.—but this political capital gain or loss calculation is part of it.

“And the faster, as a speechwriter, that you become savvy at understanding the politics of [a particular speaking engagement], and being able to talk about a speech with the principal in a way that cites this capital gain/capital loss idea,” the more you will help increase your own credibility with the speaker, Ross observed.

Approaching a speech in this way means that the speechwriter must do “much more than simply mechanically translating the speaker’s views on some subject into sentences and paragraphs to draft a speech,” Ross said.

While working for Senator Tydings, for example, “I would sometimes be able to think about the issue at hand in more detail than perhaps [the Senator] might have been able to do, due to scheduling pressures. And I could go back to him with a new argument [in the draft speech] that would advocate a point of view consistent with Tydings’ expressed positions. I became part of the policy process in this way, which made speechwriting more fun,” Ross said.

The highpoint of Ross’ collaboration on speeches with Tydings came during Senate deliberations in 1970 about whether the US should embrace MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) as a part of its nuclear weapons arsenal. “Senator Tydings ended up as the principal Senate spokesperson against MIRVs. I wrote [a major] speech [on MIRVs] that he delivered on the floor of the Senate, and I was sitting next to him as well when he spoke, to help handle follow up questions from other Senators.

“I thought the speech was successful – it had weight within the Senate, and it also showed Tydings as someone who could take a fairly technical defense policy matter, and master it and explain it. It also enhanced his ability to stand on that issue and others like it, such as the debate about anti-ballistic missile systems that followed,” Ross said.

And then there is the question of how to avoid losing political capital inadvertently while making a speech.

On that score, another lesson that Ross learned from his time in Tydings’ office was to consider possible public reaction from third parties to a speech once the speaker delivers it. He recalled some controversy that followed a 1971 commencement speech that Senator Tydings gave at Goucher College. “The speech was about the Vietnam War, and I had included a line in the draft about how ‘if the purpose of the war was to demonstrate that these wars of national liberation could not succeed, then we had lost the war,’” Ross said.

“I didn’t anticipate that there would be a strong reaction to that line in the speech, and neither did the Senator – perhaps there wasn’t time [for him] to read the draft closely. Following the speech, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun carried front page stories about the Senator saying ‘the war was lost.’ So this was a case of not thinking through the reaction to a potentially controversial line,” Ross said.

The capital gain/loss approach to speeches can lead to some ironic situations, Ross added. “Sometimes, a speech confronts the prejudices or ideas of an audience, and the speaker’s goal in doing so is to reinforce the view that he is willing to say what he believes and speak his mind—even if his words don’t reflect the audience’s beliefs.”

This is known as a “counterscheduling” strategy in political circles, and it was elevated into a high art by Bill Clinton – with whom Ross worked during Clinton’s 1992 Michigan Democratic Party primary campaign. For example, trying to overcome damage to his personal character by bolstering his public character, Clinton gave a speech to a United Auto Workers (UAW) local in Flint, MI during the primary, where he challenged the UAW’s opposition to free trade by arguing that American workers could compete successfully in the world. Senator Ted Cruz’s recent speech in Washington, DC could be seen as another example, Ross noted.

Today, speechwriters in all settings are charged with thinking up ways to help speakers achieve some level of “thought leadership” on current issues. But that’s old hat for Ross’ generation of congressional speechwriters, as the following story shows:

“I went to work in Washington in 1962 at 20 years of age, dividing my time between the offices of Representatives Neil Staebler and John Dingell. Staebler was an intellectual business man who had helped put together the liberal-labor coalition that came together in Michigan after World War II. Journalist Theodore White once called Staebler ‘the most moral man in American politics.’

“1963 was the 30th anniversary of the founding of the New Deal, and Neil Staebler was the quintessential New Deal man. He asked me for a speech tied to this 30th anniversary. We ended up with a way-too-long, almost boring speech on the New Deal. But this speech gave me the chance to co-author a book.

“Neil was in touch at the time with Victor Navasky, who had written speeches for Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams. Navasky suggested turning the New Deal 30th anniversary speech into a book. I drafted most of the resulting manuscript with Neil editing, which was published under the title How to Argue with a Conservative – a rebuttal to Senator Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative.”

How to Argue with a Conservative appeared in print in 1965. Ross laughed while pointing out that the same publisher also released, in the same year, Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed. “One of these two books attracted slightly more attention than the other,” he wryly observed.

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