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The Speechwriter's Life: Former Nixon speechwriter Noel Koch
Noel Koch served in Vietnam, was a successful corporate executive, held several Pentagon appointments – and worked as a Washington, DC speechwriter. His clients included President Nixon, Senator Bob Dole and Winton “Red” Blount, President Nixon’s first Postmaster General.
“One of the things that made me a good speechwriter was that I could hear and reproduce the tone and the rhythm and inflections of the way the person I was writing for talked,” he told Vital Speeches during a recent one hour discussion.
Another strength of his work as a speechwriter comes through after speaking with him – one that he, modestly, did not bring up directly. He was also adept at finding language that would give seemingly routine statements and communications greater impact with audiences, reinforcing the speaker’s leadership qualities.
Take Koch’s very first speech for President Nixon as an example. On January 14, 1971, President Nixon addressed a joint student-faculty audience at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. That January was a busy month for Nixon’s speechwriting staff, who were working on the State of the Union. The Nebraska address was something of an afterthought; Nixon had promised to speak at the university as a favor to Cliff Harden, his departing Secretary of Agriculture (and former university chancellor).
“I got stuck with this speech as the new kid on the block,” Koch said, having just joined the White House speechwriting team. “I had a brief conversation about the speech with John Erlichman, and that was the only preparation I had. I’m writing in Washington, while [the speechwriting staff] is in San Clemente, and I’m not getting much attention or guidance. So I thought – ‘let’s talk to the young, because that’s where our legacy is,’ and I wrote up a draft along those lines.
The result became known as President Nixon’s “alliance of the generations” speech, as in:
…let us forge an alliance of the generations. Let us work together to seek out those ways by which the commitment and the compassion of one generation can be linked to the will and the experience of another so that together we can serve America better and America can better serve mankind.
“Normally, when you write a speech for the President, every single word, every bit of punctuation is very carefully vetted by anyone who had any apparent interest in [the text]. Everything is gone over with a fine tooth comb - except this speech, because it was a kind of throwaway. I’m not sure even when the President first read the speech – maybe on the plane to Lincoln.
Positive media reaction to the speech included: “President Nixon gave the finest speech of his presidency at the University of Nebraska” (Christian Science Monitor editorial); “President Nixon’s appeal to young Americans at the University of Nebraska was one of the best speeches he has made – wise, understanding, yet challenging” (New York Times columnist Tom Wicker). And Newsweek reported it as a major change in tone on the part of a president who had previously complained about “bums” stirring up the nation’s campuses.
“The response was amazing. The media just went nuts. The newspapers were chockablock with praise for Nixon – I even thought, ‘Hell, I’m the next Ted Sorenson!’ - but of course, it didn’t work out that way,” Koch recalled.
“I don’t know if it was because of President Nixon or Bob Haldeman, but there was the idea in the White House that the speechwriters were like the in-house intellectuals, and that we saw things in a way that other people didn’t. President Nixon even used to refer to my wife, a college professor, and me as ‘my eggheads,’” Koch said.
“So the speechwriters ended up writing a lot more than just speeches. Something else that we did was to follow up the State of the Union with in-depth legislative messages, as a way of providing further intellectual and political leadership from the President. I can recall sitting with Claude Brinegar, the Secretary of Transportation, and drafting one such message. I went all the way back into history for the text. I would say to the Secretary, ‘What about docks? What about about bridges?’ and he would say ‘Put that in!’”
Koch laughed and added: “I later wrote an odd bit of ‘Rose Garden rubbish’ that also stirred media reaction. You’re probably aware of how all kinds of groups seek out presidential proclamations. Well, I wrote a proclamation for National Clown Week, a great piece of work that was reprinted in various newspapers, including the Washington Post.”
The proclamation’s reference to how “clowns and the spirit they represent are as vital to the maintenance of our humanity as the builders and the growers and the governors” seems to have been received particularly well.
Another speech that Koch recalled with a chuckle was Nixon’s November 1971 address to an AFL-CIO gathering in Florida. The President opened his speech by announcing that:
In speaking on this occasion, I have brought with me a prepared text. I have given that text out to the press. I am not going to read that text to you today. [It] contains the usual laundry list that a President of the United States is supposed to go over when he appears before the AFL-CIO or any other labor convention…[Instead,] I am going to do something that I believe [you] will appreciate…You like it straight from the shoulder. I am going to talk to you about our differences, and I am also going to talk to you about some areas where we agree, and there are several of both, as you know…
“Chuck Colson asked me to write a speech for the President for this AFL-CIO convention. Colson said the President wanted it loaded up with points about how important labor’s support was for our efforts to extract ourselves from Vietnam with dignity, and to include everything we had done for labor, with hearts and flowers and emotional embroidery. I wrote a draft and sent it up the President – and what came back was: ‘This isn’t what I want. I want a laundry list of what we’ve done in 10-12 pages, or whatever it takes,’” Koch said.
Koch redrafted accordingly. He was understandably surprised to watch as the President then put the “laundry list” aside at the podium – and delivered, from memory, the substance of Koch’s original, supposedly rejected draft.
Added Koch: “That was kind of funny to watch. But we weren’t kidding AFL-CIO head George Meany, however – he was in the audience and said, ‘That’s the oldest trick in the book.’”
Koch’s speechwriting did not begin in the Nixon White House. He worked as a speechwriter for Postmaster-General Winton “Red” Blount from 1969 to 1971. A self-made man and WWII veteran, Blount had earned a fortune through a construction company he co-founded with his brother, Houston. The firm started off digging irrigation ponds on farms, but later set its sights on completing more complex projects – including Cape Canaveral’s Platform 39a, from which the Apollo 11 mission launched into space.
“A native of the Deep South, Blount was also a leader in the civil rights movement, at time when it could have gotten you killed. He stood up for what was right. Red and I established a very nice relationship. Red was a graceful man, and he had this ability to think in straight lines and talk in a sensible way. And I was able to capture that,” Koch said.
“I decided we wouldn’t just write and talk about the mail – otherwise I would have committed ritual seppuku. Instead, through Red’s speeches, we would address political and economic questions, and part of that was reaching out to the younger generation. I wrote about these things for Red, and Red gave speeches that, in the context of the politics of the Nixon Administration, were damn near revolutionary – speeches saying that we needed to have a better dialogue with our young people, for instance. That shapes the background to the Nixon ‘alliance of the generations’ speech.”
Some excerpts from two other notable speeches by Blount follow below:
The road we travel in this decade will not be an easy one. We must resume the responsibilities which government has taken from the people. We have an Administration which believes, with Macauley, that "the government which attempts more than it ought, will perform less." We must challenge those who would divide America for political purposes to compete with the quality of their ideas and not the quantity of their unkept promises…
We have the opportunity to confirm the American faith that in freedom men might seek and secure the success of their highest aspirations – we have the opportunity to strengthen the fabric of civilization. The opportunity rests in our hands – in your hands – not in the hands of government. I urge you to seize that opportunity.” (Address by Winton Blount to the Economic Club of Detroit, May 4, 1970.)
You have something to learn from our young people. I urge you to listen to them. It is important to listen to the questions they are asking and also to examine the answers they are offering. There is a vast basis for mutual understanding with the young; there are vast differences as well. But difference is the driving force in the dialectical process that takes us forward. So let us understand those differences, and respect them…
It is a simple matter to see in our differences that the young are naïve, that their view of the world suffers from a super-abundance of idealism, and a lack of reality and the hard lessons that come with responsibility. And if we see only in these terms, then we miss the more important fact that beyond our differences we share a vast community of interest from which we may together seek a newer world.” (Address by Winton Blount to the 75th Annual Meeting of the Delaware Bankers Association, May 14, 1970.)
As a favor to his former boss, Koch continued to write speeches for Blount while working in the White House. Koch said he did this very quietly – and, as the following story shows, there may have been good reason for this:
“Red was one of the most sophisticated men I have ever known. He and his wife endowed the Blount Cultural Park in Montgomery, AL. He knew wine very well, and had built a wonderful mansion for himself. But he had one blind spot – he just did not like the French very much – especially General DeGaulle.
“In the fall of 1971, I was working on drug issues in the White House. I knew Red did not have warm feelings for the French. So I wrote a speech for him about how illegal narcotics refined in France were being shipped to the US, arguing that we needed to take the French to task over this. As background material, I used information [I had access to] that I should not have been inserting [into a speech].
“Red delivered the speech in early October, saying that American kids are getting into drugs in Vietnam, courtesy of the Viet Cong; and when they return home, thanks to the French, those drugs are available here, too. He suggested that a consumer boycott of French goods might be in order, until that changed,” Koch said.
In the media and political firestorm that resulted, the State Department issued a denial of Blount’s remarks as representing official US policy. Later in October, Blount went on to repeat his earlier words – and took a step further, calling for a complete halt to US-France trade until Paris curbed heroin trafficking.
The fireworks generated by Blount’s words, Koch said, did not go unnoticed in France, where the authorities cracked down on the drug mafia in the following months.
Not a bad outcome for a speech delivered by a Postmaster-General in Dallas, TX, ostensibly to dedicate a new postage stamp with an anti-drug abuse message.
Note: Those interested in learning about Koch’s speechwriting for Senator Dole can consult this transcript of an oral history interview that Koch completed for the Robert Dole Institute of Politics. And don’t forget to check out Koch’s own speeches that have appeared in VSOTD.