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The Speechwriter's Life: "We Were Not Key Policy Advisors, We Were Writers"

From 1977 to 1981, former journalist Achsah Nesmith wrote speeches for President Jimmy Carter. She has a light-hearted warning for any scribes who dream of working in the White House and peppering presidential addresses with their own personal views and policy preferences: “Speechwriters are not ventriloquists—they are helpers.”

“I’m sure it’s rare that any president gives a speech word-for-word as it was submitted to him,” Nesmith observed during a recent discussion with Vital Speeches. “It’s not that you put these great words in his mouth and he spouts them out like a puppet. Yes, you may find just the right quote from the right person or an anecdote to strengthen a point. You try to use phrases that will be more memorable than the clichés, government-speak and unfamiliar acronyms that some people who are asked to clear presidential speeches may suggest, but it all has to fit HIS style and be true to HIS experiences. I wasn’t writing for JFK or FDR, but for Jimmy Carter, who could be open and eloquent in his own way,” she said.

“No matter how eloquent, a speech that sounds like it was written for someone else either will not be delivered or it will flop because it does not ring true.

“One time, Jerry Rafshoon (Carter’s Communication’s Director) was telling me how much better a speech was because the President had just ‘said it in his own words’—rather than speaking from the draft I had provided. I felt compelled to point out how few changes the President had made from my draft. But Rafshoon was right, it was always best when the President spoke in his own words. That’s what I was there to write—the words he wanted to use. Presidents have other things to do, like run the country. I had a lot more time to write speeches—in the words he wanted to use. That was my job.           

“Our drafts had to go through a battery of clearances to make sure we got the policies and politics just right and avoided landmines we might not be aware of. We fought a lot of battles with people who seemed to have tin ears and thought every speech should include 200 or so ‘concrete steps.’ I once spent hours trying to get a general and a Defense Department official to agree on the performance capabilities of a particular plane before they would sign off on a draft that had to be on the President’s desk when he arrived the next morning,” she said.

“In some administrations, key advisers are also primary speechwriters. We were not key policy advisers, we were writers.

“Some critics in Washington complained at the beginning that we were too young. Jim Fallows, Carter’s first chief speechwriter was only 28. Either we aged fast or they found other things to criticize after a while.”

An important asset for any White House speechwriter, in Nesmith’s view, is an understanding of the overall political system in which the American presidency functions. Her background as a reporter for The Atlanta Constitution proved useful in this regard when she arrived in Washington.

“Atlanta was the Southern regional headquarters for most of the federal agencies then, and the federal agencies and courts were my beat. I also covered eight or nine legislative sessions, including a special session to revise the state constitution, and, at times, my beat involved reporting on Jimmy Carter’s predecessor as governor,” she said.

“When I was first assigned to the federal courts, Georgia was the most malapportioned state in the union. In a race for governor or U.S. Senator, it took over 500 voters in Atlanta to offset 25 from the least populous county in Georgia.

“In much of the South, few black people outside of cities could vote. Often they were given literacy tests that were different from whites. When they tried to register, blacks would be required to do such things as explain sections of the Constitution that would have challenged professors. Congressional and legislative districts were heavily weighted to prevent what black votes were cast from mattering.

“I covered emergency appeals in late-night hearings to get children out of jail who had been arrested during demonstrations and hearings that determined the rules for elections or school openings scheduled for the next day. There were many three-judge hearings on the Constitutionality of state laws and challenges to federal civil rights and voting laws.”

“I saw how the various aspects of the overall political system actually worked, not just the textbook theory,” Nesmith said.

“People sometimes assert that the country was better served when early presidents wrote their own speeches. Of course, both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote speeches for George Washington. It’s believed that when James Madison was a member of Congress, he helped write one of President Washington’s State of the Union addresses and then wrote Congress’s response to it.

“Most other presidents also had help from Cabinet members, aides and others. The people submitting drafts might not have been on staff, and when they were, they had often been given titles other than speechwriter, but presidents had help writing their speeches throughout our history.

“Before the invention of the telegraph, presidents often didn’t learn what happened in distant places for months. They had to send someone to communicate with far-off generals or ambassadors. Remember Gen. Andrew Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans after the peace treaty ending the War of 1812 was signed. It was not a world of almost instant communication,” she said.

“Most people who make a lot of speeches today—business leaders, professors, economists, even some members of Congress—concentrate on one or at most a few subjects. Often they have a carefully honed talk they give over and over, with running updates and a few comments aimed at a specific audience. Presidents talk about everything—foreign policy, economics, education, health, history, defense—all the time. It’s a different ballgame.

“Modern presidents may make 5 or 6 speeches, ‘brief remarks’ or statements in a day. Whether speaking to the country from the well of the House of Representatives, to 50 people in the Rose Garden or to a hastily-called press conference, our President may need to deal with news about something President Putin said or a bomber did in Europe or the Middle East. When speaking about foreign affairs, any change in the wording the President has been using about a critical policy can lead to misunderstandings or disrupt complicate months of delicate negotiations.”

It was while working at The Atlanta Constitution, by the way, that Nesmith had her first contact with the future President. She covered the Georgia Senate when Carter was a member of that body, and they got to know each other better during his 1966 campaign to become Georgia’s governor (which he lost).

“There was a large field of candidates that year, and our editors assigned reporters to each one early in the campaign, planning to switch us around to different candidates as the race progressed. My newspaper supported another candidate and did not expect Carter to do very well. Most of the candidates were doing a few events a week at that point, but Carter often campaigned literally from dawn through the evening for months,” Nesmith said.

“Georgia is a big state—the largest east of the Mississippi River. On the rare occasions when he slowed down long enough for me to get off the plane, it was usually in a small town too far away from any other reporter to switch off, so I ended up covering his campaign intensively from beginning to end.

“The planes often had only two or three seats besides the pilot’s. Sometimes Rosalynn, a staffer or a supporter came along, but often it was just the pilot, the candidate and me. I was determined to make my reporting completely fair and unbiased, and I was pleased that when the election was over, he told me that he still did not know who I had voted for,” she recalled.

“Reaction to a speech, whether by the audience in the room or the country as a whole, is influenced by what people had for breakfast, the stock market, news from the Middle East or Greece, the latest unemployment figures—even the weather. Few people actually read an entire presidential speech even now, when the internet makes it easy. Media coverage and comments by the President’s opponents are more likely to determine whether the public views a speech as memorable or routine. Even in the late 1970s, the most accurate gauge was often Johnny Carson’s late-night jokes, just as Jon Stewart’s are today.

“Remember that people can be bored to death, even by things they care about!” she added with a laugh.

There is a temptation for presidential speeches and statements to focus on immediate legislative plans, Nesmith noted, but presidents have an obligation to go beyond this at times, and articulate the long-term needs and goals of the country.

“That’s one reason I was very interested in how President Obama handled his 2015 State of the Union address,” Nesmith said.

“Traditionally, presidents come to this speech with a laundry list of legislative items that they are proposing. The budget speech a few weeks later will get even more detailed. Lobbyists, politicians and organizations all across the country want to see that their particular concern is addressed somewhere in these speeches, preferably in the State of the Union, which traditionally draws the biggest audience.

“During the weeks prior to a State-of-the-Union speech, the pressure from departments and agencies and offices all over the government starts mounting. It gets kind of crazy sometimes as everybody struggles to get his or her program mentioned in The Speech. Representatives of all sorts of private interest groups are calling, offering you choice phrases. For most Americans, the result is about as exciting as a bunch of nuts and bolts rattling around in a bucket.

“President Obama abandoned that approach this time, and gave something closer to what I always thought it should be, talking about what he thought he had accomplished, and the progress and further changes that he would try to make. And it was impressive,” Nesmith said.

The lesson to keep in mind here is one about the unique position of the Presidency, thanks to the US Constitution, which requires that the President report to Congress once a year on the state of the Union. “It doesn’t say how the report is to be delivered—Thomas Jefferson, for instance, sent written reports to Congress,” she observed. “The President should put other legislative proposals in the budget speech, and send it all as a message to Congress and then highlight various aspects in the flurry of speeches around the country that usually follows the State of the Union.

“This year’s State of the Union speech had very low television viewership, which many commentators attributed to the American people shifting from television viewing to the Internet. I wonder if that didn’t have more to do with their expectation it would be the usual nuts and bolts in the bucket. Besides, media analysts had already convinced them that all of President Obama’s proposals to Congress would be dead on arrival anyway.”

“The State of the Union speech could become a time to take stock in a far broader and more inspiring way. It’s an ideal time to talk directly to Congress and the people about how our nation should deal with the big issues and how we are measuring up to our dreams,” she concluded as her discussion with Vital Speeches wrapped up.

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Author’s note: Achsah Nesmith’s speechwriting experiences extend beyond her White House years. She also worked for US Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) from 1987 to 1996, with extensive speechwriting duties during that time. And, while employed at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 1996 to 2001, her responsibilities included writing speeches for the agency’s administrator.

Nesmith also helped research and edit the book Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, co-authored by Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

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