In the spring of 1967, William Gavin, a high school English teacher in Abington, Pa., wrote to Richard Nixon urging him to run for president in the upcoming election. A year later, Nixon, who by then was campaigning for the Republican nomination, hired him as a speechwriter.
Gavin was 33 years old and had never written a speech in his life.
How did this come about? Gavin's letter had come to the attention of Nixon adviser Len Garment, who invited him to New York for a chat and encouraged him to send the campaign some material, whatever he came up with. Gavin happily obliged, and one of his offerings, a reflection on the death of Martin Luther King Jr., found its way into Nixon's speeches.
Nixon's decision to hire him, Gavin recognizes, was "improbable, indeed quixotic," but it launched him on a new career. He spent the next 30 years writing speeches for some notable political figures: Nixon, Ronald Reagan (during his 1980 campaign), Sen. James Buckley of New York and, for 18 years, Congressman Robert Michel of Illinois.
Gavin has now given us an account of those years in a thoughtful and engaging book called "Speechwright: An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric."
I spoke with Gavin recently about his book and his career, and began by asking about his education as a speechwriter. Nixon already had a roster of talented writers working for him when he hired Gavin. William Safire, later a New York Times columnist, was one. Another was Raymond Price from the New York Herald Tribune. Pat Buchanan was also part of the team, as well as Lee Huebner.
Gavin was young and an utter novice. What had he learned from Safire and the others? Had any of them taken on the role of mentor?
Gavin replied that he was largely "tutored by osmosis." He couldn't write like Ray Price, who had a "public voice," but he did pick up some tips from reading Price's work.
It was Safire who exercised the most direct influence on him. Safire was always willing to read Gavin's rough drafts and offer suggestions. Gavin remembers Safire as a gifted editor. He had a knack for taking another writer's work and reshaping it, moving the paragraphs around to achieve order and coherence.
The key lesson Gavin learned from Safire was simple: "You have to get to the point."
Some of the best advice imparted to him came not from his fellow speechwriters but from one of Nixon's advisers, Bryce Harlow.
"A good speechwriter," Harlow told him, "gives the boss what he wants. But a very good speechwriter also gives the boss what he needs. The two aren't always the same, and sometimes you have to tell him what he needs."
There were several times in his career when Gavin felt called on to "give the boss what he needs." One of these came in the summer of 1968, when Nixon was preparing his acceptance speech for the Republican convention in Miami.
Gavin wrote for Nixon's consideration some paragraphs about children in America and how the upcoming election would affect their future. Gavin felt this was a topic Nixon had to address.
Nixon agreed, and he incorporated Gavin's material into his speech, making reference, for instance, to those children who were caught up in the "living nightmare of poverty, neglect and despair."
That material, Gavin concedes, was "emotional, thoroughly un-Nixon-like, atypical," but it helped Nixon do what he needed to do: Persuade the American people that he was worthy of trust, and that he was the right person for the job.
At a post-convention reception, Nixon sought out Gavin and thanked him warmly. "You write with heart," he told him. "There aren't many who can write with heart."
In his book, Gavin writes that "the speechwright's words have to come through the speaker's personality," and, further, that "if the speaker doesn't fit the words," the speech fails. So in the interview I asked Gavin how he, as the speechwright, interacted with and related to the men who delivered the speeches.
His response drew largely on his years with Jim Buckley and Bob Michel.
When he went to work for Buckley in 1970, he had to start by getting to know him. For Gavin, that was "like learning a new language." In writing for Buckley, he sought to have the words fit the senator's personality and style, which struck Gavin as "cool and professional."
Jim Buckley was a staunch conservative, a rarity in the Senate in those days, and this conservatism affected how Gavin did his job. Buckley was eager to make the case for conservatism but understood that how he did it mattered. That was a time, Gavin explains, when conservatism required "the utmost care and skill in its communication."
Buckley rejected shrillness and stridency in favor of reasoned argument and clarity. He also insisted that the closest, most meticulous attention be given to both the writing and the editing of every speech he gave.
Gavin has a down-to-earth view of the work he was engaged in for so many years, and it is reflected in the title he gave his book: "Speechwright." For Gavin, writing speeches is "something less than an art but more than a mechanical exercise," less a profession than a craft.
Craft is the word he prefers for his line of work, and that's why he chose "Speechwright" for his title. Speechwright is a word that conveys the idea of a craft, for a "wright" is someone who assembles things, gets them to fit together. And that is what a person who writes speeches does: He collects all the various parts and elements that make up a speech and fashions them into an orderly, coherent message.
Gavin doesn't place a high value on eloquence in political speeches. It's not the eloquent phrase a speechwright should strive for, but the solid, persuasive argument. Moreover, as he noted in the interview, a speech doesn't have to be eloquent in order to move and rouse an audience. Rather, he said, "a well-crafted argument can inspire."
So his book is concerned not with eloquence but with what he calls "working rhetoric" — the everyday words politicians use to examine and probe and solve the problems that confront them.
He uses as an example the speech Bob Michel gave in 1991 in support of President George H.W. Bush's request for a joint resolution of Congress to use military force against Iraq, following that country's invasion of Kuwait. The speech was a collaborative undertaking, with Gavin and Michel meeting daily to come up with the right approach.
The House chamber was full when Michel rose to speak on Jan. 12. He spoke as a combat veteran of World War II, and looking back to that conflict and the years leading up to it, said, "All I could ask is that we at least consider that delay can often have more serious consequences later on than swift action."
His speech was brief, a mere two minutes. It wasn't high oratory or dramatic declamation. But it was effective; it accomplished what Michel set out to do. And that, Gavin tells us, "is what good working rhetoric does; it says what has to be said and gets the job done, without fuss."
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John Adams, a retired librarian who lives in Peabody, has contributed previously to the opinion pages.