Bush speechwriter returns to Notre Dame
Marcela Berrios | Monday, April 24, 2006
William McGurn left the halls of the West Wing and the Oval Office Friday for the Jordan Auditorium of the Mendoza College of Business.
Though miles away from Washington, the chief speechwriter for the White House – a 1980 Notre Dame graduate – was hardly disoriented as he returned to his alma mater to present his lecture “Future Government and Public Policy.”
A former editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal, McGurn first became a part of the Bush administration in early 2005, and has since become the head of the entire speechwriting team in the White House.
He spoke to an audience of students and faculty members on topic ranging from his work in the West Wing, the challenges of speechwriting for the President and the role of the media in the portrayal of news.
McGurn said for any given speech, there might be approximately 30 people working to produce an average of ten drafts. He said focal and delicate matters such as the war in Iraq generally require even more preparation.
“We’re trying to explain to the American public a very difficult situation and the President’s perspective, his voice,” McGurn said.
When asked if he had ever written a speech outlining something contrary to what he believed was correct, McGurn said though there may have been occasions where his personal opinion was different from that of the White House – he would never promote anything he did not consider truthful and substantiated.
“The people elected him,” he said. “It’s the Bush administration, not the McGurn administration.”
He said speechwriters that are acutely opposed to one of the President’s stances are generally assigned to work on an unrelated issue, to avoid a conflict of objectivity.
McGurn also commented on the role of the media, and the ways in which every network or newspaper bias deters from the message he and the President are trying to evoke.
“In many cases, the reporting may be slanted not consciously or on purpose, but rather due to ignorance and a lack of knowledge of all the facts,” McGurn said. “Sometimes the media isn’t even aware of the existence of a counterargument to what they are saying.”
He also expressed frustration in the way that television and newspapers highlight drama and controversy, sometimes neglecting comprehensive and responsible journalism.
“The President may be delivering an important speech on Medicare but if someone yells out something from the back, that becomes the news,” McGurn said. “From the inside that is really frustrating but we understand the media needs the drama, sometimes over substance, to sell more.”
But sensationalist reporters are not the biggest problem McGurn and his team of writers face every day at work. Instead it’s the challenge of striking a balance between informative and clear speeches.
“A speech can’t be too dense with facts, or else people won’t follow,” he said.
All bases must be covered, though, and all relevant points must be addressed, he said. Knowing presidential speeches are subject to the scrutiny of the media and history, omitting complicated information is also not an option.
McGurn said even after the efforts of the speechwriting team, President Bush makes the final decision by approving or rejecting a speech.
Higher-ranking government officials often check content and interpretation of policy within the text, McGurn said. But it is Bush who goes gives final approval to all of his public oratory.
He said Bush consistently reminds his speechwriting team of his enrollment within an American oratory during his time in Yale University and reminds his speechwriting team of that advantage on a regular basis.
McGurn said the President likes to adhere to the methodology and rhythm he learned in such course.
The speechwriters are always busy looking at the next of fifteen drafts before their speech airs throughout the world, he said.