Interviewee: John McConnell
In 2004: Speechwriter for President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney
Interviewer: Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
November 19, 2014
This transcription has been prepared according to the strictest practices of the academic and transcription communities and offers our best good-faith effort at reproducing in text our subject’s spoken words. In all cases, however, the video of this interview represents the definitive version of the words spoken by interviewees.
Q: John McConnell, you were deputy assistant to the president in the George W. Bush administration and senior speech writer to the president and the vice president, Cheney, but over the years you’ve also written for another vice president, Dan Quayle, and for another presidential candidate, Bob Dole. I may be leaving some off that list. But would you compare writing for — let’s start with President Bush — writing for President Bush as compared with writing for Dan Quayle in the ’90s, Bob Dole when he ran for president in ’96.
MCCONNELL: Writing for a president, of course, is a singular kind of experience. Even if you’ve written for a number of other people, writing for a president is something different, because there is such a carefully-put-together system around the president [00:01:00] and the speech-writing process. There’s the staffing process that most people don’t know about, and that’s where the document, the draft itself, is circulated to the senior people on the White House staff for comment and revisions, edits, what have you, and it’s put through a rigorous fact-checking process. By the time it gets to the president, it is a very polished piece of material, and in the minds of many, the process might be done at that point. Well, not in the case of George W. Bush. He was a very serious editor, a very good editor of speeches. He could tell you right away what was missing in the speech. He could tell you right away the logical step in the argument that was still needed. He liked to explain things. He didn’t want a lot of references to himself. [00:02:00]
Getting into the differences among the people you mentioned. Bush, for example, when we would write a speech for him, he always wanted names at the beginning of the speech of the people that should be acknowledged — VIPs, local officials, the band. I mean, he really wanted to acknowledge on a specific basis all of these people and groups who were represented at the event. Now we didn’t have to write anything. The names just had to be provided, and our fact checkers or researchers, I should say, spent a lot of time getting those names together, because the president didn’t want to look out into a crowd and see someone who should be acknowledged and not have that name there. He wanted to make sure he always had confidence in that. Then he would kind of riff off of the names. As I say, nothing had to be written, he would just say the name.
A lot of the humor in his speeches came from those names. [00:03:00] He would talk about experiences he’d had with that senator or governor, congressman, mayor, and that would kind of be his way of getting into a speech. Vice President Cheney was a little more direct in his style. He was a good storyteller. He had very good comic timing. He wouldn’t so much riff on names as he would just tell a funny little story or a quip. Vice President Quayle, when I wrote for him, he also liked to get directly into the message. Maybe if he liked things at the beginning, but he was a very — he had a writing background himself. He had been a newspaperman. Quayle was actually the only boss I ever had who gave me a fully drafted speech [00:04:00] that he had done himself on a weekend. It was a Monday morning. It was back when the speeches were on disks. This was in 1992. And I got called over to the West Wing, and I went in to see him, and he said, “John, I wrote a speech this weekend.” And he gave me this little blue three-inch floppy disk. I plugged it into my computer, and there was the whole speech that the vice president –
Q: Was this when he was vice president?
MCCONNELL: When he was vice president. Had written the whole speech. He had a couple little notes in there for me, “John,” you know, “Find this figure. Find this. Put in this paragraph” from a draft of another speech. But it was a fully-formed speech. He was fast, too. He was a fast writer. Again, I think it was the newspaper background. Bob Dole, when I wrote for him in ’96, he spoke from the teleprompter. That was kind of a pattern that had been set up in the campaign that they wanted the Senator to speak from the teleprompter. [00:05:00] So the teleprompter was set up at just about every event. That’s the atmosphere that I stepped into as the traveling speechwriter for Dole.
Well, the first time I did a speech for Dole, my first week, of course the draft is printed out. It’s put into vinyl pages in a big book, and then it’s also loaded into the prompter. You always have to have your reading copy in case the prompter goes down. So it was I think Toledo, Ohio, and Senator Dole got up. I was backstage. The first speech I’d done for him. He’s going through the speech, and he reaches down with his hand and he flips about 10, 12 pages into the speech. He just — thump — and he’s in another spot of the speech. I looked back and the teleprompter operator is spinning that speech to catch up with the Senator. And my life passed before my eyes. What have I done? [00:06:00] Have those pages been loaded into that binder wrong? Has the Senator gotten lost? Is he trying to find his way? What have I done? Well, afterward nothing was said, and I went to the teleprompter operator and I said, “Can you explain to me what just happened?” He said, “Oh, no, he just wanted to change around the sections. He’s done this before, and I just go to that section so he can read it if he wants to.” Dole was that way. If he had a text, he might just decide not to use it that day. Dole, of course, his great gift was this naturally jokey manner. I think that he always wanted to really get an audience laughing at some point. You know, humor is hard to do, and we always tried with him, but no one was better at it than Dole himself. [00:07:00] He would make these little quips, and he would get the crowd going. Then sometimes I just had the sense he would decide, in the moment, oh, I’m not going to read this speech in front of me. I’ll do something else.