Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: At the point at which Dick Cheney is announced as the candidate, had you been writing for George W. Bush?


Q: Talk about what it’s like writing for George W. Bush in 2000?

MCCONNELL: When I got there, it was the beginning of 2000, as I mentioned. Gerson and Scully had both been there [00:21:00] for a number of months. Gerson I think came in May, Scully in the summer.

Q: Of ’99?

MCCONNELL: Correct. So by the time I came — I was hired because the volume of speeches and the level of activity in that little shop was going to go up a number of degrees. I, of course, knew these guys, and so we just — on my first day Mike said, “He’s got an event in New Hampshire later this week. Can you draft a little speech for this?” I can’t remember any of the details.

Q: This was during the primaries?

MCCONNELL: Yeah, during the primaries. This is the beginning of January. So Iowa was about to happen. New Hampshire was about to happen. [00:22:00] Of course, Iowa wasn’t suspenseful, because McCain wasn’t really playing in Iowa. But at any rate, so I did a draft and I sent it in to Mike a day or two later, and he came back and had some edits, and we just talked them over. And he did this kind of thing with Matthew. But then we got to the point, when the larger speeches needed to be written, that the three of us would gather in Mike’s office and go over a draft that one of us had done, or a draft that maybe Matthew and I had collaborated on. Then the three of us would come in together and give it a good, careful cleaning up and editing and sharpening and all those things. And we started writing inserts together. OK. Karen, he was called, [00:23:00], she said the governor wants a little bit more of this and she wants us to turn this around in an hour or two. So the three of us would kind of settle in and then work on this.

Q: This was in Austin?

MCCONNELL: In Austin. Mike was one of the few people on the campaign staff who had an office. Austin was cubicles, and almost everyone was in a cubicle. I was right just — Scully was very close to me, Kasey Pipes, Dan Bartlett, Scott McClellan, I mean, a future White House press secretary. Ari Fleischer had an office, Karl Rove had an office, Josh Bolten, Joe Allbaugh, the campaign manager, Karen. But there were very few offices, it was basically cubicles, and we spent most of our time in cubicles. But when we were convening on speeches, we would go into Mike’s office. Eventually we just started writing whole speeches that way, the way we had originally been editing speeches or writing inserts. [00:24:00] We just found that it produced very good material. We liked doing it that way. We felt it was more efficient than if one writer went off for two or three days, and we liked it. We did that for five years, starting in Austin and continuing through the first term, almost to the end of the first term.

Q: Did you get to know George W. Bush? What I’m wondering is, how do you write in somebody else’s voice?

MCCONNELL: Well, I did get to know him. I saw him much more as president than as governor, when I was working there down in Austin. I mean, we would see him, and there would be meetings at the Governor’s Mansion, and he would on occasion come over to headquarters. But he was really on the road all the time, [00:25:00] and he did not take speechwriters with him. I mean, we were churning it out in Austin. The technology was a little better, and so you could get it pretty quickly. Karen Hughes, who knew his mind and his communication style and the way he liked things better than anybody, she was there. She was on the plane with him.

So the point is we just didn’t spend great volumes of time with him. But by the time he was president, of course, he knew us, and he’d spend a lot of time with Mike, because Mike was the chief speechwriter and the first hired. Mike became really a policy adviser in a very serious sense, because he’s a pretty serious intellectual, a guy who’s got a lot of experience in policy on Capitol Hill and went to a lot of policy meetings, both in Austin and at the White House. [00:26:00]

But writing for anybody, you know, the rules are generally going to be the same regardless of who your boss is. Speechwriting is different from essay writing, from news writing. The main difference is it’s written for the ear, and so the sentences need to be shorter. It can’t be endless. You know, a speech shouldn’t be more than a couple of thousand words if you can avoid it, especially in a political — in a campaign-type setting. A couple of thousand words usually is enough to get your message out, two or three thousand words. You get much beyond that, even your friends will start looking at their watches. Really a decently written speech could be read by anybody who’s comfortable speaking in public, [00:27:00] because, as I say, if it’s written for the ear, if it’s written in a conversational style, and has some rhythm to it, doesn’t have choppy language or problems like that, they will be able to do it. The big difference is, in my observation, how does the person start the speech. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had different bosses who liked to start in different ways. But that’s — I remember one day at the White House, the president had to cancel an event, and Cheney took on the event. The speech had been written for the president — this was late in the second term — and I hadn’t done it and I hadn’t seen it, but I was asked to turn it into a Cheney speech. I thought, well, I can do that in a hurry, and I remember it not being so easy, because I hadn’t written it for the president. [00:28:00] If I had written it for the president, I could turn it into a Cheney speech. But I hadn’t written it for the president and there were just a lot of things — I guess in my style of writing it was a little more interchangeable between the two of them than this was. This just had a little bit different tone to it. I’m not describing it very well.

Q: A little more in Bush’s distinctive voice?

MCCONNELL: Well, it wasn’t even that. It was another writer’s work, and so it was harder for me to adapt. But as I say, if I had written it for Bush and then was asked to turn it into a Cheney speech, I could have done it a lot faster and a lot more smooth. The big changes would have been at the top and at the end of the speech, and that’s where you get more into the personality of the person. [00:29:00]