Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: The three of you are basically domestic policy politics guys, so to speak. When it’s a national security speech, [00:48:00] do others get involved in the drafting process? Maybe somebody from the National Security Council staff?

MCCONNELL: Well, yeah, on the front end you get all kinds of input from the policy experts, not just on foreign policy but on domestic. We didn’t come in there as experts on anything. We had the experiences and we knew what the president’s policies were and we knew his thinking on things, but if it was a major — OK, the president is going to give a speech in Istanbul endorsing the idea that Turkey should be admitted to the European Union. Well, this is not something any of us is going to immediately know a lot of things about. But there are people around there. The president, you know, has his reasons, and then there are the policy experts who can sort of walk you through what our proposal is, [00:49:00], what are the arguments in favor of it what countervailing arguments need to be addressed, things of that nature. You always had, at the White House, superb policy people who were as well informed as anyone you’ve ever met in your career, and they were always very happy to talk about their areas.

I would also say that in the case of Gerson, Gerson was very close to Condi Rice. So if there was going to be a major foreign policy speech, the speechwriting department never had to, I mean, we never had to search around for good input or whatever. Her speeches were very important to the president, and Mike would come in and we would start working on something. He knew where this speech was going, because he talked to Condi. Perhaps he talked to the president himself. Sometimes we were there in those conversations with the president, [00:50:00] but it would always be very, very comprehensive, a very comprehensive level of knowledge and information that we had going into something. Otherwise we couldn’t write persuasively about it.

Q: Here’s what your colleague, Matt Scully, wrote, quote: “As a general rule in Bush speeches, if the writing is graceful, judicious, and understated, and makes you think about the subject at hand instead of somebody’s particular craftsmanship or religiosity, there’s a better than even chance that it is by John McConnell.” And before you say something modest, the next sentence is “John is always the first to deflect attention elsewhere, a reflex of modesty and good manners.” So…

MCCONNELL: Thank you for reading that. (laughter)

Q: Do you deny this?

MCCONNELL: What Matthew Scully doesn’t write is that he was as good a writer [00:51:00] as has ever written for a president, just a superior talent. So I’m flattered by the compliment, but I would return it in full measure and with more credibility.

Q: Did you write these lines from President Bush’s National Cathedral speech? Quote, “We are here in the middle hour of our grief.” Quote, a separate quote, “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and an hour of our choosing.” Did you write those famous lines?

MCCONNELL: Well, it was a team effort, a team effort. They have a familiar ring, and it was a team effort. That was, if I may say, that September 14th speech in the National Cathedral, that was written in a day.

Q: In a day?

MCCONNELL: One day. I’ll bet less than five hours. [00:52:00]

Q: And then just a few days after that, the president makes a prime-time address to Congress.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, Monday, yeah, I remember, Monday the 17th. Mike Gerson told me, “The president is probably going to speak to Congress on Thursday, and he wants a draft today.” And I said, “Well, we can’t do a speech like that in a day.” He said, “That’s what I told Karen.” And “What did Karen say?” “Well, Karen said, ’Well, the president said he wants it.’” I think Karen said, “That’s what I told the president,” but it was three days out, right. So we did, we hustled on it and got a draft ready that day. I remember it didn’t have a conclusion, and we did see the president once during that day, and he helped us a lot with the organization of the speech.

Q: Which speech are we talking about now?

MCCONNELL: The speech to Congress on September 20th, so I’m about Monday the 17th. And [00:53:00] it’s my recollection that he is the one who went through the questions that Americans have, and this became the organizing framework of the speech, the questions that Americans have. Who attacked us, why do they hate us, how do we fight and win this war, and what is expected of us now? So we did, we had all of that. It was all there by the end of Monday, and Tuesday was when we got a conclusion ready. So that was a quick turnaround.