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LaFauci on the art of speechwriting


As part of some special inaugural online material, entitled Our White House, there's a great interview with local wordsmith Tom LaFauci, who formerly served on the staff of Joe Biden.

Some excerpts:

Is the inaugural address high stakes? What is its historical significance and how does it differ from a state of the union address?

TSL: An inaugural address is a thematic speech setting the tone and tenor of an administration. It should blend poetry and political philosophy with a smattering of generalized policy without the weight of time limited statistics and detail. It should categorize challenges and opportunities and move the nation to reach for the stars. Inaugural addresses are, by nature, timeless and should be drafted with a sense of history in mind. A state of the union address, on the other hand, is a much more programmatic speech promoting specific policies and legislative goals that are time limited. An inaugural address speaks to generations while a state of the union address speaks to 535 members of Congress. Both are important speeches for any president, but state of the union messages tend to die a slow death in the Congressional Record; inaugural addresses, on the other hand, are remembered long after they are delivered. When read together, from George Washington’s first inaugural address to Barack Obama’s inaugural, we are given a unique glimpse into history through the hopes and aspirations of the forty-four presidents who have shaped this nation’s history. ....

What do you consider to be your best speech? Did you feel the speech accomplished what you set out to do?

TSL: I wouldn’t say I have a best speech, but one of the most challenging to write was a eulogy for Senator Joe Biden to deliver at the funeral of Senator Strom Thurmond. Neither Senator Biden nor I agreed with Strom’s politics, but, for many years, Senator Biden had served closely with Strom on the Judiciary Committee and they became friends. Strom occupied the offices adjacent to Biden’s in the Russell Senate Office Building, the oldest Senate office building just north of the Capitol on Constitution Avenue. In fact, Strom’s personal office was directly adjacent to mine. He had been a staunch segregationist early in his career and ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat. He was a drafter of the 1956 Southern Manifesto against Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1957 he filibustered against the Civil Rights Act for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes, the longest filibuster in Senate history. But over the years, Strom’s views had mellowed. When Senator Biden was asked to deliver the eulogy, he called me into his office and we looked at each other and wondered exactly how he could fashion a fitting tribute to a good friend with whom he so fundamentally disagreed. The final result was one of our best collaborative efforts. The theme was redemption, based on a story I will tell you later. Senator Biden spoke movingly about redemption and the power of one man to change.

As a speech writer, you do all the leg work, the creative work, then the person who delivers the speech gets all the credit. Is it hard writing something for which someone else gets the credit?

TSL: It is true that speechwriters are the most invisible staff members in Washington. They are often introduced merely as aides or special assistants. But, recognition aside, it has been an honor to work with some of the most extraordinary leaders in our nation on issues that have changed the course of history, an honor to have played even a small role in the great debates of our time. The personal satisfaction of being present for history is the speechwriter’s reward.

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