The Magazine

Working with Words

A writer of speeches on the uses of rhetoric.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By PETER HANNAFORD
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For nearly 40 years, William Gavin’s calling was as “speechwright.” He says he prefers the term to speechwriter because “a wright is someone who puts things together from. A speechwright puts together a speech out of separate pieces. .  .  . Authors of books and essays write to make something lasting and beautiful; speechwrights hammer and drill, saw and otherwise push around words to craft something ephemeral but useful.”

Photo of a podium

This book is about how Gavin pushed around thousands of words in a career that transformed him from high school teacher to working on Richard Nixon’s writing team in the 1968 election.

In his memoir, Street Corner Conservative, he has written about growing up in Jersey City, a solidly Democratic place, and his gradual awakening to the fact that he was a conservative. Once signed on to the Nixon team, he began to write odds and ends, one of which caught Nixon’s eye. Ever afterward he called Gavin his writer “with heart.” Nixon understood that Gavin had the ability to connect to everyday working Americans, which was something difficult for Nixon to do.

Gavin’s work led him to a job on the speechwriting team in the Nixon White House, but a half-year later he had become bored “working on too many one-liners and not enough—in fact, not any—speeches,” so he quit. White House colleagues arranged for him to get a job in public affairs at the then-Department of Health, Education & Welfare (today Health and Human Services), and it was a disaster. He soon realized he was not cut out to be a bureaucrat. Weeks went by before he even met the secretary; other staffers considered Gavin a White House spy. To put it mildly, HEW was not interested in pursuing President Nixon’s initiatives, and two months after starting, Gavin resigned.

But luck was with him. He called Frank Shakespeare, director of the United States Information Agency, to see if he knew of any job openings. Shakespeare had two. Writes Gavin: “God protects, it would seem, sleepwalkers, children and puffed-up, self-deluding speechwrights.” For the next two years he traveled widely on assignments for Shakespeare, but not writing speeches (Shakespeare was a very good extemporaneous speaker). He became acquainted with Willis Conover, the Voice of America’s popular jazz programmer. Conover never spoke about the issues of the day on his program or propagandized for the United States. His music did it for him. From this, Gavin learned that “in rhetoric or geopolitics, you can make your point indirectly.” Just as in teaching, or propaganda for that matter, “know what you are talking about; care what you are talking about and .  .  . give the audience a person—you.”

He left the USIA in 1972 to become a writer for Senator James Buckley of New York. Buckley was a minority within a minority in the Senate—a well-reasoned, intellectual conservative—who stood out against the prevailing ethos of liberalism at a time when it was more or less the gold standard of public affairs. Its practitioners in politics and the media assumed it was part of the natural order of things, and that conservatives were curiosities or crazy. Buckley never flinched from principled positions that Gavin admired, but he lost his seat in 1976 (to Daniel Patrick Moynihan). In late November of that year, about to be jobless, Gavin learned that Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, campaigning for leadership of the House Republican caucus, was looking for a writer. Gavin was hired.

Michel was not an orator, but Gavin saw in the down-to-earth, results-oriented Midwesterner someone who fit what he called “working rhetoric,” word patterns that fell naturally on the ears of Main Street Americans. Gavin has always believed that making persuasive arguments is much more important than eloquence, which delivers the much-quoted line but rarely concrete results. So Gavin spent 18 enjoyable years with Michel, retiring when Michel stepped down and, with his boss’s approval, doing occasional work on Ronald Reagan’s campaigns.

I first met Gavin in the summer of 1978 when he attended a meeting at Reagan’s home with Reagan’s inner working group, all pointing toward a presidential campaign two years later. Bill was asked to draft a new stump speech for the fall, and he delivered it that day. It began with a word picture that evoked Thomas Jefferson at sundown at Monticello and his thoughts about the nation’s future, moving on to the priorities shared by millions of Americans, regardless of ethnic background, religion, or political heritage: family, work, neighborhood, peace, freedom. Reagan loved it. We began calling it “the community of shared values.” Reagan used it regularly and it became the central theme of his acceptance speech at the 1980 convention in Detroit and the campaign that followed.