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Street-Corner Conservative

by John R. Coyne Jr.

Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric, by William F. Gavin (Michigan State, 172 pp., $24.95)

For three decades, Bill Gavin has been numbered among the best and most trusted speechwriters in Washington, giving words to the thoughts of such men as Nixon, Agnew, Reagan, Sen. James Buckley, and House minority leader Bob Michel. It is to Jim Buckley and Bob Michel, both of whom “exemplified what it is to be a good man,” that he dedicates this book addressing both the nature of rhetoric and the practical aspects of crafting political speeches, all in the context of a well-told personal narrative.

“I believe writing speeches is something less than an art but more than a mechanical exercise,” he writes. “I prefer to think of it as a craft, and that is why I prefer the word ‘speechwright’ instead of the usual ‘speechwriter.’ A wright is someone who puts things together. A speechwright puts together a speech out of separate pieces . . . the way a wheelwright puts together a wheel.”

Nor, he points out, is speechwriting, “strictly speaking, a profession.” Few of us who have worked as speechwriters ever consciously trained for the job. But most of us were writers, and something we’d written caught someone’s eye and prompted a call. Bill Gavin’s call came in 1967, the result of a letter he’d written to Richard Nixon, urging him to run for president in 1968. Gavin at the time was a high-school teacher, working in the master-teacher program at the University of Pennsylvania. His letter was probably one of the most unusual Richard Nixon ever received.

“Dear Mr. Nixon,” it read in part, “May I offer two suggestions concerning your plans for 1968? 1. Run. You can win. Nothing can happen to you . . . that is worse than what has happened to you. Ortega y Gasset says in ‘The Revolt of the Masses’: ‘. . . These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission. . . .’ You, in effect, are lost. That is why you are the only political figure with the vision to see things the way they are. . . . Run. You will win. . . . I know you can win if you see yourself for what you are: a man who has been beaten, humiliated, hated, but who can still see the truth.”

A remarkable letter, to say the least. Because of it, in 1968, Gavin was offered a job with the Nixon campaign, then the White House writing staff, where he learned to handle the tools of his trade. “What I learned writing for Nixon became the foundation for my career as a speechwright.”

Although Nixon demanded “forcefulness, directness, timeliness, brevity” in speeches and was quite understandably leery of attempts at eloquence or playing to emotions, he prized both abilities in Gavin, who provided the memorable lines for Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech (included in an appendix), in which he spoke of the little boy who “hears the train go by at night” and “dreams of faraway places.”

In a poignant scene set at the Capitol in 1990, Gavin, then an aide to Bob Michel, describes a visit by Nixon, whom he hadn’t seen for 20 years, to speak to Republican congressmen. As Nixon, Gavin, and Michel stood talking, “Bob said something nice about my writing, and Nixon said, ‘Oh, I know, I know. He writes with heart.’” Later, Nixon asked whether his speech on world affairs had been too “intellectual.” Not at all, Michel assured him. Nixon responded, “I leave that intellectual stuff to Gavin.”

As he was leaving, Nixon asked Gavin: “Are you still a conservative?”

“Yes, Mr. President. More than ever.”

The process of becoming “more than ever” had intensified 20 years earlier, with Gavin’s decision to leave the White House for a very short stint at HEW (now HHS), run by the peculiar Elliot Richardson. (“Now, I don’t want you to let those liberals at HEW change you,” said Richard Nixon in a farewell phone call.) As a teacher, Gavin believed he could contribute to forming education policy. But he learned quickly that, in the HEW’s nest of inbred, paranoid, bureaucratic liberals, he was viewed as some sort of mole. Why else would he have left the White House for HEW? “Within a few weeks I was certain I had definitely made a colossal blunder.”

Fortunately, the legendary Frank Shakespeare had an opening at the United States Information Agency, where Gavin spent two rewarding years before joining the staff of New York’s Senator Buckley, where he found his place. “For the first time, I would be writing for someone in the conservative movement, the brother of the man whose personality and message made me realize I was conservative without knowing it. . . . I came of political age during the late 1950s, and my conservatism is rooted in, if not completely defined by, the . . . philosophically based conservative principles enunciated by National Review, under the editorship of Bill Buckley.” (In 1960, NR had published his first paid article, “a satire on Japanese student riots called ‘Rave, New World!’”: “Every two weeks I awaited the newest issue and read it straight through. . . . I was already a practicing conservative, but National Review taught me what that meant intellectually.”

Working for Jim Buckley, he learned that what it meant practically was intellectual combat, taking place “not just in a senatorial office but also in what he and his staff saw as a besieged outpost of the conservative movement.” The combat was never uncivil, however. As Gavin puts it: “Congressional offices quickly take on aspects . . . of the boss’s style, and Jim Buckley — even-tempered; a bit shy; charming; with a quick, ready sense of humor; smart; and the soul of civility — was and is the least ideologized (to use his brother Bill’s term) person I have ever known. He did not — again quoting Bill — force ‘every passing phenomenon into his ideological mold.’”

To go from writing for Richard Nixon, “whose view of rhetoric was essentially pragmatic,” to writing for Jim Buckley, “who saw his public utterances as what we now would call ‘teaching moments,’” required a considerable shifting of rhetorical gears. Buckley would not only discuss a topic in his speeches, “but also informed the audience of the principles he relied on. . . . He would rather take two paragraphs to explain a necessary distinction, thereby risking his audience, than resort to a one-liner that would get applause but leave ideas muddled.”

Jim Buckley was not an electrifying speaker. But by “the criteria of sincerity, intelligence, civility, and the ability to make a good argument in a good cause, he was excellent. We worked well together, and . . . I tried my best to make sure his carefully constructed arguments had the clarity he demanded but also the forcefulness they deserved.”

In the end, owing to the lingering fallout from Watergate and the Democratic surge, Buckley lost his bid for reelection, and Gavin would soon be jobless. But fate in the form of Pat Buchanan intervened, steering him toward Bob Michel. Gavin was offered a job, accepted, and “eighteen years later, when Bob Michel retired, I retired with him.”

In 1980, Gavin was asked to take a leave of absence to become “chief speechwriting coordinator” for the Reagan presidential campaign. He accepted, and with the win was invited to return to the White House, an invitation that could have been prompted in part by Ronald Reagan’s reading. In 1971, Gavin had written an article for National Review called “Confessions of a Street-Corner Conservative,” “about people from my background [urban blue-collar Catholics] who, ten years later, would be called Reagan Democrats.” While working with Jim Buckley, he expanded the ideas into a book, Street Corner Conservative, published by Arlington House and made a selection of the Conservative Book Club.

A Washington Star reporter wrote that Reagan — on a 1980 flight from California to New York, where he would announce his cabinet choices — “busied himself on the plane reading task force reports and a book entitled ‘Street Corner Conservative’ by William Gavin.” Gavin never found out what Reagan thought of his book, but there’s no doubt the president approved. Gavin turned down the offer of another White House post to return to Bob Michel’s office, where he remained until Michel retired.

Gavin followed suit, and is today “in the Former Speechwriters Protection Program,” writing novels. So far, unlike many workers with words who promise upon retirement to write novels but never do, he’s produced two, both well-received: One Hell of a Candidate and The Ernesto “Che” Guevara School for Wayward Girls.

But then, that’s characteristic of street-corner conservatives. They stand by their principles and values, they keep their word, they work hard, and they produce. Bill Gavin may no longer be a practicing speechwright. But he’s still a street-corner conservative.

– Mr. Coyne, a former White House speechwriter, is co-author, with Linda Bridges, of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.

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