Inside the Presidential Speechwriting Process: Using Content Analysis to Study Changes to Speech Drafts

Inside the Presidential Speechwriting Process: Using Content Analysis to Study Changes to Speech Drafts

Ken Collier (Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/IJSSS.2016010103
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This paper incorporates content analysis of 495 drafts of 70 presidential speeches gathered from the archives of all ten presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush to measure the changes to drafts of presidential speeches as they move through the White House speech drafting and review process. Studying the fluctuations in rhetorical scores demonstrates the degree to which forces within the presidency present different approaches to the rhetorical strategies of the White House. While the fluctuations revealed by content analysis may not tell us precisely about the motives of those within the process, they reveal significant differences in the approach of various staff members and help scholar better understand the inner workings behind the rhetoric of the bully pulpit.
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Had the Gettysburg address been written by a committee, its ten sentences would surely have grown to a hundred, its simple pledges would surely have been hedged, and the world would indeed have little noted or long remembered what was said there.

- Ted Sorensen (1963, 61-62)

Almost four score years ago, the Brownlow Commission proclaimed that the president needed help. Since then, one of the fundamental questions hanging over the Executive Office of the President is how much the extra assistance actually helped presidents. Looking to presidential speech to take our measure is obvious since speeches are the most visible aspect of presidential leadership and define the presidency in the eyes of both scholars and average citizens. While the presidency takes on the role of defining the nation and telling its history we know surprisingly little about the story behind speeches and how the White House works to find the right words. Thus, the process presidency’s most public function remains one of its most mysterious rituals. The White House has permitted a few tantalizing glimpses into the speechwriting process and the Obama administration even allowed head speechwriter Jon Favreau become a star by appearing on the Colbert Report and dating a television star Rashida Jones. However, we know little about the process beyond the few glimpses the White House offers up for public consumption.

This research uses the drafting of presidential speeches to provide a unique view into the institutional politics within the White House. In fact, speechwriting may present the best opportunity for systematically studying the inner workings of the presidency for several reasons. First, it involves every kind of policy that finds its way to the president’s desk. Jeff Tulis has described the speechwriting office as “an institutional locus of policy making in the White House, not merely an annex to policymaking” (1987, 185). While policy advising has increasingly become specialized and segmented, almost every presidential decision involves some kind of speech or formal message that will pass through the speechwriting office. Speechwriters seldom decide public policy or political strategy, but they work closely with policy and political advisors on every type of presidential decision. The speech clearance process brings the full range of political and institutional interests that roam the Executive Branch to the editing table much as if a watering hole draws many exotic species to one location. Speechwriters often become, in the words of one Reagan speechwriter, “the referee among warring factions” (Muir, 1992, 34) and the internal debates they mediate reveal a great deal.

Finally, the paper trail yielded by the speechwriting process provides a rich data set because it requires that the White House commit specific words to paper at different points in time. Thus, while many of the discussions within the presidency may never be articulated in detail, the nature of the speechwriting process leaves the remnants of deliberation in written drafts as a proposed speech takes form and moves from office to office. This trail of drafts traces the intellectual and political evolution of the administration’s deliberations and helps researchers to see differences between individuals and offices otherwise not recorded.

This research utilizes data from the archives of presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush to construct a kind of crude rhetorical electroencephalograph designed to detect institutional fluctuations of the thinking within White House. Medical science uses electroencephalography (EEG) to track voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain by recording electrical activity along the scalp. Using this technique, researchers can learn what region of the brain is involved in different mental processes. In a similar fashion, this research uses Rod Hart’s DICTION software to measures the changes to drafts of presidential speeches as they move through the White House drafting and vetting process. The results suggest that the presidency is best viewed as a collection of many offices with similar--but not identical--perspectives and goals, supporting Terry Moe’s description of the institution as “a maze of supporting expectations and relations” (1985, 241).


Studying Speechwriting And Clearance

What most people fail to realize is that making a major Presidential address is something akin to enacting a public law.

- Ford Speechwriter Robert Hartmann (1980, 384)

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