The Secret Voice of America’s Power Players
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her words are delivered from the podiums of power.
It’s prime time, a big night during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Onstage, a budding star is giving the type of rousing speech that can turn a political nobody into somebody. Somewhere below, under a sea of blue Hillary placards, is Clare Doody. The 28-year-old speechwriter is easy to miss, and, honestly, that’s how the blond Texan prefers it. I’m here to shoot her photo, but when I pull out my camera, she asks if the speaker will be visible in the background. Maybe we should wait for the next one, she says, letting the words sink in. It takes me a moment to realize why.
Just a few weeks before, we were sitting in the Mayflower Hotel bar, across from her office at the left-leaning speechwriting firm West Wing Writers. It’s a ritzy haunt, the type she frequents enough to still have the pen she accidentally took the last time around. “The best part of my job is that the people we write for are really cool,” she says off the bat, nursing a Maker’s Mark Manhattan. “The worst part is that I absolutely can’t talk about them.” Writer-client privilege, so to speak. Which puts me in a difficult spot. How do you write about a speechwriter who can’t show you her speeches or tell you for whom she’s written? Later, she apologizes for being unable to give me more to work with, quipping, “It’s kind of like the professional equivalent of saying, ‘I have a girlfriend in Canada,’ right?”
What I have learned about Clare Doody is that her words have been spoken by senators, governors, activist icons and CEOs. Her employers tell me she’s ghostwritten pieces in the New York Times, Time and Foreign Policy, and that they wouldn’t be surprised if she became a chief presidential speechwriter one day. Politico’s Playbook once dubbed one of her jokes an “instant classic,” though again, if she told it to you, she’d have to kill you. And those she’s worked with entertain honorifics like “the next” Peggy Noonan (Reagan’s speechwriter), Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd. “Speechwriters are heard, but rarely heard from,” says West Wing Writers partner Jeff Nussbaum, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. “But when people hear the work Clare does, they want to find their way behind the curtain.”
At the Mayflower Hotel, I try to pull back that curtain one more time, mentioning offhandedly a major global health leader whom I’m almost certain she’s worked for. She doesn’t bat an eye. She has her public persona, mostly humor writing under her own byline at the Washington Post, including headlines like “What to expect when your orangutan is expecting.” But she fiercely protects the anonymity of her serious work, the countless hours spent trying to craft words that others will use to make the case for change “publicly, memorably, movingly,” as she puts it. Those words are her legacy, and the ones she will never take credit for. The speechwriter’s divide remains intact.
It’s been a decade since The West Wing ended, taking with it Toby Ziegler and Sam Seaborn, television characters who made speechwriting famous. The beloved series always operated as a form of wish-fulfillment for idealistic bureaucrats. It’s an idealism shared by Doody, the type of true believer who waxes poetic about things as dull as Philadelphia’s centuries-old grid system because, in her view, it shows the lasting impact of good governing. Not that she’s rosy-eyed — around the office, she’s known for her snappy, and hilarious, one-liners. Once, I’m told, when news broke about George W. Bush’s painting exhibition of world leaders, she memorably fired off: “I guess we’ve been wrong all along. He is no Hitler.” (When asked, she says she remembers a slightly different punch line: “‘Well, we can finally all agree he is no Hitler.’ It’s a little friendlier,” she says.) Still, speechwriters like herself face a unique challenge. Silver-screen mythos aside, people have become much less trusting of their leaders, and the writers behind them.
The term “speechwriter” itself sounds outdated today, considering the sheer volume of channels for communication. It’s easy for the smartest voices and ideas to be submarined by white noise. The most successful news driver of this election cycle, Donald Trump, has mostly done so without the help of a speechwriter, or anything resembling the lofty rhetoric that defined acclaimed speakers like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. “It’s much more difficult for any speech, no matter how well written or delivered, to resonate,” says political communications expert Dan Schnur, who taught Doody at the University of Southern California before she graduated with a degree in American Studies in 2010.
If the first rule of speechwriting is to never reveal who you write for, a close second is to never forget you write for someone else. That means building a personal relationship with your client, balancing policy and personality effectively and commanding enough respect to have your voice heard, says Jeremy Derfner, a speechwriter who has worked with Doody on global health issues in the past. It takes humility to derive more meaning from the work than having your name attached to it, Nussbaum says, and yet top speechwriters don’t forget their own voice either. Doody believes the best speeches teach someone something new — or a new way to look at something they already knew. As Leonard Steinhorn, a political communications expert at American University, wrote in a recent op-ed about the effectiveness of Michelle Obama’s much-praised convention speech: “It was woven with a single unifying thread that bound it together, told a story, left us enchanted, and made us better for hearing it.”
Like a good comedian, Doody reads her audience, and she speaks precisely while being interviewed, as if she herself were giving a speech. “You sound like someone by thinking like someone,” she says, and with each carefully weighed syllable, she projects confidence, that ineffable quality of being put together. Even if, behind her keyboard, she wrestles with words as much as any other writer. Truly putting yourself in another’s shoes takes empathy, a virtue she learned partly while attending Greek Orthodox and Jewish day schools as a child, where she developed a taste for baklava and novels about the Holocaust. “This is always where the conversation ends,” the Houston native jokes, but that morbid interest inspired thoughts about the fragility of government structures. Her love for reading fiction — she calls it an exercise in empathy — was encouraged by her father, an English professor.
If a speaker is new to public life, it can take more one-on-one time to hone his or her voice, says Doody, whose favorite speech is Reagan’s response to the Challenger disaster. The day-to-day work is often spent writing and researching from her office, but she’s also traveled with clients to places like India and East Africa, building her familiarity in the personal aspect of global health and development. “It’s not just being a scribe. It’s often also being a thought partner,” Nussbaum says. By seeing firsthand the effect of complex policy issues — everything from extreme poverty to child mortality and deaths during childbirth — Doody can reduce them to the power of one, stripping back statistics and attaching a face, a name. “Establishing the human stakes is so crucial,” she says. Her motivation is to gather the public will necessary to create solutions: “While the things my name is attached to are the humor pieces, most of what I do is quite serious.”
There is no typical road map to becoming a speechwriter, those in the industry say, and that’s certainly been true for Doody. For the first few weeks after her arrival in Washington, D.C., as a paid intern, she slept on a friend’s dining room floor, on a punctured air mattress with a blanket oddly emblazoned with the words “Office of Steny Hoyer,” the former House majority leader. Previously, she’d worked for then state assemblyman Mike Furor, on the gubernatorial campaign of former Houston Mayor Bill White and as an intern for Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Her big break into West Wing Writers, in 2012, was when she penned an application so absurd that her mother, a neurologist, suggested she not submit it. “It essentially made fun of Los Angeles in the form of an LSAT question,” says Doody, with “some John F. Kennedy quotes sprinkled in.”
Influencers, and the unnamed writers (like Doody) behind them, have more ways to reach an audience than ever before, personally or through social media and television. The appetite for smart, humorous and entertainingly inane commentary shows in the success of mediums like TED Talks, the Daily Show and Facebook Live. The payoff of a viral hit is a historically massive global audience. “Speeches are a part of it, but there’s also a six-second vine, a 140-character tweet, coming up with a hashtag,” says Nussbaum. Doody believes tech allows previously ignored people to make their voices heard, and yet, she also admits that there’s an “unprecedented opportunity to only hear what you want to hear.”
Back at the Democratic National Convention, I finally relent. No photo. The speaker is delivering one of Doody’s speeches. It’s my only up-close look at her work, and it begins with an impassioned anecdote about facing discrimination and finding the American dream. A few of the one-liners, aimed at Trump, land applause. It ends on a hopeful note, with a conclusion that ties neatly back to its aspirational intro. Cue more applause.
Watching Doody hear her own words get delivered back to her is bizarre enough. But what makes the scene even stranger is that speechwriters have recently been the ones featured in news headlines. In July, one of the writers behind Melania Trump’s keynote address, Meredith McIver, offered to resign after plagiarism accusations surfaced. Donald Trump Jr. also drew scrutiny after his speechwriter, Frank Buckley, recycled his own words. Doody’s firm uses software to detect possible plagiarism, and she is quick to say she doesn’t condone the practice. Still, she also understands how an honest mistake could happen. The cold reality is that soaring words are attributed to their speakers, while controversial ones almost always blow back on the writers. “You only hear about us when something bad happens,” she says with a laugh.