It was like stale bean soup. Or a string of wet sponges. Or dogs barking on and on and on. That was how H.L. Mencken characterized Warren G. Harding’s spectacularly bad inaugural speech, which our 29th president penned himself. “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered,” moaned this famous cultural critic. “It is flap and doodle,” wrote Mencken. “It is balder and dash.”
That slam, and countless others from across the nation, forced the White House to block any future bloviating. And so a speechwriter was hired. Judson Welliver, a seasoned Midwestern journalist, got the title of “literary clerk” and, since there was no official authorization of his salary, got paid partly out of the White House chauffeurs budget.
He is considered the first official presidential speechwriter in U.S. history.
Before then, presidents, cabinet members and various ringers tended this laboratory of oratory. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison ghostwrote for George Washington. Historian George Bancroft wrote for James Polk. Even Abraham Lincoln got some help. For his first inaugural, Secretary of State William Seward came up with “mystic chords,” to which Lincoln attached “of memory.”
Dan Cluchey ’08 now works in Welliver’s wheelhouse for President Joe Biden. His title is senior presidential speechwriter, and he’s one of three official speechwriters in the administration (though former speechwriters and current advisers also pitch in) under the leadership of senior adviser Mike Donilon. At age 35, Cluchey is the youngest of the trio, and a relative newcomer, having signed on with Biden in 2018. He began by writing speeches for the ex-vice president as part of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. Then he was in the trenches for the presidential race, helping churn out Biden’s campaign addresses. His colleagues are Vinay Reddy, the director of speechwriting, who has worked for Biden since his second term as vice president, and Jeff Nussbaum, a former speechwriter for Al Gore and others.
These three weren’t hired to spice up that bean soup or quiet those dogs, meaning write good speeches for a bad writer. Biden is hardly Harding. Rather, they are at the White House because no modern president can handle the firehose of rhetoric on their own: In Barack Obama’s first year of office, he gave 411 speeches; if he’d composed all of them, he’d have done nothing else.
Cluchey has labored for other “principals” (what speechwriter call those who deliver the remarks), and some are more hands-off, just sketching an outline they expect the speechwriter to color in. Biden is not like that, he told me: “The president is someone who always knows what he wants to say. He takes the lead, has the vision, and you have to be ready to roll. The speechwriter’s job is to write something that’s true to the speaker, to help them put their best foot forward, to organize their thoughts in the most efficient way.”
To that purpose, White House speechwriters must also synthesize knowledge from those who surround the president. At the beginning of the process Cluchey can feel like a stenographer, typing furiously while meeting with the policy folks; the senior advisers; the digital, communications and research teams; plus other relevant experts.
Cluchey comes to the White House having written for other leaders. In 2014 and 2015, for instance, he worked for Fred Hochberg, the colorful chair of the Export-Import Bank (EXIM), the federal government’s official export credit agency. He also assisted in the writing of Hochberg’s book, Trade Is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade. Hochberg is a man who loves puns, humor and playful language. In contrast, President Biden has a more earnest tone, anchored by allusions to his long public experiences, his faith and his family.
I asked Kathleen Maher, executive secretary at EXIM when Cluchey was there, to describe his role. “There’s a tremendous amount of juggling that has to happen, using patience and diplomacy and having the ability to bring in everybody’s ideas while focusing on the main person, the chairman, who had very specific things that he wanted to say and a voice that he wanted to say them in. Adapting to somebody’s voice is a real skill, and Dan was able to do that in spades.”
When you sign up, you sign up to not take credit. If a speechwriter gets too famous, they’ve done something horribly wrong.”
So there’s the juggling and the gathering and the writing. And at the end of the speechwriting process, picture Dan Cluchey, all 6 feet, 2 inches of him, hovering by the teleprompter at the venue (in pre-pandemic times). “The teleprompter operator is the pilot, and I’m like the navigator,” explains Cluchey. He has a paper copy of the “hymnal,” as he calls the finalized speech text, and he’s making sure the words on the screen are aligned with the president’s rhythm of delivery. No small feat, given Biden’s famously frequent asides (he’s “allergic to teleprompters,” said The Washington Post). “It’s one of the most terrifying parts of my job,” says Cluchey. If the president goes off script, “I’m rifling through my copy of the speech, trying to anticipate when he’s coming back to the hymnal, so that we can make sure the prompter is ready to catch him.”
Cluchey guesses he’s written about a thousand political speeches on countless topics over the past decade, scribing also for the head of Consumer Reports, plus many leaders in the Obama administration, such as Eric Holder at the Justice Department and Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services. Between speechwriting jobs, he also wrote a novel about a complicated romance called The Life of the World to Come. “A smart, weird, heartful book,” reads one blurb. Knowing that Cluchey must hold to the simpler vocabulary of speechwriting, I smiled as I spied the book’s references to Descartes and Kierkegaard and its dictionary diva words, like “nacarat” and “autolatrist.” Cluchey’s protagonist also turns in a college thesis titled “States of Confusion: A Political-Psycho-biographical Analysis of the James Buchanan Presidency.”
That was a pretty psycho-autobiographical move, certainly. It is fair to call Cluchey a great nerd of presidential arcana and speeches: Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 Osawatomie, Kansas, “new nationalism” stem-winder is his favorite. And when I mentioned that Mencken screed, he lit up. He knew it well, and quickly quoted the “balder and dash” part from memory. He even dreams of writing a novel about First Lady Florence Harding, who apparently hired Welliver in the first place. (Welliver would later write speeches, also, for Calvin Coolidge, class of 1895.) The man’s obscurity has since become totemic to this largely unsung profession, and, in fact, there’s a fairly flippant (and fairly dormant) group called the Judson Welliver Society. It’s stocked with presidential speechwriters and was founded by the late William Safire, who wrote for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
At one of the society’s dinners, the journalist Hendrik Hertzberg, himself a Carter administration speechwriter, offered tongue-in-cheek remarks: “We come to honor—to praise, even to revere—ourselves. Because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.”