A man in a beard and glasses wearing a sweater

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.”

This story has an elephant in the room, or a donkey, I guess, since Cluchey writes for Democrats. He can describe his world in broad strokes—but I can’t quote any text from speeches Cluchey wrote. Moreover, I can’t even tell you which speeches he’s written for President Biden. That’s the ethical code.

“Even if you’re the only speechwriter, the speech is written by the person who said it,” explains Cluchey. “Breaking that bond is not done. When you sign up, you sign up to not take credit—or blame—for anything. The one thing you can’t do is say, ‘Oh, I came up with that line.’ If a speechwriter gets too famous, they’ve done something horribly wrong.” It’s about ditching his ego, really: “You have to have the sort of temperament that allows you to be subsumed, not in an oppressive way but in a service-minded way, because you believe in somebody.” Cluchey once put it this way to Stay Thirsty magazine, citing a John F. Kennedy speechwriter: “An American hears ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’ and she or he isn’t going to think, boy, that Ted Sorensen sure knocked it out of the park with that one.”

Given this opacity, I don’t know if Cluchey himself wrote this line from Joe Biden’s speech at the January 2020 National Baptist Convention board meeting: Sometimes progress runs fastest when we are at our lowest.

Or this, from his first speech as president-elect: And we lead not by the example of our power but by the power of our example.

Or this, from his inaugural address: To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. That’s America.

So attribution is out. Instead, here’s the story of how Dan Cluchey got from Amherst to the White House.

Two students in caps and gowns speaking at commencement

From One Commencement Speaker to Another

We asked Dan Cluchey, the senior class speaker at the 2008 commencement, to choose two other student commencement speakers and explain why they nailed it.

There’s a moose on his wall. Daniel John Cluchey, a Maine native, bought the moose photo at the Yarmouth Clam Festival, and likes how it reminds him of home. We did four Zoom interviews in all, during the presidential transition months, each one interrupted when his phone would start blowing up. I’d ask if that was someone from the Biden team touching base, and he’d politely, unfailingly, take the fifth. I also asked if he helped with campaign debate prep. He can’t talk about that. If he was working on the inaugural address. He couldn’t say, so sorry. He was about as forthcoming as that moose.

He was speaking from the Washington, D.C., apartment he shares with his wife, Miriam Becker-Cohen ’11, and Bowie, an American Dingo mutt, who reigns over their social media presence. The couple have a great Amherst meet-cute story: they happened to take a D.C. alumni rideshare to Amherst’s 2012 homecoming weekend, and 18 hours of round-trip conversation sealed the deal. Becker-Cohen is a civil rights lawyer who is now a fellow at the Constitutional Accountability Center. When we talked, they’d just moved from Portland, Maine, where she clerked for a judge on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while Cluchey wrote Biden speeches remotely during most of 2020.

A man and a woman poising with President Biden

Cluchey and his wife, lawyer Miriam Becker-Cohen ’11, with Biden in 2018. Cluchey says: “It’s not the president’s grief that defines him; it’s his healing from grief. That’s what makes him so right for this moment. There is a connection between loss in his life and loss in the nation.”

Photo courtesy Dan Cluchey

He grew up in Cape Elizabeth, outside Portland, and has seven siblings (two full, one half and four step-siblings). His parents divorced when he was a boy. Jody Sataloff, his mother, was an assistant district attorney who founded the first Reform synagogue in southern Maine. His father, David Cluchey, is a law professor at the University of Maine School of Law and the author of a textbook on Maine criminal law. Dan Cluchey himself went to Harvard Law School—but never intended to practice. He’d gleaned that most speechwriters had a legal pedigree and bet the credential would open doors.

In fact, he told me that writing “bone-dry legal briefs” helped hone his powers as a speechwriter: “I came into law school erring on the side of overly rhetorical and emotional writing, stemming from a youth spent writing songs and poems and listening to terribly sad music. Legal writing was a hard but necessary education, marrying economy and clarity of argument to a speech’s emotional content. My legal education was a good way to bring me back down to earth, where the work is and, frankly, where the change happens.”

That legal education also provided funding for summer internships, and so Cluchey pitched the Department of Justice to take him on as a fledgling speechwriter. Soon, this 25-year-old intern was thrown in on writing several speeches and op-eds for then-Attorney General Eric Holder. “That was thrilling for me,” Cluchey remembers. “To do the job effectively, you have to hear the [principal’s] voice, so right away you have a seat at the table.”

Was there a clear path toward becoming a speechwriter after that? He shook his head no. “It’s a very small, niche profession and not terribly organized. So there’s more reliance on word of mouth and networking. Often jobs don’t get posted in a traditional way.” There are jobs out there, though: legislators on the Hill have speechwriters, as do some heads of companies, universities and large nonprofits. But to find a speechwriting job, much less land one, requires persistence. Indeed, Cluchey did a lot of cold-calling when he started out, and also wrote a fake Obama speech as a work example.

This informal networking also means “there’s an old boys’ club effect, and this can be exclusionary along racial and gender lines,” Cluchey pointed out, and I thought of that old boy H.L. Mencken, ever-quotable but now tarnished for the racism and anti-Semitism in his diaries. “Those of us in this field need to leave the door open behind us and help connect people the way we got connected,” added Cluchey, “hopefully in a mindful way where we’re not just bringing in more people who look like us.”

So after Amherst, there was law school, and before Amherst, Cluchey spent his high school years absorbed in writing, music, theater and politics. He remains a string player (guitar, mandolin and beyond) and acted in plays as a teen, including a star turn as Jean Valjean in a high school production of Les Misérables. I asked in jest if that character influenced his political views. “Well, you know, as the mayor, he was a dedicated public servant,” he joked back.

“The power of public performance, of language and its delivery, of reading and writing in English classes, started to get baked in early on,” Cluchey continued. “And all of those parts of my life conspired to drive me toward speechwriting. Speechwriters have to be more attuned to hitting the ear in the right way, the same way a song hits the ear.” In fact, Cluchey always recites his speeches as he writes them. He cringed a little admitting that he could probably recite dialogue from the TV series The West Wing too, but as is the case for many government workers of his generation, this fast-talking drama about a president and his dedicated staff helped inspire his career. “It was a conduit to saying that these are jobs that exist in public service,” said Cluchey as he sipped from a Biden-Harris coffee mug. “That was the first time I saw someone called a speechwriter.”

Cluchey has also freelanced for McSweeney’s, The Huffington Post and The New York Times, wherein he wrote the hilarious essay “Yes, Those Are My Tonsils,” on how a snapshot of him exulting at his Harvard graduation became a much-repurposed stock photo. I reminded him that, in his Huffington Post bio a decade back, he made a snarky reference to “emulating Sam Seaborn,” the West Wing speechwriter played by Rob Lowe. Not long after, I read that the PBS journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, at age 5, decided she wanted to be a journalist because of the comic strip character Brenda Starr, star reporter. Inspiration wafts from where it will.

Cluchey recollected his youthful mindset: “I remember thinking I’d love to work in politics in a way that is as creative as possible, something that speechwriting affords that a lot of other roles don’t. It was the best way that someone like me could have an impact on the causes that I cared about. I didn’t have the stuff to be the policy person or the press secretary or whatever. I thought speechwriting was my way into that world.”

His first sortie into that world came his senior year in high school, when he volunteered at the Maine office of the Howard Dean campaign. “It was like the lowest level, doing phone banking, getting coffee for the interns,” Cluchey says. That summer, he heard Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote. That was “the big one for me,” he says. “That’s the same answer that a lot of people would give, so no points for originality, but at the time I was 18 and it was ‘Oh my God.’ It’s just words, but words can inspire people, motivate people, educate people. They can move mountains if done right. What a force that speech was. I thought, ‘I want to pay attention to this. I want to look into this more.’”

Each inaugural seeks to set the tone for the presidency. A pristine, uncomplicated tone just never would’ve been right for this moment.”

That fall he entered Amherst, and tore into as many political science classes as he could, later taking enough music classes to almost qualify for a double major. By sophomore year he had resolved to become a speechwriter. I asked if he could draw a line between his chosen coursework and chosen vocation. His answers surprised me. He named two songwriting classes, because the cadence of a speech is vital. And a course on psychobiography, with psychology professor Amy Demorest, in which he read memoirs by Frederick Douglass, Gandhi and more, surveying the inner lives of famous figures.

There was also a poetry course with English professor David Sofield that encouraged students to “really bare your soul,” Cluchey recalls. “I think we all benefited from being led in that direction. I know I have in my writing, to make it more intimate and authentic.” When I Googled Cluchey, I landed on Goodreads, where he had offered glowing takes on virtually every Nabokov novel. Sure enough, his love for Russian literature was kindled by Russian professor Stanley Rabinowitz—who hollered “04107!” when he first met Cluchey in class, a parlor trick he used on all his students, memorizing their hometown zip codes. That class “was a huge touchstone,” says Cluchey. “I was learning to read and by extension learning to write with real intention, with a sort of sonic appreciation and attention to the machinery of sentences, the emotional content, the syntax. That opened some doors for me.”

For his political science senior thesis, he produced (you guessed it) a political psychobiography of Boris Yeltsin, and jokes that he was a “total copycat” of William Taubman, his adviser, then at work on his biography of Mikhail Gorbachev. Outside class, Cluchey joined the Amherst College Democrats and helped start a college chapter for Obama’s candidacy. Meanwhile, he had a WAMH radio show and acted in Mr. Gad’s House of Improv.

He had a flair for both writing and performing, and his classmates noticed: they voted him to be senior class speaker at commencement. When the day came, he launched by pretending to read the prepared text of Amherst’s then-president Anthony W. Marx, in Marx’s stentorian tones, until he “realized” it was the wrong speech. The bit clearly landed; you can hear the heaves of laughter in the recording.

In that speech, Cluchey joked about his intimidating first meeting with his friend Chris Gillyard ’08, a football player, actor, singer and dancer who spoke fluent Japanese. So I called up Gillyard, who is now director of business development at HID Global, and is also president of Amherst’s Society of Alumni. He cited the impact of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv (Gillyard was a member, too): “The great thing about improv is you have to be ego-less, you have to empty yourself out to be ready and willing to receive anything that comes your way and act on it. The first rule of improv is, ‘Say yes to everything.’ And so if someone says, ‘Hey, do this in a certain other voice,’ you try because you have to say yes to it. Dan has always said yes to any kind of challenge that has come his way. When I hear Joe Biden speak now, it doesn’t come off as a Dan Cluchey speech. I hear a Joe Biden speech that was written by Dan Cluchey.”

That’s exactly how I heard President Biden’s inaugural address. It felt authentic to who he is, with references to his mother and St. Augustine and how we need to “build back better.” Sometimes, I thought I detected Cluchey’s cadences, as in these alliterative lines: A day of history and hope. Of renewal and resolve. I emailed Cluchey after the speech, but, by now, I knew the drill and didn’t bother asking if he helped write it or if he had favorite lines. As usual, he kept me at arm’s length, in a friendly sort of way. But he did agree to offer general thoughts on the inaugural, and even apologized if he sounded long-winded.

“Each Inaugural seeks to set the tone for the presidency that will follow,” he wrote. “The task of this address, at least in my view—and I certainly can’t speak for the President—was to reconcile national aspirations that have at times in our past competed with one another. Unity and justice. Unity and accountability. Optimism and a clear-eyed recognition of our challenges. It would have been simpler to say, ‘It’s morning again in America,’ but a pristine, uncomplicated tone just never would’ve been right for this moment. It wouldn’t have been honest. So I think the speech sought to remind us that we are bound together, and that there is unbelievable strength, still, to be gained from that fact—if we rally around our values.”

That’s the kind of language, and message, that will be in our lives during these next years of Biden’s presidency. For in some small part—though you’ll never know which part—Dan Cluchey is helping to set the tone.

Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer.

Photographs by Jared Soares