Turning 50: The tragedy of Tonkin Gulf

Remembering the policy and devastation of The Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964.

They came in from the west: three North Vietnamese patrol boats, halting five miles from the USS Maddox. The Maddox fired first. One Vietnamese boat launched a torpedo. Then the boats raced away, strafed by U.S. jets. One boat sank.

So, at least on the first day there was a battle. A few nights later President Lyndon Johnson was on TV, describing two attacks, reassuring Americans we “seek no wider war,” and asking Congress for the power to take “all necessary measures” against “open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America.” A year later, we had almost 200,000 troops in Vietnam. Read more

Originally published in TheHill.com, August 1, 2014.

Brat — The protesting Protestant?

Religion’s role in Dave Brat’s stunning primary win over Eric Cantor.

There’s an early Philip Roth story about a bunch of Jewish kids in Hebrew school trying to figure out whether Jesus lived or not.

“The Catholics,” Itzie Lieberman says, “they believe in Jesus Christ, that he’s God.”

Lieberman, Roth adds, “used ‘the Catholics’ in its broadest sense — to include the Protestants.”

I confess, when I was a kid in a largely Jewish town, I was similarly confused. Read more

Originally published in The Hill, June 27, 2014.

Lehrman talks political speechwriting

Speechwriter Robert Lehrman shares some of his favorite anecdotes from the speeches he has written for politicians in the Ernie Pyle Auditorium at Indiana University.

It was 2009 and the Obamas had just moved into the White House. Several families were visiting, including an African-American family with a young boy, age five.

Looking up at the president, the boy asked Obama if he could feel his hair. The president bent over.

Stroking his head, the boy said, “It’s just like mine.”

At that moment, a photo was snapped, a photo that would be hung in the west wing of the White House.

“People can see the symbolism of that story,” said Robert Lehrman, a political speechwriter, in a talk Monday in the Ernie Pyle Auditorium. “You can move people with a story like that in a way that nothing else can.”

He explained the essentials of political speechwriting to IU students in his lecture called, “What’s So Hard About Writing a Great Speech?” Read more

By Grace Palmieri for the Indiana Daily Student, March 11, 2014

COVER STORY: The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live

‘Big Data’ impacts how we work, elect our presidents, and play tennis. It also affects the way we’re watched.

They work a few hundred yards from one of the Library of Congress‘s most prized possessions: a vellum copy of the Bible printed in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg, inventor of movable type. But almost six centuries later, Jane Mandelbaum and Thomas Youkel have a task that would confound Gutenberg.

The researchers are leading a team that is archiving almost every tweet sent out since Twitter began in 2006. A half-billion tweets stream into library computers each day.

Their question: How can they store the tweets so they become a meaningful tool for researchers – a sort of digital transcript providing insights into the daily flow of history? Read more

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, August 11, 2013.

2 cheers for the State of the Union

Ahead of the 2012 State of the Union address, former White House speechwriter defends the President’s annual speech. 

Even Richard M. Nixon rebelled.

This pragmatic president told his speechwriters in 1970 that he didn’t want the traditional “laundry list” State of the Union speech. No “pragmatism,” he insisted. “I want an idea speech.”

At one point, Nixon put his feet on the desk and said, “Good God. Agriculture in a State of the Union isn’t worth a damn.” Read more

Originally published in POLITICO, January 23, 2012.

COVER STORY: Video game nation: Why so many play

A journey through the world of video games, which 183 million Americans play – 25 percent over age 50. What’s behind the fascination?

Gliding through the sky, long neck undulating, great, ridged wings beating, the dragon looks … beautiful. Until it lands.

Thumbs working the controller, Matt Fries, a freshman at American Universityin Washington, D.C., throws fireballs at it with both hands. The dragon lifts off, and lands again. It belches out a stream of yellow and orange flame.

“He’s done a lot of damage,” Mr. Fries mutters. But it’s early in the game. Read more

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 2012.

From war protester to teaching the Vietnamese how to write speeches

Lehrman CSM 11.10.12

Photo courtesy of the Government of Vietnam.

One man’s arc from antiwar demonstrator in college to holding a speechwriting seminar in Hanoi shows how far the US and Vietnam have evolved since the war.

I’m giving a workshop for diplomats on speechwriting, with material I’ve used dozens of times. But this first day hasn’t gone well in Hanoi.

Yes, Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, the country that once consumed me and my friends, then mostly left our minds in 1975, shortly after Marine helicopters lifted the last refugees and Americans off the roof of the US embassy. The country that in the past four decades has tripled in population, reduced poverty, and, not without missteps, created a nimble hybrid of communism and capitalism that’s brought 6 percent economic growth a year since 2000. Read more

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 2012.

The Political Speechwriter’s Life

The New York Times column Draft features essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.

Author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion reflects on his career, writing influences, and the art of a well-written speech.

I have passed no bill, stopped no war, created no policy that would bring health insurance to a single person. But if we expect to see such results solely from our work, that dooms many to disappointment. There’s plenty to celebrate about being part of the team.

As a speechwriter in the House, Senate and White House, I wrote about 25,000 words a month — as much as three books each year. I cherish the four novels I wrote. But I am also proud that when Al Gore spoke at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, he read my words. I’ve written a eulogy for Rosa Parks, speeches against a war I hated and for presidential candidates I loved. I’ve written about ways to educate children in the United States and to save the lives of children in Africa. At a Rose Garden event where Mr. Gore introduced President Bill Clinton, a photographer snapped a picture of Gore whispering to my son, “He wrote the president’s speech, too.” Read more

Originally Published in The New York Times, November 3, 2012.

What unions could bring to American University

On the politics of the college adjunct.

We’d never met. But when I walked into my class at American University a few weeks ago, I knew instantly who she was. She came up quickly, like someone who didn’t have much time.

She was a grad student working at AU for the Service Employees International Union to organize adjunct professors like me. She hoped I would sign up. What surprised me was my reaction. I wished she hadn’t come. Read more

Published in The Washington Post, April 22, 2011.

COVER STORY: Why conventions still matter (+video)

Yes, they have become costly infomercials. But political conventions can clarify – and sometimes even electrify.

Can it be? Yes! They’re shouting at him! “Put the microphones down! We can’t see you!”

Harry Truman, wearing a white linen suit, peers out at the delegates. It’s 1948. Two o’clock in the morning. He’s trying to start his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. So far, it’s been humiliating.

First, he knows he’s a terrible speaker – so bad his aides now give him talking points, hoping he’ll be livelier when he ad-libs. Read more

Published in The Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2012.