Former lead Hillary Clinton Speechwriter Lissa Muscatine gives first Fall 2015 Master Class (and we see the pope)
An SEGL “Master Class” is a signature experience for our students: several times a semester, they present and defend a “deliverable” in front of a distinguished guest expert. The deliverable might be a policy memo, an ethical argument, or–as was the case this past week–a three minute speech.
One of SEGL’s favorite Master Class teachers is Lissa Muscatine, who was Hillary Clinton’s top speechwriter for nearly twenty years (and who also wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton). Muscatine, our 2013 Golden Mug Award winner, is skilled at preparing our students to write compelling speeches. And she critiques those speeches with a collegial incisiveness that leaves students impressed and ready to revise.
On Monday morning, Muscatine joined us for a 90-minute opening session, in which she told several speechwriting war stories (What was it like to author Hillary Clinton’s now-legendary 1995 “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech in Beijing? What was it like to write Clinton’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech?), gave a list of speechwriting “do’s and don’t’s” (DO know your audience; DON’T use adjectives and adverbs!), and answered student questions about her career, about the Clintons, and about speechwriting.
Muscatine also crafted a challenging (hypothetical) speechwriting assignment (click on the link to see it!) involving the Syrian refugee crisis, U.S. immigration policy, and the upcoming Presidential Iowa caucuses. To complete the assignment, the students broke into groups of four to write six different speeches.
To research the ethical dimensions of the assignment, the students on Wednesday spoke with Bill Martin at the U.S. State Department’s Germany desk, participated in rotating discussion groups, and remembered their past conversations with Muhammad Al Abdallah last week. (Mr. Al Abdallah, Executive Director of the Syria Justice & Accountability Center, is a Syrian refugee who documents human rights abuses in his home country. Among other things, he helped highlight the delicate foreign policy balance–Iran, Israel, Russia, and Syria–that makes involvement in the Syrian war complicated. You can see pictures of his visit here.)
On Wednesday and Thursday we held classes in the dormitories because the pope’s visit promised to stress local public transportation routes. On Thursday, after a recommendation from a student committee, we walked down to the National Mall to see the pope’s speech to Congress. The atmosphere was festive, with a fair amount of controversial free speech crowding the route. After the speech, we saw the pope on the West Front portico of the Capitol as he gave his blessing to the assembled devotees. On our way home, we got to see Francis close up (smiling in the back of his now-famous Fiat) when his motorcade drove down Constitution and we were standing on the sidewalk.
After a few days of speechwriting debate and collaboration, each team presented its speech to Muscatine on Friday afternoon. One by one, six students presented speeches, which were then shown on the flat-screen television that sits behind our speaker chairs. Muscatine engaged the entire room in a back-and-forth discussion after each speech, picking highlights and opportunities for revision each time.
Muscatine stayed after for 30 minutes to answer individual questions and offer encouragement.
P.S. For independent bookstore fans: Lissa Muscatine–now retired from speechwriting–owns DC’s premier independent bookstore, Politics and Prose.