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Former White House Speechwriter Lissa Muscatine Gives First Fall 2020 Master Class

The SEGL “Master Class” is perhaps our most challenging and rewarding academic tradition.  Several times a term, students present and defend a “deliverable” in front of a distinguished expert who grills, mentors, and evaluates their effort.  The deliverable might be a policy memo, an ethical argument, or–as it was last week–a three minute speech ripped from the head lines.Lissa Muscatine is one of SEGL’s beloved Master Class teachers.  She was Hillary Clinton’s top speechwriter for nearly twenty years (she also wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton).  She is also our 2013 Golden Mug Award winner and a seasoned instructor whose sessions brim with reflection and collaboration.  Her collegial incisiveness and war stories from the Clinton and Obama Administrations engage and inspire. 

On Monday morning, Muscatine joined us for a 100-minute opening session in which she told several speechwriting war stories (How and why did she become a White House speechwriter?  What was it like to author Hillary Clinton’s now-legendary 1995 “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech in Beijing? ), 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, the Clintons, the 2016 and 2020 elections, and the speechwriting process.

Meanwhile, in English, students prepped the students for Muscatine’s visit with a speechwriting clinic.  They began with Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle (ethoslogos, and pathos) and added a list of Muscatine’s favorite do’s and don’t’s (DO know your audience; DON’T use adjectives and adverbs!).  We then showed students clips from famous American speeches: Richard Nixon’s “Checkers speech,” Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Democratic National Convention speech, and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech (which Muscatine authored).

The students then received a challenging (hypothetical) assignment assignment (click the link to read it!) that Muscatine helped craft.  The assignment had students writing for Senator Lindsey Graham and his election challenger Jamie Harrison, who are locked in a close electoral battle.  The students broke into groups of four to write six different speeches from two different perspectives.

On Friday, we threw a curveball: President Trump had just tested positive for COVID-19, and we asked each group to include this news in its speech.  Later that afternoon, each team presented its speech to Muscatine in the Master Class.  One by one, six students rose and delivered speeches, the text of which was then shown on the flat-screen television in the front of courtyard.  Muscatine engaged the entire gathering in a back-and-forth discussion after each speech, picking highlights and opportunities for revision each time.  She stayed long after 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.  (She gifted several recent bestsellers to SEGL at the start of her second visit!)  She is also writing a memoir called Hillaryland.

Oct 6, 2020 8:29 pm