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A Master Class with Lissa Muscatine

Among many academic traditions at SEGL, the “Master Class” is perhaps the most challenging and rewarding.  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 this week–a three minute speech.

One of SEGL’s beloved Master Class teachers is Lissa Muscatine, who was Hillary Clinton’s top speechwriter for nearly twenty years (she also wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton).  Muscatine, our 2013 Golden Mug Award winner, is 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 afternoon, 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 Democratic primary frontrunners about a real-life judicial nominee.  The students broke into groups of four to write six different speeches from three different perspectives.

On Friday, 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 (thanks to our Spring 2019 class, the television is much wider and flatter than ever before!) in the front of the room.  Muscatine engaged the entire room 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 (the students asked so many that they were almost late for dinner!).

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.

Sep 23, 2019

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