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A Master Class with White House Speechwriter Lissa Muscatine

The “Master Class” is a formative SEGL experience: several times a term, students present and defend a “deliverable” in front of a distinguished expert.  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 (and who also wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton).  Muscatine, our 2013 Golden Mug Award winner, is a seasoned instructor whose sessions create reflection, discussion, and learning.  Her collegial incisiveness and war stories from the Clinton and Obama Administrations engage and inspire. 

On Friday afternoon, 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 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 (click the link to read it!) that Muscatine helped craft.  The assignment, pulled from the headlines, asked the students to act as the Dean of Harvard Law School, who is announcing whether or not Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (who in this scenario is not confirmed) will be allowed to teach at Harvard given the allegations against him.  (You may notice the assignment is called “Assignment 2”: this is because there was originally another assignment.  We decided to change things up at the last minute!)  The students broke into groups of four to write six different speeches from three different perspectives.

On the following Wednesday, 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 that sits behind our speaker chair.  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.  She is also writing a memoir called Hillaryland.

Sep 29, 2018

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