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State Department speechwriting team gives second Master Class of the term

This week our students got a bittersweet treat: when Hillary Clinton shared the tragic news from Libya on Wednesday morning, she was reading text that SEGL guest speaker Megan Rooney helped to craft. And on Friday, Rooney was an hour late to our culminating session because she was co-writing Secretary Clinton’s eulogy for the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens. After the session was over, the news headlines trumpeted words that Rooney helped to write.

It was an unexpected facet of what has become an SEGL tradition: a Master Class with Rooney and Lissa Muscatine, who was Hilary Clinton’s top speechwriter for 20 years. Muscatine, who visited SEGL on Monday and shared behind-the-scenes stories from her time with the Clintons, is perhaps most famous for authoring then-First Lady Clinton’s 1995 “women’s rights are human rights” speech in Bejing, China, as well as then-Presidential candidate Clinton’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. Her anecdotes and words of speechwriting advice helped launch our students into the week’s case study: in groups of four, they authored two-minute swing-state speeches for Ann Romney or Michelle Obama.

In writing their speeches, the students had to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each Presidential candidate, the personality of each spouse, the audience for each speech (Janesville, Wisconsin, Boston, Massachusetts, or Macomb County, Michigan), any special circumstances (such as Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s comments about an auto plant in Janesville or the “Reagan Democrat” voters in Macomb County) and, of course, the most important message to get across. On Wednesday afternoon, they received hot-off-the-campaign-trail advice from Lise Clavel, who runs the President’s campaign efforts in the critical state of Virginia. (We are scheduling Republican campaigners for later this semester.) Clavel shared insights into her strategy to take the state (Who are the most important voters to reach? Is it more important to convince swing voters or to ensure Democrats come to the polls?) via videoconference from Richmond, the state capital.

Our Friday session has become a favorite session of the semester for many SEGL cohorts. One by one, a representative from each group delivered a vigorous and thoughtful speech, and one by one, Muscatine, Rooney, and our students offered artful critiques of each speech. These critiques offer incredible critical thinking opportunities. Should you say that the Romneys “still think of Michigan as home”? Is Ann Romney the best person to deliver a “red meat” speech? Should Michelle Obama avoid talking about Paul Ryan’s alleged gaffe while in Janesville? Is the phrase “a proper education” too elitist? These were just some of the questions we wrestled with after hearing Rooney’s riveting account of the State Department during this tragic week.

Next week we present energy efficiency plans at the White House. More on that soon!

Sep 17, 2012

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