Each year our graduates select the guest speaker who has made the biggest difference in their lives. That speaker receives our school’s greatest honor, the SEGL Golden Mug Award, at our Annual Gala in October.
This year’s winner is Lissa Muscatine, who served as Hillary Clinton’s top speechwriter for nearly two decades and helped author Clinton’s autobiography, Living History. One of the top speechwriters in the world today, Ms. Muscatine is also an accomplished teacher and a riveting storyteller.
This week Ms. Muscatine visited SEGL twice. On Monday she told stories–Clinton’s famous 1995 “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech and her 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, both of which Lissa wrote–and gave advice on writing great speeches (“eliminate adjectives,” “Have what Bill Clinton called a ‘theory of the case'”). She then gave the students a challenging assignment: in small groups, they were to author one of two speeches in response to a challenging hypothetical situation. Does the government have a right to keep information from the American people in the name of national security?
On Wednesday, we met with two experts who helped provide background on government surveillance programs and recent leaks. We first traveled to the DC Bureau for The New York Times to meet with Eric Schmitt, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who had authored the lead story (on the dangers of recent national security information leaks) in the print edition two days earlier. Among other distinctions, Schmitt was the Times‘ main contact for Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. Schmitt helped explain the role of the press in publishing leaked information: how journalists uncover such material, the discussions with government officials about what might or might not risk national security, and the ultimate editorial decision to publish or not to publish. He also shared memorable anecdotes about his time with the enigmatic and idiosyncratic Assange.
We then met with Mike Sheehy, who served as national security advisor for former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and staff director and chief counsel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (where he was responsible for the committee’s work in authorizing funding for, and overseeing the conduct of, the nation’s intelligence activities). Among other things, he and the students discussed the relationship between Congress and the intelligence agencies–and the tensions that sometimes arise in that relationship–and the danger of leakers who don’t understand the context of what they are leaking.
On Friday, Ms. Muscatine returned with her speechwriting protégé Megan Rooney, another SEGL favorite who recently joined the White House speechwriting team after several years working for Hillary Clinton. One by one, students rose and delivered their best two-minute efforts in front of the community. After each speech, we placed the text on the big-screen television so that Muscatine and Rooney could issue their critique. The atmosphere was collaborative, with students sharing their views about each speech’s strengths and weaknesses, and our guests often amiably disagreeing with each other over choices each group had made.
After the session, the students crowded around the two speechwriters, asking for more advice and more “war stories.” As one student said afterward, “It was amazing to see how much they cared about the meaning of every word, and how much every word mattered!”
We are looking forward to having both of them back for Homecoming. Next week we begin our Social Venture Capstone project!