The School for Ethics and Global Leadership

Speechwriting the Democratic Primary: Lissa Muscatine Returns to Segl!

Date: Feb 26nd, 2020

The “Master Class” is perhaps the most challenging and rewarding of SEGL’s academic traditions. Several times a semester, students present and defend a “deliverable” in front of a distinguished expert who questions, advises, and evaluates their effort. The deliverable might be a policy memo, an ethical argument, or–as it was last week–a three minute speech.

One of SEGL’s most beloved Master Class teachers is Lissa Muscatine. Muscatine 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 mentor whose sessions brim with reflection and collaboration. Her collegial incisiveness and war stories from the Clinton and Obama Administrations engage and inspire.

On Tuesday 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 (ethos, logos, 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 had students writing for Democratic primary frontrunners just before the Nevada and South Carolina contests. 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.