The School for Ethics and Global Leadership

Top Hillary Clinton speechwriter leads Master Class

Date: Oct 1nd, 2017

The “Master Class” is a classic SEGL challenge: several times a term, students present and defend a “deliverable” in front of a distinguished guest expert.  The deliverable might be a policy memo, an ethical argument, or–as was the case this week–a three minute speech.

One of SEGL’s favorite 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 gifted teacher whose sessions generate discussion, ideas, and confidence.  Her collegial incisiveness and war stories from the Clinton and Obama Administrations leave students inspired. 

On Monday morning, 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 speechwriting.

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 Members of Congress debating a hurricane relief package.  (Should that package come with regulatory strings attached?  Should the federal government be responsible for providing aid?)  The students broke into groups of four to write six different speeches.

On Friday, each team presented its speech to Muscatine and June Shih, who joined Muscatine for the Master Class.  Shih wrote speeches for both Hillary and Bill Clinton (including assisting with two State of the Union addresses), and later served as Senior Advisor in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

One by one, six students rose and delivered speeches, which were then shown on the flat-screen television that sits behind our speaker chair.  Both speechwriters 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.