The SEGL Master Class is one of our favorite academic traditions. Several times a semester, our students present and defend a “deliverable” in front of a distinguished guest expert. The deliverable might be a policy memo, an Constitutional argument, or a performance. Our first Spring 2018 deliverable was a memorable mash-up: a three-minute speech followed by a ten minute press briefing. Our teachers? Longtime top Hillary Clinton speechwriter Lissa Muscatine and the dean of White House Press Secretaries, Mike McCurry.
Muscatine was Hillary Clinton’s top speechwriter for nearly twenty years. (She also wrote speeches for President Bill Clinton at the White House.) She co-wrote Secretary Clinton’s 2016 speech to the Democratic National Convention along with nearly every one of Clinton’s most famous speeches: the 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, the now-legendary 1995 “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” speech in Beijing, and countless others. Our 2013 Golden Mug Award winner, she is adept at preparing our students to write compelling speeches. And she critiques those speeches in a collegial style that leaves students eager to revise.
Muscatine visited us twice: On Monday morning, she joined us for a 90-minute opening session, in which she told speechwriting war stories, 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, and speechwriting.
She and McCurry also crafted a challenging (hypothetical) assignment (click on the link to view) for our students: three Presidential crisis scenarios. We assigned two four-student groups to each scenario, and asked each to A) craft a three-minute speech and B) prep a ten-minute press briefing following the speech. After a week of debate and collaboration, each team presented to Muscatine and McCurry the following afternoon.
McCurry joined Muscatine’s second visit for the joint Master Class. McCurry, who worked as President Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary from 1994-1998 (including the start of the infamous Monica Lewinsky scandal) now teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary and co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates.
One by one, six students presented speeches, which were then shown on the flat-screen television that sits behind our speaker chairs. After each speech, a second student rose as White House Press Secretary and took a series of pointed questions from McCurry, who acted as a one-man White House press corps. Could each student remain unflappable? Informed? True to the values of her President? True to her own values? Each Secretary got the opportunity to think on her or his feet in front of the person one leading historian has called the best press secretary since the 1950s.
Muscatine and McCurry led a back-and-forth discussion after each group’s presentation, picking highlights and opportunities for revision each time. (The students will take this feedback and revise their speeches one more time.)
(For independent bookstore fans: Muscatine–now retired from speechwriting–owns DC’s premier independent bookstore, Politics and Prose.)