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Former White House Speechwriter Offers Insights to Students

Welcoming guest speakers to class typically enhances what students have been learning. With the opportunity to hear from an expert in a particular field, students can ask questions of a professional and glimpse real-world experiences. 

In studying speech writing, Danielle Elms’ AP English Language & Composition class enjoyed the opportunity to meet with Marc Thiessen, former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is now a Fox News correspondent and a columnist for The Washington Post. He previously served as speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 

Mr. Thiessen discussed the speechwriting process, which involves a team of writers and fact-checkers, meetings with the President and rehearsals. For example, the State of the Union address required months of drafting and preparation, as well as run-throughs using the family movie theater in the White House residence. 

For some speeches, Mr. Thiessen wrote about unfamiliar topics, in which case he would contact various sources to gather information. “When you call the world’s experts from the presidential speechwriting office, they take your call,” he said. 

He also noted the importance of learning the “voice” of the person for whom he was writing. When Mr. Thiessen worked for Mr. Rumsfeld, he carried a small notebook where he jotted common expressions that he used so that the speeches sounded natural. 

Students asked about using strategies of repetition or alliteration in speeches, which can both grab and hold listeners’ attention and make speeches memorable. Some speeches can use more emotion while others are fairly straightforward. Mr. Thiessen’s speech that he wrote for President Bush in 2005 titled “President Outlines Pandemic Influenza Preparations and Response” was held at the National Institutes for Health and addressed preparation for a pandemic. (View the original speech here). The president discussed previous pandemics and asked Congress for $7 billion for research, equipment and vaccination efforts. 

“Given that Mr. Thiessen appears on cable news multiple times per day, I was very much impressed that he was generous enough to spend focused time with the class -- I feel as though that says a lot about him as an exceptional person,” Zak Kerr ’21 said. “In addition to offering fascinating firsthand insight into the Bush White House, Mr. Thiessen accentuated the importance of improving rhetorical skills by associating the content of the class with real-life and high-profile applications. That demonstration of applicability was quite inspiring.”

“Our students are living through a historical moment, and this interaction provided significant context,” Ms. Elms said. “The most enjoyable part of hosting Mr. Thiessen was observing the students lead the conversation and discussion with their thoughtful and nuanced questions. They capitalized on the opportunity to engage with a professional and gain understanding through his real-life experience. Their preparation, appreciation and excitement was evident.” 

— Christina Mimms