CINCINNATI: The point of being a speechwriter is to reflect the best side of your boss to an audience. Never an easy task, this is a particularly thorny challenge for John Kasich, a governor who moonlights as his own speechwriter. In the spirit of professional courtesy from one speechwriter to another, I’ve compiled some helpful tips for Kasich the speechwriter as he prepares to write the governor’s third State of the State address.
First, remember that speechwriters are not paid by the word. You’ve churned out more than 21,000 words over the course of two States of the State. That’s about two to three times more than other gubernatorial speechwriters. Consider whether this might be too much.
It took President Lincoln a total of 272 words to distill the meaning of the Civil War and the essence of this nation in the Gettysburg Address. It took you more than 300 words to tell us about the governor’s uncles in last year’s State of the State. Uncle George, it turns out, was a guidance counselor.
If the stuff about his uncles was essential, perhaps you could have omitted the birth weights of the governor’s daughters (4.2 and 4.4 pounds) or that of his press secretary’s son (7 pounds). Rather than noting he “didn’t fall off a turnip truck” and is not “an Austrian bricklayer,” you could have assumed we already knew that about the governor. At the very least, you might have done without one of the 35 times you used the word “OK,” including your speechwriter’s triple-Lutz of OKs — “That’s better than the Super Bowl for the Browns, OK? That’s a fantastic thing. OK, well, maybe not better than the Super Bowl, but equal to a Super Bowl, OK?” — necessary to qualify the governor’s position on how excited we should be about the Phillips company.
Did you ever see that episode of The Simpsons when Homer stood up before a group of neighbors, cleared his throat and said, “If I could just say a few words … I’d be a better public speaker”? Only Bart laughed at that line, but think about it, because there’s a lot of truth to what Homer said.
Beyond the length of your speeches, you have some other habits that we in the trade really frown upon.
Never leave your boss uncertain of the details. Instead of having the governor say in the State of the State that he’s not sure what day he went to the movies, or what year he wrote a book on courage, or the name of “the place where you buy all the shoes where all the people get excited,” look it up for him.
You also might want to rethink how you have him refer to people. In your last State of the State, you had the governor calling one group of Ohioans “the ethnics” and another “the nerds.” You had him refer to Californians as “wackadoodles” and West Virginians as “foreigners.” People are sensitive about this sort of thing — you are doing the governor no favors making him sound like he’s missed the past 40 years of cultural development.
Also, did you see the movie Best in Show? There’s a character who drives people crazy by naming nuts — “peanut, hazel nut, cashew nut, macadamia nut” — for no reason, toward no end, he just likes to say the names of nuts. You have a tendency to do that with people’s names — Ron Dellums, Willie Brown, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Bono, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Helms, Rachel Ray, Jerry Seinfeld — listing people in your States of the State who have nothing to do with Ohio or the governor’s policies.
Now, as you well know, every speech of this sort requires an acknowledgment of the speaker’s spouse. To your credit, you follow this rule. But it might be good for you to have the governor speak of Mrs. Kasich as, you know, a person, rather than a prize-winning trout. In 2011, you had him say of his spouse, “I know you all wonder how I caught her. I wonder about it sometimes also.” This year, try saying something respectful or loving.
It can be difficult and intimidating, I know, to write a speech that’s great from beginning to end. So try this as a first step: Give some serious thought to the very first line of the speech. First lines can really stick in people’s minds, like “Four score and seven years ago” and such. The first line you came up with for the governor’s first State of the State was, “Well, first of all, I don’t want to screw this up.” This year, try to write something better for the governor.
Niven has written speeches for Gov. Ted Strickland, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, and Ohio State University president Gordon Gee. Niven currently teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati.