Published April 10, 2005
WASHINGTON – William McGurn (search) gets up as early as 4 a.m. with a big mug of coffee and the task of putting his words in the voice of President Bush.
McGurn hates giving speeches. In fact, he only had written a handful before January, when he started working for Bush as chief speechwriter. For inspiration, he looks to the greats from both parties - Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Reagan.
"You learn to write good speeches by listening to good speeches," McGurn said, offering a look behind the scenes at a job that requires him to craft sentiments that will flow so naturally from Bush's lips that the president could not have expressed them better himself.
"When I write something now and read it to myself, I think I hear him saying it," McGurn said. "That's the goal. To capture his voice."
McGurn replaced Mike Gerson (search), who is taking on other duties in the West Wing. Gerson, who was often seen scribbling at a coffee shop near the White House, filled speeches by the famously plainspoken Bush with soaring rhetoric tinged with religious overtones.
Gerson finally persuaded McGurn, a longtime Wall Street Journal columnist and chief editorial writer, to take his place. He admired McGurn's ability to turn an elegant phrase when advocating conservative social politics and complex economic issues, the latter especially timely as Bush promotes his plan to introduce private retirement accounts as part of Social Security (search).
"He has the right attitude here, which is to do what the president wants to do," Gerson said.
Paul Gigot, who supervised McGurn at the Journal and twice nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize, described him as an economic conservative whose social politics are grounded in his Roman Catholic faith.
"Bill, I think, will have the right voice for the president because I think they share some of that moral sensibility, and Bill has a light touch," Gigot said. "He has a strong moral sense without being moralistic."
McGurn, 46, and his wife, Julie, have adopted three girls from China. The most recent addition is Lucy, 2. The growing family and McGurn's new job have changed his wee-hours writing habits.
"I don't hang out in Starbucks like Mike. But I will say this: I used to be a writer who would stay up all night with a glass of Irish whiskey - Old Bushmill's - at my side. These days if I have to get something done, I'll get up at 4 or 5 and have a big cup of coffee at my side," McGurn said.
"At work during the day I do a lot of editing of the other speechwriters because we have many events. When I write, I like to write by myself, preferably at home on my new Mac.
"But I do like editing as a team. You need to hear the voice inside your head, and it helps to have people to bounce it off of. My daughter Grace (age 9) once described my job as 'typing stuff.'"
On his rhetorical heroes, from both parties:
"I've always been a Lincoln man and, even more than the Gettysburg Address (search), loved his second inaugural and his letter to Mrs. Bixby. (She lost five sons in the Civil War.) I don't think it's Lincoln's eloquence that attracts me. It's the utter simplicity of his structure and the congruence with the person - which I think is the key," McGurn said.
"Obviously I am a huge fan of the Gipper's (Ronald Reagan). I watched his speech at Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, from my office at the Wall Street Journal's Brussels office, where I was working, and some of my European colleagues - one woman had lived through the bombing of Rotterdam - had tears in their eyes.
"But as a speechwriter I'm also looking at things from a purely artistic angle, so I also like FDR's speeches - and when you listen to them you understand how much hope he gave. Some of Kennedy's early speeches, same thing."
On what makes a great speech:
"I was taught in philosophy that you write clearly when you think clearly; a president who is consistent with his speeches will be a good speechgiver - and the whole world saw this with President Bush after the Iraqi elections. What made the State of the Union so powerful is that his words on Iraq were illuminated by the recent elections - and these were possible only because he stood his ground. I can say this because I was only a minor player" in the speech, McGurn said.
"But like good writing, I don't believe you can learn it from how-to books. You learn to write good speeches by listening to good speeches."
On reading tastes:
"At night these days I'm reading more histories, whereas I used to read classic literature. I just finished Allen Guelzo's book on the Emancipation Proclamation (search) - but I really loved his book 'Redeemer President' about Lincoln. Explains a great deal about the Republican Party. I am a huge Evelyn Waugh fan. And early in my career in newspapers I got to know Malcolm Muggeridge (search), quite a famous newsman in his own right. Always admired Muggeridge's writings; he was much fun."
Three men from McGurn's New Jersey parish were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, leaving behind 12 fatherless children in his daughters' parochial school. He chokes up recalling the night of the attacks, when he drove past the home of one of those men.
"All the other lights out were out on the block and their light was on, so you know it's a troubled house."
Now, he says of Bush, "I see this guy as the man standing between my daughters and very bad people."
He recently brought Lucy to the office:
"My little girl, a year ago, was on her back in some crummy Chinese orphanage. A couple of days ago she was walking on the White House lawn. It's amazing."