The Great Communicator Files

By Cohen, Mira | Social Education, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Great Communicator Files


Cohen, Mira, Social Education


Each president has his own style. We've all seen this reflected in the speeches which presidents give--whether it's delivering a highly formal address such as the "State of the Union," making informal remarks at a stop on a campaign tour, or creating monumental memories out of unimaginable and unexpected moments. The picture of President Reagan standing in front of the Berlin Gate and stating in a voice that was clear, strong and full of conviction, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," has become emblematic of the Fall of the Soviet Union and the victory of democracy over tyranny. The words of this speech reverberate in our national memory. Many Americans also remember other major speeches by President Reagan, such as those commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in June 1944 and honoring the crew of the Challenger after the space shuttle exploded upon takeoff in January 1986.

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American presidents are regularly called upon to share their thoughts, ideas, and sentiments both with the nation and the world. This prompts the questions: How are these speeches written? Who writes them? What other resources, texts, conversations, and experiences do presidents use to help them create these famous speeches? Who helps the president put his thoughts and ideas on paper? Who gives a memorable speech that "magic touch"?

These are the questions addressed in the "Great Communicator Files"--a series of teaching materials and primary source documents on presidential speechwriting and speechmaking that can be accessed online at ReaganLibrary.com. The purpose of these curriculum materials is two-fold, to examine presidential speechwriting efforts and to gain insight into President Reagan's personal speechmaking style. Inside the files, educators and students uncover original documents from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Archives, including copies of original speeches, backup copies of speeches, letters to the president, stories and experiences shared with the president which were incorporated into his speeches, written notes from the president's staff, White House Staffing Memoranda, quotations from historical figures, and other documents.

This article focuses on the "Omaha Beach Memorial Remarks," delivered in Normandy, France, for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1984. There are currently two additional "Great Communicator Files": one on the "Challenger Speech" and one on the "Pointe du Hoc Address," an additional World War II commemorative speech.

The Speechwriting Process:

President Reagan's speechwriting office was made up of a collection of carefully selected speechwriters. Some, such as Anthony (Tony) Dolan, had experience working with the presidential campaign. Others, such as Peggy Noonan, who had worked with Dan Rather at CBS, were newcomers to the Reagan team.

No matter who the speechwriter was, each was expected to understand both the Reagan ideology and the Reagan speechmaking style. The head speechwriter (in this case Ben Elliott) would check the president's schedule and assign each upcoming speech to a staff writer based on his or her personal backgrounds and strengths. Quotes and references were drawn from a variety of sources, some of which students will discover in the "Great Communicator Files." Often times, past speeches were examined and aspects were incorporated. In the files, students will also notice pages from Bartlett's Book of Quotations, pages from the Bible, poems, speeches by other presidents, and, in this case, a letter from Lisa Zanatta Henn and a story she sent to President Reagan.

The speechwriter did not work alone. Usually, he or she would draft the speech and then it would be sent to a variety of White House staff, including members of the National Security Council, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, and others (See "White House Staffing Memorandum" on p. 379). In all cases, President Reagan would be sent a copy of the speech as well.

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