Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Interview: Troy Senik

We are very pleased to continue our interview series with Troy Senik. Senik was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush during his second term. Mr. Senik also served as a speechwriter for California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger and former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich. He has recently written an excellent piece showing how the Republican Party can come back in California, of all places. He has also chronicled the new Administration's decision to not continue President Bush's freedom agenda. Mr. Senik has agreed to an interview with us, and we are very grateful for his participation.

1. What struck you the most about the way President Bush acted in person?

Two things. First, you’d be hard-pressed to find another professional politician who treats his staff as well as George W. Bush. He’s a genuinely decent man and he cares deeply for the people he employs.

Second, President Bush’s intellectual abilities are dramatically undersold by most media portrayals. By his own admission, he is not a soaring orator, and you could often see his discomfort with public speeches or interviews. But when you spend time with him in a comfortable, private setting, the results are quite different.

The first time I ever met the President was in an Oval Office meeting with the entire speechwriting staff shortly after I joined the team. One of the writers asked the President (in a brilliant tactical maneuver to get material for an upcoming speech) what he envisioned the Middle East would look like in 25 years. President Bush proceeded to give a stunningly detailed overview of nearly every country in the region and how he perceived their future trajectories. It was a display that would have floored those who think the man was not intellectually suited for his job.

2. What was the most personal/engaging speech you have ever written?

I have three speeches that I look back on with particular fondness. Each of them was a ceremonial speech and, come to think of it, each of them saluted the military. Outsiders usually think that the State of the Union or a big policy speech is the gold medal for a speechwriter, but that doesn’t tend to be the case. The writer’s role in a policy speech is very limited. Most of the input comes from policy aides and the speechwriter’s role is reduced to connecting the dots. Ceremonial speeches give you much more latitude to create something original.

My best speech was one that the President delivered at Arlington National Cemetery for last year’s Memorial Day commemoration. To find the right tone, I had studied the Gettysburg Address -- and I discovered how closely Lincoln followed a classical oratory model that goes back to the funeral oration of Pericles. Thus, I studied those speeches as well, and structured the Memorial Day speech the same way. That speech also contains the best rolling triad that I ever wrote: “The soil of Arlington is sewn with liberty’s defenders. It is nourished by their heroism. And it is watered by the silent tears of those they left behind.”

The most effective speech I ever wrote was probably the President’s farewell address to the military, which was delivered in January. I had the chance to be in the audience at Fort Myer, Virginia, when he gave it and the level of emotion between the Commander-in-Chief and the men and women he led was overwhelming.

My best experience was the President’s Veteran’s Day Speech from last year, which was delivered on board the USS Intrepid in New York City. We flew up to JFK on Air Force One and then took marine helicopters to the deck of the Intrepid. Seeing the President speak before an audience of thousands of veterans was extremely moving. What’s more, it really drove home his commitment to our men and women in uniform. President Bush was known for being extremely punctual, and we actually left New York nearly four hours late that day because he spent so much time meeting with military families after the speech.

3. Have you considered public office?

I have considered public office, but I am still relatively young and I think that Thoreau’s admonition that one ought to “stand up and live before you sit down and write” applies equally to governance. I would rather live a life that I a can be proud of and that could one day potentially be a springboard to public office than spend decades trying to climb the political ladder one excessively compromised rung at a time.

I’m a California native and my state is currently a textbook example of how bad governance and bad public policy can destroy even the most naturally attractive places on earth. I’m a reformist by temperament, so I suspect that if I get my start, it will be in the Golden State.

4. What is the most pressing issue/issues affecting the United States over the next five years?

There’s a reason that national success is often framed in terms of “peace and prosperity”. Economics and national security are always going to be the issues that define a nation’s future at the civilizational level. We are in real danger on both fronts.

The biggest threat to the American people is still the possibility of a terrorist strike within our borders utilizing a weapon of mass destruction. The Obama Administration is walking away from many of the safeguards that kept us safe from another terrorist attack for over seven years after 9/11. I’d be less worried about that if they were offering up an alternative vision for our national security, but right now they seem fundamentally unserious about the threat.

At the same time, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, the possibility of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan, and North Korea’s proliferation all pose grave threats to us, as does the increasingly unstable situation in Mexico (though that is a danger of a totally different order). All of these threats have been gathering for some time. If you want to look towards the next generation of danger, you need to be very concerned about cyberwarfare, which is already much more of a reality than most of the public realizes, and electromagnetic pulse weaponry, which has the potential to destroy the infrastructure of industrialized societies in one fell swoop.

On the economic front, the Obama Administration is doubling (or quadrupling, as the case may be) down on the mistakes that the Bush Administration made in its final year. In only a few months in office, we’ve seen the president assume de facto control of major sectors of the American economy, promise massive tax hikes, flirt with protectionism, explode the deficit and the debt, and make clear that government is going to direct the health care and energy sectors. It’s been fashionable in Republican circles to refer to his agenda as socialism, but I think President Obama is actually much closer to a classic fascist model in which he leaves the economy in nominally private hands while dictating every last move that it makes. If you wanted to create a blueprint for how you strangle a free economy and the dynamism that comes with it, you would do exactly what Obama is doing right now.

5. What do you believe were the most/least adept decisions made by the McCain 2008 campaign?

Winston Churchill supposedly once told a waiter to take back a pudding he had ordered because “it ha[d] no theme”. That basically summarizes my feelings about the McCain campaign.

Senator McCain is very good on foreign policy, and I was willing to support him as our party’s nominee because international affairs are far and away the biggest part of the president’s job, as well as the area where he has the most direct influence. Apart from that, however, there was no animating idea behind his candidacy. Senator McCain is a reactionary and improvisational politician — and that doesn’t lend itself to developing a particularly seductive vision for the nation.

The campaign’s best decision (at least initially) was the choice of Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee. Though it’s unfashionable to say so these days, I was a behind-the-scenes advocate for Palin’s selection long before 99 percent of the country had ever heard of her. But at that point, my knowledge of her was limited mostly to what I had read from others.

Her selection injected some badly needed energy into the campaign, and her initial rollout — particularly her announcement on the day after Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention and her speech to the Republican convention — was masterful. That being said, Palin should never have been picked unless the McCain team had been willing to prep her for the national stage for months in advance. She was intellectually unprepared for the task ahead of her, which made Senator McCain look unserious in an election where gravitas was his most salient advantage. The irony is that that decision probably ensured that neither McCain nor Palin will ever be president.

The worst move was easily McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign during the early days of the financial crisis. It looked (and was) melodramatic and Obama’s response that “A president needs to be able to do more than one thing at a time” was pitch perfect. To compound the error, McCain then went on to vote for the bailout, unilaterally conceding the single biggest advantage that he could have had against Obama when they debated the economy.

6. What is the largest change you have noticed between the previous and current administrations?

The single biggest change is the weakness that the United States is displaying on the world stage. Even though the Bush Administration became regrettably ineffective on Iran and North Korea in the second term, the international community still knew that there were certain lines in the sand that you didn’t cross with President Bush.

So far, President Obama has been tested by Russia (closing our supply route into Afghanistan through Kyrgyzstan, rebuffing his attempts for help with Iran, and moving towards closer relations with Cuba and Venezuela), China (their recent run-in with a US navy vessel), North Korea (last weekend’s missile launch), and Iran (their rejection of Obama’s diplomatic overtures), just to name a few. He has failed on each front. To be fair, the President appears to be handling Iraq in a sensible fashion and his plan for Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, though it is still seriously lacking in many respects. But the most volatile and dangerous regimes in the world are otherwise seeing a Commander-in-Chief who appears to be a shrinking violet.

7. How do you think history will rate President Bush?

You may recall the cult of Truman that grew up around President Bush in his last few years in office. Many of those around him became wed to the notion that President Bush, like Truman, was a plainspoken, clear-eyed leader who left office embattled because of his unpopular military efforts and that — like Truman — history would vindicate him. I find that analysis wanting in both style and substance.

First, I think it was a stylistic mistake for an administration that claimed not to care about legacies to be full of people crowing about what the president’s legacy would be. Truman, after all, didn’t have people running around shouting that he was going to be remembered like Grover Cleveland.

I also think the Truman parallel substitutes superficial similarities for historical ones. I suspect President Bush will actually be remembered much more like Woodrow Wilson — as a president of deep historical consequence, unshakeable conviction, and profound controversy. And like Wilson, I believe the Bush Administration will not receive a unanimous judgment from history. A hundred years from now, he will probably have just as many historians ranking him as a near-great president as those ranking his as a relative failure.

8. How were you able to become the President's speechwriter?

They say that the world is about who you know — and that’s especially true in politics — but there’s an unnecessary cynicism built into that phrase. We’ve created a generation of people who think “networking” is a skill instead of realizing that it’s just corporatespeak for the timeless value of meeting people and being reasonably nice to them. That’s how I got my start.

When I was in graduate school several years ago, a professor of mine was a friend of President Bush’s chief speechwriter. My professor forwarded some of my writing along and it got noticed — though it stayed in a circular file for a time, as there were no openings at the White House. In the intervening years, I wrote for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Newt Gingrich. Well over a year after my initial contact with the White House, I got the call. They had kept my material and when a spot opened up, they asked me to join the team.


Consider advertising on our site!
Also, if you need to search anything on Google, please use the bar below:


Editor said...

Great interview Matt! Excellent!

Joe C. said...

Joe approves!

Mr. d said...

Excellent interview, President Bush should be next!