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Republican Speechwriters Discuss President Bush’s Renomination Speech

September 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And for that, I’m joined by two seasoned veterans of Republican campaigns. Clark judge served as speechwriter and special assistant to President Reagan and Vice President Bush.

He’s managing director of the White House Writers, a Washington communications firm. And Ken Khachigian was a speechwriter and political strategist on the last six Republican presidential campaigns.

He’s now an attorney and partner in a Los Angeles law firm. Gentlemen, we just heard the delegates on the floor talk about what the president has to do. They want to hear him talk about terrorism and keeping themselves safer.

They want him to emphasize his leadership, talk about the economy and health care. What would you say, Ken Khachigian, if you were writing the speech for tonight, what would you have him say?

KEN KHACHIGIAN: Well, first of all, I’d put in the historical context. Every big speech is in historical context. In my view, the historical context is the president is a… there’s an attempt really to destroy his presidency and him as a person. It’s not just a matter of destroying his policies or his political party, but in the last six months to nine months there has been this effort to break his presidency. So I think he needs to show a lot of strength.

The speech needs to attract itself to swing voters. But my definition of swing voters are people who don’t want to die in terrorist attacks. So that’s item number one, two, and three.

He has to show strength in that area, make the case for the confusion and the America around the war in Iraq, largely fomented by questions raised by his political opponents. So this is an opportunity to have an unobstructed view of that.

GWEN IFILL: Clark Judge, an unobstructed view of the president’s strengths?

CLARK JUDGE: Well, he has to do all that, of course. But elections are one-third about the past and two-thirds about the future. He needs to lay out where he wants to take the country in the next four years. Safety is part of it.

But the party is engaged in the debate on safety over the last three nights and done it with extraordinary power and eloquence. It’s been the best beginning… the best three nights of a convention I’ve ever seen. But he also needs to do something that no one else has done or could do, which is to lay out where he wants to take things — not just in foreign but also in domestic policy.

We hear about the economy being important, Governor Schwarzenegger addressed that. He needs now… the president needs now to say “what am I doing? Where am I going?” and do it in a way that captures the imagination of the public.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Khachigian, a big difference for an incumbent president seeking re-nomination than a challenger. We saw what John Kerry had to do in Boston last month, but for someone who wants to get the job again, it’s a different task, isn’t it?

KEN KHACHIGIAN: Yes, because he doesn’t have to define himself this time. The question is not are we better off than we were four years ago? The question is will we be better off four years from now than we are now? That’s what he has to focus on. To show you that Republicans don’t always agree on everything I disagree a little bit with Clark.

I do think he needs to lay out a bit of an agenda and some… a sense of the future, but I also think that political speeches like this cannot be state of the union speeches. He can’t come out with some laundry list which is going to basically not focus in on the key thing that the country’s looking for.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like you don’t really disagree.

KEN KHACHIGIAN: I agree with that. I’m not saying he needs to have forty programs, or even four. But he does need to give a sense of the values and the direction he wants to take the country.

CLARK JUDGE: I don’t disagree with that.

GWEN IFILL: How much of the speech should be about war and terrorism and how much of those two things… can those two things be linked?

CLARK JUDGE: Well, I… war and terrorism are the same thing. The war in Iraq is part of the war on terror. We wouldn’t be in Iraq now if it hadn’t been for 9/11.

GWEN IFILL: You think that case has successfully been made?

CLARK JUDGE: I think it’s been made with power and eloquence they didn’t expect, starting with Senator McCain and Mayor Giuliani.

GWEN IFILL: So how much does the president have to talk about that?

CLARK JUDGE: I think that he does some, but I think he has got to give a sense of the future and particularly domestic future. I think we know where he wants to go in foreign policy.

He needs to confirm that, give the sense of strength that Ken talked about. But he also needs to give a sense where he wants to go in domestic policy, too.

GWEN IFILL: 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent of the speech, Ken Khachigian?

KEN KHACHIGIAN: I think it’s important for it to be the bulk of the speech, frankly. Iraq is on everyone’s mind and this is a chance to put a big megaphone behind the positions that have been taken at the early days of this convention. Those will be long forgotten after the president gives his speech. And I think that if he doesn’t make a very… look.

The case for Iraq is the sense of America, what America does when confronted with massive movements like are taking place across the globe right now. This has to be put in that historical context, that this is not just about Saddam Hussein but also about what he represented.

GWEN IFILL: But people don’t want to hear the president talk about domestic issues like Clark was saying?

KEN KHACHIGIAN: They do, of course they do. But the best platform for that is the greatest platform in America, which is the White House. I think again he needs to talk about his tax policies, a free society, hope and opportunity, education, things like that.

But I don’t think those should be the principal elements. That’s not what’s going to be taken out of this. People want to hear how we’re going to extract ourselves from Iraq, why we’re in Iraq, and what America’s doing there.

CLARK JUDGE: He probably needs some thematic unity that ties it together so it’s not this and that but it’s a total vision. He has an opportunity here, and the opportunity is a little bit surprising to me that we… that it’s so clear. Sen. Kerry so clearly did not do that in Boston. So he left a huge vacuum. He left several huge vacuums that are being filled in right now.

But that was one of the biggest. So if the president can, with thematic unity talk about the future and where he’s taking the country both around the world and home, then he’s going to fill that in and there’s not going to be a lot of room for the democrats.

GWEN IFILL: Well, a tall order here. The president is scheduled to speak for something like fifty/fifty-five minutes tonight and he needs to talk about war and he needs to lay out his plan for the future and he needs to embrace some sort of grace notes in his speech.

You write these things, or wrote these things for a living for people on stages like this. That’s a pretty tall order.

KEN KHACHIGIAN: Sure. And it’s very daunting, very frankly, when you’re sitting looking at a blank page, and how to stuff this all in. But I think this particular speech can flow quite easily and at the very end, I think he also needs to leave an impression that there is a big difference between him and his opponent, John Kerry.

Is John Kerry the war hero he was or is he an antiwar hero he was? It’s the president who has a convincing compass versus this somebody guided by the political wins.

GWEN IFILL: You think he needs to mention John Kerry by name?

KEN KHACHIGIAN: I would not be bothered by that if he did. Look, this is a tough election campaign. Harry Truman beat his opponents over the head in ’48 because he was under fire. Presidents have to show toughness and strength.

GWEN IFILL: Clark Judge, how do you fill up that blank page?

CLARK JUDGE: I guess I feel it’s an easier job than Ken feels… might feel it is. Look, he has a tremendously powerful record. He took an economy that was in freefall, he turned it around. He took one of the most dangerous and unappreciated foreign situations we’ve had in memory and turned… and has been turning that around. He’s got an opponent who seems to be all over the map on what he wants to do on everything.

He even flip-flops on whether he flip-flops. So he… you know, and he… and if the talk around town is right, he’s also got a pretty arresting program to put out domestically. This is a strong hand to play. It’s an extraordinarily strong hand to play. And if the past is any indication, this president and the people around him know how to play it very, very well.

GWEN IFILL: Clark Judge and Ken Khachigian, I’m sure you will be watching tonight. Thank you very much for joining us.