July 30, 2009
The Best Speech I Ever Wrote
Elie Wiesel wagged a bony finger at me. “History will be watching you, young man,” he warned. We were on the tarmac at Geneva International Airport, and yes, I was a young man, not yet 29, though after the week I’d just been through, I felt the age I am today, almost exactly 30 years later.
“Give him a copy,” Vice President Walter F. Mondale instructed me, and I handed a few typed pages to Wiesel. It was the draft of a speech that Mondale would deliver the next day, to the United Nations Conference on Indochinese Refugees.
In the four years since the last U.S. helicopter, crowded with evacuees, had lifted off from a Saigon rooftop, hundreds of thousands of “boat people” - those who hadn’t been killed or imprisoned - had been fleeing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, crowded onto pitiful crafts, starving, shark-bait, on the South China Sea. The lucky ones who made it to the shores of other nations were largely being turned back or interned in barbed-wire camps.
Mondale hadn’t been scheduled to go to Geneva. We - his staff - were spending the week with him flying all over the country, with Mondale giving speeches trying to persuade wavering senators, via their constituents, to ratify the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviets. I had worked on those speeches for months, not knowing of course that the Senate would ultimately balk, and I had been staving off exhaustion until the last draft of the trip’s last speech, in Philadelphia, had been delivered.
But soon after we took off on the trip, we were ambushed by the news that President Jimmy Carter had fired his Cabinet. This was in the wake of his mysterious retreat to Camp David, where - instead of giving the energy speech the country had been promised - he summoned teachers and preachers and people from every other segment of society to confer about the country’s spirit. Finally he returned to the White House and gave a speech about America’s “crisis of confidence,” which became known - though he never used the word - as the “malaise” speech.
All this was going on in the days before our SALT II trip, and there was a glimmer of a chance that the country would react well to Carter’s speech, but those hopes hit the rocks when the president asked all his Cabinet secretaries to offer their resignations, leading Americans to wonder whether something weird and unstable was going on in the White House.
It was only a matter of hours after we heard about the firing - I think we were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota - that we learned that President Carter was not going to Geneva, as had been planned, to speak to the U.N. conference, and that Mondale would need to fill in. Right after his speach to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council, we were to fly overnight to Geneva.
The problem for me - I was Mondale’s chief speechwriter - was that there was no Carter speech that he could simply give, only a sheaf of memos and briefings that had languished while the President was holed up at Camp David. My job was to digest the background material and come up with a draft on the flight to Geneva that the State Department and the National Security Council would clear.
Mondale had been active on the boat people problem. He had already convinced Carter that the Sixth Fleet should rescue them on the high seas, and that the U.S. should take in 14,000 refugees a month. The problem was that that was barely enough; what was urgently needed was a massively generous response by the potential nations of asylum in the region.
Luckily, I had terrific people to school me in the policy stuff - Dick Holbrooke and David Aaron - in the couple of days I had to absorb the files. But as Air Force Two headed out over the Atlantic, as far as I could tell I was the only one awake besides the people in the cockpit. What came out of my IBM Selectric II was what Mondale handed to Wiesel - a member of the U.S. delegation to the conference - when we arrived.
I’ll never forget the moment when Mondale finished delivering the speech. I’d been told that the most we could hope for, as a reaction from the delegates, was a smattering of polite applause; instead, there was a sustained standing ovation. I caught Wiesel’s eye, and he nodded. Maybe there was a glimmer of a smile there as well, but it’s the nod I remember; I pretended that it was his way of saying, You did good, kid.
The speech made a difference. The nations stepped up to the crisis. It was one of those rare occasions when words may actually have saved lives.
I would never have had the chance to write it, were it not for Vice President Mondale. Every speech is of course a collaboration, and the speechwriter’s code is to abjure authorship. But today I read an article by law professor and historian Joel K. Goldstein calling it “one of the truly eloquent speeches in American history,” and since I could use a jolt of ego this morning, and since enough years may have passed, maybe it’s okay for me to tell this self-aggrandizing story. Whether the speech deserves Professor Goldstein’s kind words, you decide. Here’s an excerpt:
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