A presidential speech-writing process — Bill Clinton

presidential speech-writing process
“Little Rock Nine” memorial; detail of Elisabeth Eckford’s statue Photo by Sgerbic – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bill Clinton’s library released a fascinating digital exhibit this week. If you’ve ever wondered about the presidential speech-writing process, hop on over to Commemorating Courage: 40th Anniversary of Desegregation of Central High.

This coming Monday marks the 60th anniversary of that signal event in our history. Three years after the Supreme Court abolished the “separate but equal” practice of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Arkansas still hadn’t integrated its school system. When nine young black men and women enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, their governor called out the National Guard to turn them away. President Eisenhower eventually intervened, sending in troops to escort the students into the building on September 25, 1957.

I think sometimes karma has a hand in “booking” speakers. Bill Clinton was 11 when the “Little Rock Nine” finally entered their new high school. It was a formative experience for him—and as president, he made sure to shine a spotlight on the event. The first person of color to serve as president, Barack Obama, got to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the March on Washington. A great symbol of the progress we (thought we had) made. That kind of personal connection between speakers and events doesn’t happen every day; when it does, I get the shivers.

Presidential speech-writing process, on full display

So dive into the Clinton Library’s exhibit on Little Rock and you’ll see everything from handwritten notes from the first speech-prep session, to research materials, to drafts prepared by the lead speechwriter, June Shih. You’ll also find a photograph of the president still revising his remarks “backstage” in the High School, just moments before he took the stage.

The folks in my Weekly What program will get a full analysis of the speech and the differences between drafts. But spend a little time on the Clinton Library’s website and you’ll find several articles about different aspects of the events surrounding the school’s desegregation, as well as some moving photographs of President Clinton holding open the high school’s doors for the now-grown Nine, and awarding them the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Clinton’s speech recognized that the country still had a ways to go. But its optimism about the effect the Little Rock Nine had on the education system seems quaint today, 20 years after his speech. The New York Times magazine last weekend ran a piece called “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.” “Resegregation”—spellcheck doesn’t even recognize that as a word! But apparently in some parts of the country, municipalities are forming their own school districts as an end run around integration.

Surely this is not the best way forward for our country. It’s certainly not the future President Clinton envisioned for us 20 years ago. So take a trip back in time and imagine a world of educational equity, freedom, and justice for all.


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