For someone who admits he never set out to be a writer, Eli Attie has quite the CV. Not content to serve as chief White House and campaign speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, Attie then switched coasts and wrote on the multi-Emmy award winning television show The West Wing, eventually becoming a supervising producer and one of its top scriptwriters. Talk about an enduring career arc.
Despite being such an accomplished wordsmith, Attie believes it’s not the words but the moment itself which elevates a great speech, or a great script for that matter. “You can slave away for months, and write the most stirring rhetoric that’s ever been written about your boss’s economic plan,” Attie says.
“But it’ll never match the inherent force and drama of Bobby Kennedy’s speech about the assassination of Martin Luther King, or Teddy Kennedy’s heartbreaking eulogy for Bobby – which were probably scribbled on napkins in the wings. The power of those moments is what made those speeches great, not the actual language. That’s true of screenwriting too. Great dialogue’s a wonderful thing, but sometimes the most memorable scenes, the most emotional ones, don’t need words at all.”
Starting with a blank page
Attie’s own story began in New York City. A graduate of Harvard College, he was – somewhat reluctantly – heading down the law school route when he discovered the New York City Urban Fellows, a programme which places its recruits into slightly-above-entry-level government positions for a small salary. Attie began working in the office of Mayor David Dinkins as junior researcher to his main speechwriter – and law school quickly faded as a career option.
Prompted by Mayor Dinkins’ 1993 re-election defeat, Attie got a speechwriting job in the office of the House Democratic Leader, Congressman Dick Gephardt. The decision to swap the buzz and skyscrapers of Manhattan for the somewhat more laid-back vibe of Washington, DC paid off in spades. “I think that was my most creative phase as a speechwriter,” Attie says of the two years he spent fighting the Gingrich revolution on Capitol Hill. “I hit a certain stride in that job, for me at least. Gephardt was so supportive, he was just a fantastic person to work for, so I took more risks rhetorically, had more fun within the speeches, which hopefully came across to his audiences.”
It was a feeling he didn’t carry with him when he started writing speeches for the Vice President, and found a much heavier hand from the boss. “Gore had been a journalist, had written a best-selling book on his own,” Attie points out. “If he’d had an extra 40 hours in the day, he’d have written all his own speeches, and written them much better than I could have. So he was a taskmaster, and rightfully so, especially while we were getting to know each other. In those early days, I had to struggle to keep up. What worked for Gephardt didn’t work for Gore.” They ultimately built a strong working relationship, and Attie stayed as Gore’s chief speechwriter through to the concession of the 2000 recount, which the two of them co-wrote.
Attie believes it’s important for any speechwriter not to get bogged down by jargon, or to let speeches become so overwritten, so over-scrutinised by teams of advisers that they lose their feel and flow. “Obviously, words matter. Content matters,” Attie says. “But the best speechwriting is really writing by ear. Not getting stuck on specific policy language, but being aware of how the whole piece sounds – the rhythm and flow of it. Keeping things musical, in a way, and comfortable for the person saying it. You have to keep the writing out of the way of the speaker. And when you’re working as part of a big staff, you have to keep your speech drafts out of as many hands as possible.”
Making a moment
Attie shared many hundreds of hours with Gore as they criss-crossed the country. Surely this helped him when crafting his speeches? After all, everyone is different, so the closer you know the speaker the better, right? Yes, but only up to a point.
“When I started out as a speechwriter I thought: the job here’s to capture the exact voice of the boss, almost as if it’s a transcript,” Attie says. “But most of the time, you’re trying to make them sound much better than they normally do. So it can help to break away from their usual voice, to write in a style that’s punchier or looser than they’re used to, which can connect more viscerally with a crowd. The important thing is to build a good relationship with your boss, so they understand what you’re trying to provide, and you understand what they’re comfortable saying.”
Attie firmly believes that speeches still have a huge role to play in the political environment – even in the age of Trump’s tweets and a 24/7 media cycle. Take the Birther controversy which plagued President Obama five years ago, for example. In his recent Q&A at the Oxford Union, Jon Favreau, Obama’s former top speechwriter, pointed out that the press conference where the President presented his birth certificate has something like 150,000 views on YouTube, whereas the White House Correspondents Dinner, where Obama used a video from the Lion King to mock his accusers, has more than 18 million.
“The internet is a sharing culture,” Attie agrees. “Social media is all about sharing. That’s changed political communication more profoundly than anything I can think of. Today, a speech that’s jarring or funny or memorable is shared far more widely than one that isn’t.”
Heading to Hollywood
So, how did Attie come to swap the Beltway for the hills of Hollywood? The dust had barely settled on the rollercoaster ride that was the 2000 Florida recount before Attie – fired up by a determination to do something new – placed a call to the studios of The West Wing in Los Angeles.
“A college acquaintance of mine was a Hollywood talent agent at the time, and during the recount he sent me a joking email, saying, hey, if things don’t work out, you should sell out and become a screenwriter,” he recalls. “It got me thinking, even though he didn’t mean it seriously, because I knew I couldn’t live through the Bush era in Washington. Now, I couldn’t write one word of a screenplay, I’d never even tried. But I knew there were teams of people who wrote TV shows, so I figured, maybe one of them’ll give me a shot. When I told friends I was thinking about TV writing, all of them, to a person, said: “you should work on The West Wing, it’s about what you just did for a living’.”
At the time, he’d barely seen the show – which had been on for a little over a year – but he watched a couple episodes and was quickly hooked. “Of course I loved how it glamu orised people in politics, at a time when pop culture saw political staffers as craven, bloodless tacticians. But as writing, the genius of (series creator Aaron) Sorkin was that it seemed so breezy and effortless and easy – which of course it wasn’t – I naively thought: maybe I can actually do this.”
Attie didn’t know Sorkin, but he called him out of the blue, and managed to get him on the phone. “It was a very lucky thing, which I did on a lark, really, because I’d read a newspaper profile of him, and he seemed like a highly decent guy. I just thought, why not call him up? So I called information and got the general number for his studio, Warner Brothers. They patched me through to his office, and amazingly, he took my call, though he had no idea know who I was, just that I’d worked for Gore. I said I’d like to have coffee with him sometime, and he said he’d like to consider me for a job. So I flew out, met with him for half an hour, and not long after that he hired me. I know it all sounds fantastical – it sounds that way to me now – but the truth is, working in TV was such a random idea for me, I wasn’t that serious about it, and knew almost nothing about it. This gave me a certain courage, I think, to reach out to one of the greats. If it had been my lifelong dream, I wouldn’t have dared to make that call.”
Attie initially signed a one-year contract, with the intention of moving back east for what he and many others thought would be a Gore-Bush rematch in 2004. Instead, Gore never ran again, and Attie fell in love with his new career. “I didn’t have any storytelling skills at first, but I was in a room with all these incredibly smart people who did,” he explains. “What I did have was lots of White House jargon and anecdotes and insights, so that kept me in the room while I learned the other stuff. It wasn’t until I’d been there for a year that I wrote an entire episode by myself.”
Attie adds that Sorkin was always very interested in depicting speechwriting on the show, often a lot more glamorously than the real version. “That was true even before I joined the show. Rob Lowe’s character was a speechwriter, so was Richard Schiff’s, and so was Josh Malina’s. Obviously, because Aaron’s such a great writer, he can relate to the speechwriter’s struggle – things like writer’s block, or trying to find the right theme to match a moment. And in art, unlike life, we treated speechwriting as this very sexy, glamorous thing.”
The next chapter
Attie was on The West Wing for five seasons, and since then has written for a number of shows, including the acclaimed House, MD. Now firmly ensconced as a fixture on the Hollywood block, he says a return to politics is unlikely for him.
“I still love Washington. I have a lot of close friends who stayed there and did incredible things, far beyond anything I ever did,” he says. “But I don’t plan to go back, because I already had a very complete experience there. I’m so grateful to have done it, but for me, at the moment anyway, it’d feel like going backwards.”
That said, he remains a close observer of the body politic and is a font of knowledge for writers keen to ply their trade either in Washington or Hollywood. “I tell people who want to be screenwriters: go do another job first, if you can – it almost doesn’t matter what job,” Attie says. “If you learn about the real world, if you experience what it’s like in a real workplace, it gives you so much more to write about.” He adds, “that’s what politics gave me. A databank of experiences that I’m still drawing on, even when I write about other professions.” Attie says one reason there are so few great screenwriters in their 20’s is that they tend to have so much less life experience to draw upon.
Young speechwriters are another matter. “Most screenwriting is about conveying emotion, insight, human frailties that people can relate to,” Attie says. “It takes a while to have those in your own life, so you can even begin to put them down on paper. But with a speech, you’re mostly making an argument. So I think you can be a terrific speechwriter much younger.”
His advice for aspiring speechwriters? “Read great speeches, go to churches and hear great oratory, go see Shakespeare onstage – fill your ears with language that has a rhythm and a poetry to it. Because at the end of the day, more than advancing that argument, you’re trying to get through to people, to get into their heads. That’s what all great writing is about. Or should be.”
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