Mary Kate Cary Transcript
Charlie Bruce 0:00
Welcome to Academical the podcast that peaks under the hood to tell you how the machine of public policy works.
Aidan Doud 0:08
Hello, everybody and welcome back to Academical. My name is Aidan Doud. I'm a first year MPP student, and today we have a really great conversation talking all about the world of political speechwriting, something that I don't know a lot about, that I don't think many people do know the ins and outs of and how that goes into policy work. So today, our guests to talk about this is none other than Mary Kate Cary. Professor Cary is a practitioner senior fellow at UVA Miller Center, and also an adjunct professor in the UVA Department of Politics. She served as a White House speechwriter from 1989 to 1992. For President George HW Bush, then a spokeswoman and Deputy Director of Policy and Communications for then Attorney General Bill Barr. In 2014 she was the creator and executive producer of 41 on 41, a documentary about President George HW Bush, which premiered internationally on CNN, and will soon be available on CNN’s streaming site in January of 2022. She's also a producer of President in Waiting, a documentary about the modern vice presidency that features interviews with all the living vice presidents, which debuted on CNN in December 2020, and she now chairs the advisory board of the Georgia Barbara Bush Foundation. She teaches classes on political speechwriting at UVA, and also provides commentary weekly for Canadian TV and many other news outlets. Welcome Professor Cary, to the podcast. And thank you so much for joining us.
Mary Kate Cary 1:30
Thanks for having me, Aidan.
Aidan Doud 1:31
You obviously have had a very successful career in political communications and speechwriting for policymakers. But what some may not know is that you started actually, as a UVA student, like many of our listeners. Can you tell us a little bit about your time as a student and how you broke into the world of newswriting and politics?
Mary Kate Cary 1:47
Sure, I am a member of the mighty class of 1985, here at UVA, along with many of my classmates have moved back to Charlottesville, a lot of my friends are doing the same thing. So it's totally awesome. And the way I sort of got into it at UVA, I was a Foreign Affairs major and thought I would go into the Foreign Service. And one of the classes I took along the way doesn't exist anymore, at least not that I know of, called news writing 101. And the professor who taught it was a guy named Bill Fishback. And he was the spokesman for the university and a former reporter from the Richmond Times Dispatch. So he taught this class, this was before word processing was on a laptop, you had to go to the Word Processing Center at UVA, which was in the computer science department. So nobody had computers, everybody had typewriters. And they had probably 10 IBM Selectric typewriters on tables. And there were like I said, maybe 10 or 12 people in the class, everybody got your own typewriter, a reporter's notebook and a stack of paper. And Mr. Fishback would start class and say, “Okay, I'm the.. I'm the fire chief today. And there was a fire last night, anybody got any questions for me?” And we would raise our hands. And we would ask questions about the fire. And he would just make stuff up. Halfway through class, he would say, “Time's up, press conference is over, you have 45 minutes to write your story and turn it in.” And there was no textbook, no homework. And at the beginning of the semester, I was like, wow, this is kind of hard. Because you couldn't like now on a, you know, a Word doc, you couldn't cut and paste and move stuff around and see how it looked. And all this, you basically had to write the story in your head. And then you had one chance, and one chance only to type it up, because it wasn't time because it was a typewriter. And so we, as the semester went on, we all got faster and faster doing this. And by the end of the semester, I could write on deadline, pretty darn quick, accurate, you know, fact based reporting, and I just thought this was the funnest class because like I said, no homework, no textbook, you were done when you walked out of the room, didn't have to do anything until the next class. And I said something to a friend of mine, that man, I just got I just love this class, it's the best class at UVA. And my friend said, Oh, well, you know, there's a there's a underground conservative newspaper that was the alternative to the Cavalier Daily, it was called the University Journal at the time. And he said, you know, they're looking for columnists, why don’t you be a columnist at the, at the paper, if you like to write like that. And I said, Oh, no, no I don't really want to have to be a cub reporter first and work my way up to be a columnist, because that's what I thought columnists were were former reporters who then could be columnist, and he goes, oh, no, no reporters are reporters, columnists are columnists. You can be a columnist tomorrow. And I was like, really? So I show up. I become a columnist at the University Journal. I ended up moving to be executive editor. And I'm, you know, writing the unsigned editorials. Then there was a coup at both papers and I ended up switching over to the Cavalier Daily, the conservatives tried to take over the Cavalier Daily for a year. And so I ended up writing for both papers as a columnist. And the thing that it did was it allowed me to graduate from college without, without ever having to worry about anybody asking me for my transcript or my grades, because I had a portfolio of published works. And employers could look at my writing and decide for themselves if they thought I was a good writer. But what was sort of the subliminal point that was made by those news clips was that I could meet a deadline. And that's very valuable to a lot of employers. There's a lot of great writers in the world, but not everybody can meet a deadline. And so that, that's that was worth at least three jobs out of college, were the first thing they asked me for was my.. my clips from my columns. And so as a result, I highly, highly recommend writing for any of the publications here at UVA, because you'll not only hone your writing skills, you’ll show employers, you can meet a deadline.
Aidan Doud 6:03
So after then, when you went from college, you said in your next three jobs that that was really useful to you. What were those jobs, and then how did that eventually get you to speechwriting at the White House.
Mary Kate Cary 6:12
So the first job out of college was answering phones for a Congressman from New York on Capitol Hill. But he knew I was Irish, and he was on a Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that dealt with all the problems going on in Ireland at the time. So if there was anything that he had to testify on in Ireland, I was allowed to write it. But mostly I was answering phones. And then the second job I had, I answered an ad in the paper, to work at ABC News’ This Week with David Brinkley, who was the guy before George Stephanopoulos. And there was a writers strike while I was there. And I thought, Oh, wow, this is my big break, now I'm going to get my writing job. And instead, I was too junior to be a news writer… because this is only my, you know, I was 22 or something, and so I would build the scripts for the On Air talent, but not write them, I would just, you know, sort the papers. And then the third job, one of my buddies from UVA, who went on to become the Secretary of Labor, actually, he called me and said, hey, I heard about this startup, and you might want to throw your name in. And it's something nobody's ever done before. It's gonna be a political news service. And there was no such thing then, it was before Axios, before Politico, any of that, it was called the Hotline. And basically, what they did was they aggregated all of the news stories on politics, from all the papers across the country. And then we would write little synopses of them. And it's, we started writing at midnight, it was a midnight to noon, graveyard shift, the newspapers would go to the printing presses at midnight and send them to us. So we get the political stories, we'd aggregate them, you know, write up short little write ups about them. So if Al Gore gave a speech, we would say, Oh, the Washington Post said it was brilliant, The New York Times that it was terrible, whatever. And, this was an expensive subscription service. And basically all the networks and all the campaigns in 1988, anybody who's running for president in ‘88, subscribed to this, and this is how they made their money. And eventually the National Journal bought them, but it was a startup at the time, and I was there was a Republican and a Democrat managing editor. And so I would write as well, but the managing editors pick the stories. And, and so those, that's what got me my start in politics, because I covered the primaries. And just as the Bush campaign was getting the nomination and going into the general election, I got hired there and switched over to being on the campaign staff.
Aidan Doud 8:48
If I can cut in really quick — so was that when you're working there for that aggregator? Was that a time where you switched from like your columnist experience then to more of a reporter role? Or..
Mary Kate Cary 8:59
Yeah, that was not an opinion, world that I was in, it was all straight reporting. And, you know, compressing down the most salient points of other people's reporting. And, but what it taught me to do was how to take a lot of information quickly and distill it down. And the next job I had, you know, when I got onto the campaign, was writing what was called line of the day, which was a one page sheet that went out to all 50 state chairmen, saying what the Bush campaign had done that day, what the Dukakis campaign had done, and why we were gonna win, and they were gonna lose, and it was to give anybody who might be called on to the nightly news on behalf of the Bush campaign across the country, some sound bites, some facts about what had happened that day, quotes from the Vice President, you know, statistics, whatever, and then sort of soundbite-y material for television. I was more shocked than anybody. He wins the election after being down 17 points, and they say to me, we'd like you to come with us to the White House. And I was shocked. I figured they'd give me some crazy job at the, you know, EPA or something. And instead, they said, come to the White House. And, and I said, but the line of the day is very political. They don't do that at the White House, do they? And they said, no, no, in those days, they didn't, now they do. And they said, we want you to write magazine pieces by George Bush, ghostwrite them. So it'd be like, ‘Why I love country music,’ by George Bush for Country Music Magazine. And I said, but I've never written a magazine article before. And they said, well, are you saying no? Are you saying you don't want the White House job? And I said no no no, I'll take it, I'll take it. I'll figure it out. You know, so. So I start writing magazines at the White House. And about six months into it, the boss comes to me and says, we're gonna switch you to speechwriting now. And same thing I said, but I've never written a speech before in my life. And he says, are, are you saying no? Are you saying no to the promotion? No, no, I'll take it. I'll take it. And he said, you know, you're gonna be fine, don't worry. And I was 24. And I thought, why does this guy think I'm going to be fine. And now, looking back on it, I realize that those jobs I just told you about starting with being a columnist, were fact based, persuasive writing on a deadline. I had to take large amounts of information and distill them down, which is what a speechwriter does as well. I had to write stuff that could get on the nightly news. We're sort of soundbite-y, catchy stuff. And then I had to write in someone else's voice. And it was the same person I was going to be a speechwriter for, so that, that is exactly the job description of a speechwriter. But I was intimidated by the title because I’d never had that title before. But if I had somebody who was 24, who had that string of jobs sitting in front of me, I'd say, oh yeah, you're going to be a great speechwriter, you'll be fine. But at the time, I thought it was just a matter of time before I’d get fired. And, you know, lucky, lucky to be alive.
Aidan Doud 12:02
Yeah. That's funny. So then doing that at such a young age, was it difficult then to try to put yourself in the narrative voice of the President of the United States? What was that like? And how, how, what were the challenges of trying to communicate his policy ideas? You know, from your own perspective?
Mary Kate Cary 12:19
Yeah. So obviously, you know, George Bush was a much older gentlemen, and here I was this, you know, 24 year old young woman, and you tend to find yourself in situations like that, and you, you just figure it out. And so I started looking to see how the other speechwriters did it. And I started mimicking what worked. And I didn't have any, I didn't know any better, to screw it up with, I just started figuring out, you have to think about how the President or, how whoever you're writing for, how that person speaks, and what words they tend to use. And certainly, if you watch Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey, you can see an exaggerated version of, of how George Bush spoke when he was President. But you can also do very well by figuring out the way that they think and the way that they structure arguments. President Bush was a very good writer, a better, he would say this himself, he was a better writer than speaker. And so it was easy to find other things he had written. And he was famous for all his note writing, all kinds of things he had done in the past in various positions he's had, and so, so it was easy to find things to get me into that situation where I could mimic his voice as, as best I could.
Aidan Doud 13:36
So then, when you were there doing that work? What would, what did your everyday life look like? What were you doing day in, day out as a speechwriter?
Mary Kate Cary 13:43
Well, being a speechwriter at that level at the White House is a job for a young person, preferably a single one without kids, which I was, and, and I would say, you know, I would go in, in the morning so that I would be there by the time — the senior staff meeting was at 7am — by the time senior staff broke up at 7:30, quarter of 8, it was smart to be at your desk, because that's when all the assignments would start, you know, coming in. And, and so most of the day was spent, most speechwriting operations are one man per speech. George W. Bush's White House, they liked doing it by committee, which I've never heard of anybody else doing it that way. But those guys sat in a bullpen and interacted with each other. In our day, and in the Reagan day, each speechwriter had their own office where you could sort of focus and not be distracted by everybody else going on. And then, so you'd spend most of the day writing. You wrote pretty much one to two speeches a week unless you had something big like the State of the Union address, which I was never senior enough to get. I was doing a lot of video scripts, a lot of what they call rose garden rubbish. The, the… I don't like that term, but that's what it's called. It was a lot of spelling bee winners, and Turkey pardoning, Girl Scout of the Year awards. President Bush called it ‘life its own self’ after a phrase by Dan Jenkins. And I think those were some of his favorites because he got to interact with real people and not be sitting there addressing a joint session of Congress or some high stakes thing that was obviously very nerve wracking. So, so I got to do the fun stuff. So I thought I had the best job of all and, and so I loved it. And then because I was the only speechwriter who was on the campaign in ‘88, I got put on all of the 1990 midterm campaign speeches when he would go around the country and campaign for all kinds of people. And so that meant I was on Air Force One a lot traveling all over the country, in case there were last minute changes to the speech, they always wanted a speechwriter on every trip. And that was true, not just of the political speeches, anytime the President's traveling, there's a speechwriter with him, just in case. So I got to, I got to see a lot of America. By the end of it, my favorite speech that I got to write was the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and President Bush was very involved in that speech, because he was 18, when, excuse me, 17 and a half when Pearl Harbor happened. And he tried to try to enlist that day, and was turned away because he wasn't old enough, waited until his 18th birthday and enlisted and did not go to college, instead went and fought in World War II. And so I got to talk to him about that, which at that point was something he never wanted to talk about, so it was a big deal to get him to open up about it. And so I felt like as, as time went on, I got more and more responsibility and got to write some really, you know, eye opening speeches, in terms of historical value. So I was very blessed.
Aidan Doud 16:37
Yeah, very cool. So when you were writing speeches that related to like, policy things, as you know, a lot of our audience is policy students or people working in the policy field. How… what was that interaction? Like? How do you like the communication staff, the speechwriting staff, how do they work with those, you know, creating the policy, analyzing the policy, all of that good stuff.
Mary Kate Cary 16:57
So, so each each White House is structured differently. So I'm not sure how the Biden administration has theirs structured right now. But I can tell you how ours was, which I think was fairly commonplace at the time, which was… so most of the speechwriters were divided into either domestic or foreign policy writers. I was a domestic policy writer, and the guys who wrote the foreign policy speeches mostly came from either the State Department or Department of Defense. There were five of us at any given time, with Reagan had nine speechwriters at any given time, Obama had 14. So different, different White Houses have different size of speechwriting staffs, and each one of us had a dedicated researcher who provided us with whatever we needed. And on the domestic policy side, there was the Domestic Policy Council, which is the policy office at the White House, and between the researchers and the policy guys, they would get you whatever you needed for the speech. I would get direction from the Director of Communications. If the speech was high level enough, you got called into the Oval Office to talk to the President about what he wanted. But, but most of the time would be the White House Communications Director, we'd have a big meeting, he'd sit down and say, okay, Mary Kate, I'm assigning you the speech at the Grand Tetons National Park, let's say, the President wants to talk about the Clean Air Act amendments, so you need to talk about, you know, environmental policy, you need to talk about what we're going to do in the schools, you know, whatever it is, and so you'd get three or four bullet points that had to be in the speech, and then everything else was up to you to fill 15 or 20 minutes. And so you get a lot of material from the Domestic Policy Council. And then the researchers would come up with all the local color, things like that. If it was a foreign policy address, because occasionally I got asked to write those if there was a, a toast, let's say, at a State Department, I mean, a state dinner a lot of times I would get given the toast instead of the actual policy address. And, and so the toasts even, there's interplay between the White House and State Department where they're giving you exact language that they want. The problem is it's often not.. how should I say this diplomatically? It's, it's often written for the eye, not the ear. How about that? When you read it, and you're like, okay, I know what they're trying to say here. But this is gonna bomb if we say it the way they say it. So there's always these back and forth with state or the National Security Council on how, to how to word things in a way that's, you know, more more speech-like than.. than a white paper. So that's how it all went down. Yeah.
Aidan Doud 19:31
Yeah I love that not only in policy, does the bureaucracy come into play, but also in the speechwriting in the community, as well.
Mary Kate Cary 19:39
And then it would, uh, one more thing I should tell you is anything that, that the speechwriters wrote, got staffed. That was called the staffing process where, you know, I'd write a draft, it would go to the chief speechwriter, we go back and forth with editing. Okay, now we're both happy with it. Then it would go to the office of the staff secretary. And that office would circulate it to an average of 20 or 22 people, depending on the content of the speech. And if there was a mention in there of the EPA, somebody from EPA had to check that sentence. You know, OMB was very involved, because it usually had numbers in it of how much was going to be spent on whatever policy. So all these people got to weigh in. The Reagan speechwriters were allowed to do what was called reconciliation, where if you had two competing comments, the speechwriter would decide which comment to go with, right, or which correction or whatever. In the Bush administration, the feeling was that the speechwriters were too emotionally attached to our speeches. So we were not allowed to referee. Because of course, your incentive is to say, I'm not making any changes. This thing is brilliant. Why should I change anything? Right? So the chief speechwriter was the one who had to fight it out with everybody. And then the changes got put in, there was a deadline. And if… if anybody was late for the deadline, they had to explain directly to the President, why they were late, which tended to stop people from missing the deadline. And then the last person it would go to was president. And he had the final say, there were no changes after it went to the president, because you never wanted to have what we call the surprise on the way to the podium, where he had approved one speech, and there's a different speech waiting for him at the podium. So no changes after it went to the President.
Aidan Doud 21:26
So what's the biggest challenge that you faced, when working for the White House or later after, when you worked for then Attorney General Bill Barr, for his office? What was a big challenge you faced as a public servant?
Mary Kate Cary 21:38
So probably the biggest was that I was, for a while I was the only woman. That eventually changed, and, but I was definitely the youngest. And so when I would call other places to do research for a speech or something, say, or if I went in person, and they could see how young I was, I could tell that it was… I was having a hard time being taken seriously. And, and then when I got to the Justice Department, I remember interviewing for the job. And the Deputy Attorney General said, you know what? I am so sorry, I was gonna interview you for the next half an hour, but I've just been called into a meeting. So I'm not going to be able to do that. I only have one question for you. Are you… you look very young to me? Are you setting yourself up for failure here? And I said, no, I don't believe I am. And he said, okay, that's all I need to know. See ya. And I was like… what kind of job interview question is that? Like, who's gonna say yes to that, you know. And so, what started happening was, after we left office, I started freelancing for all kinds of, you know, CEOs and people who had been in the Cabinet who no longer had speechwriters, you know, who knew me through George Bush. And as I, I would deal with, mostly not so much on the cabinet level, because those guys knew me, but the CEOs, I would call the staff and say, hi, I am speechwriter on the upcoming speech, I'd like to make an appointment to see you know, Mr. Jones, and talk to him about speech before I start writing. And they'd say, oh, we don't, we don't do that here. If you could just write the speech and turn it in, that would be great. And I'd be like, um, no, I think I have to talk to him before I can start writing for him so I can get his voice… No, we don't think that's necessary. And, and, of course, it's talking about setting yourself up for failure. So I would agree to this. And then of course, the speech wouldn't go well. And so I started realizing they're doing this because of my age. They don't take me seriously. And so I started realizing that I just have to stick up for myself, nobody else is going to do it. And so when I would say I need to meet with him, and I'd get some pushback, I'd say, listen, I, I don't want this speech to be a disaster, and I'm sure you don't either, so if I can't meet with him, it will be a disaster. And why don't I give you some names of other people who might be willing to write the speech for you under those circumstances, but I can't, I can't do it that way. So thank you so much. But here's somebody else's name. And then they go, oh, okay. You can meet with them. And so I just had to start sticking up for myself saying, no, you don't seem to understand. You can't write a speech for somebody… and this is before YouTube, you know, you couldn't just find it elsewhere. And so, so that was probably the thing that was the biggest obstacle I faced was just sort of client perceptions of somebody who's in their 20s… writing that level of speeches, and like I said, it's just I think part of it too, let me add one more thing, is I used to say a lot that I had fallen into this job. I couldn't believe I got to be a White House speechwriter… how lucky I was. I used lucky a lot. And as I've gotten older, I realized maybe that's something women do and shouldn't, I shouldn't say, yes, of course, I was very blessed to have that opportunity. I'm not saying that. But when you… when you think back on that list of jobs I had, and the job skills that I listened to a few minutes ago, I did put in my 10,000 hours, and I had worked my butt off. And it wasn't, it wasn't that I was unlucky, its that.. you sort of make your own luck. And I had worked hard, and I deserved to be in that job. And it was one of the greatest privileges of my life. And so anyway, but that's, so that's the other thing I would say is I those were the two obstacles, I think, is that I, I didn't, I didn't frame it correctly as having worked hard, and I should have stuck up for myself a little bit more.
Aidan Doud 25:48
So like I mentioned earlier, I'm at the Batten School, which is the primary audience of the Academical podcast. We're not just a school of public policy, and policy analysis, but also one of leadership. So what's been the most important leadership lesson you've learned, whether it be from President HW Bush, or just any time in your career?
Mary Kate Cary 26:07
So I go back to this documentary that I made about President Bush, and I interviewed two people who were in the film, one was former Defense Secretary, former director of the CIA, Bob Gates. And I said to him, I remember listening to you give a speech where you introduced President Bush, and you said you would walk through fire for George Bush. And I want to know, why did you say that? Why would you walk through fire for him? And he pulled out a letter that President Bush had written him after he left office, and he read this letter out loud.
Bob Gates 26:47
Dear Bob, when Barb read your letter, the tears flowed. But she had to get in line, I'd already been there. I hate not finishing. Remember the African runner at the Olympics, who pulled a muscle and entered the stadium to finish 30 minutes after the pack. He said, my country didn't send me here to start, they sent me here to finish. There's a parallel here. The thing that deeply touched me about your letter was this very generous assessment of what I was trying to do, and what I tried to be. I will miss working with you. I would like to feel that somewhere down the road, I could repay you for that loyal support that always came my way. You served out there and at the White House with great distinction, and always with honor and decency. Good luck, in what I hope is your happiest New Year ever. You're a good man Bob Gates… and you have brought this friend of yours nothing but pride in you, and great happiness from a friendship I’ll always treasure.
Mary Kate Cary 27:56
And I was like, okay, I can see why you’d go go through fire for George Bush. The next interview I did was Coach K at Duke. And Coach K was a friend of George Bush's also. And I say Coach K. I just interviewed Bob Gates. He said he walked through fire for George Bush. I've heard your players say they would run through a brick wall for you. What is it that makes people want to go through fire or run through brick walls for people who are leading them? What… what is it about leadership that gets that feeling going? And Coach Kay said, well there's three things. The first is the person needs to… the leader needs to know what they're doing. They have to have some level of expertise. They need to convince people that they, they get what they're supposed to do, and they know how to do it. Right. He says the second thing is they have to know how to lead a team, and be part of a team and understand collaboration and all that sort of thing. He says, but there are plenty of people who know what they're doing and know how to be on a team. And nobody will follow them anywhere because they're the biggest jerks in the world. Right? He says, so what is it that is the secret sauce, and that is humility. And he says the best leaders do not ask people to do something that they wouldn't do themselves. And George Bush was always that way because he had had so many jobs on his way to the presidency. He had been in so many staff positions. He understood what it was like to be all these people who were working for him. And so he treated us so well… his loyalty, as they say loyalty goes up as well as down, and so of course he treated the Queen of England well, but he also treated you know, the guys in the kitchen at the White House really well. And there are so many stories that came out in this documentary of people he used to drive to AA meetings, and people who you know, he had a tennis pro he gave him his car, all kinds of stuff like this that happened throughout his life. The… this humble nature that he had, he was not one of these guys, ‘do you know who you're dealing with?’ kind of thing. Just the humility is so key to leadership and was such a factor in his success. You know, whether it was building an unprecedented coalition of countries to go into the first Persian Gulf War, or whether it was, you know, helping people whose parents were dying while they were working at the White House. And it's, it's a remarkable thing about him, and it's what made him so, so beloved. And I think there's leadership lessons in that for everybody.
Aidan Doud 30:40
Definitely a lot to think about. Well, thank you, Professor Cary, so much for joining us on the podcast. And for any of those… any undergraduate students listening. This is Professor Mary Kate Cary, who teaches political speechwriting, and democracy out loud in the college, so definitely give her a look on Lou’s List. But thank you so much, Professor Cary, for joining us, and we hope to hear from you again soon.
Mary Kate Cary 31:03
Thanks for having me. This was a blast.
Charlie Bruce 31:07
That's all for this week. If you have any questions, comments, show ideas, you can pitch us at email@example.com. Until next time!
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