Presidential Speechwriter Remembers With 18th BookPublished: February 3, 2014
Craig Smith never thought he would write 18 books, but he has.
“Well, when you don’t have a personal life and have nothing else to do then you sit around and write books and articles,” joked Smith. “They’re my children.”
Smith’s most recent publication, Confessions of a Presidential Speechwriter, covers his time with Presidents Gerald R. Ford, with whom he became a personal friend, and George H.W. Bush. He also worked on former California governor Pete Wilson’s short-lived presidential campaign and wrote for Lee Iacocca, then the head of Chrysler Corp. In addition he has served as a consultant to CBS News for convention, election night and inaugural coverage.
Writing Confessions has been roughly 40 years in the making for Smith, dating back to his years in the Ford Administration.
“Anytime I held an important job I kept a diary and that was a help. When I went to write this book one thing would lead to another in my head,” said Smith, who has been at CSULB for 25 years and is the director for the campus’ Center for First Amendment Studies. “It’s really interesting that your brain is like a hard drive; it’s all there, you just have to find it. You prod it a little bit and eventually you get the whole story out.”
The whole story, as Smith initially penned it, was 850 pages, double-spaced. After the editing process, though, it was whittled down to 450.
The publisher, Michigan State University Press, was interested in Smith’s academic career, his professional career—which included all the speechwriting and the consulting at CBS News—and the education and training that led him to become a prominent speechwriter.
“The difficulty was deciding what goes in and what doesn’t go in the book in terms of my personal life,” said Smith. “What we agreed on was to talk about what they thought would be interesting from my personal life. What it was like to be in the closest while I was in the White House and while I was working as deputy director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. If they had known I was gay I would have been out the front door very quickly. Back then it was basically a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
“They wanted very much to downplay my personal life, so a lot of it was cut,” he added. “They allowed me to keep my heritage in there because I think it’s an important story about America; that my grandparents were immigrants on one side and on the other side they could trace themselves all the way back to the Puritans who first came to America in 1630. And I talked about my father’s naval career because he was a real hero, a member of the greatest generation.”
The impetus for Smith book came, in part, after reading a book written by another speechwriter.
“It was about their experience in the White House, but it didn’t tell people how to write speeches and it didn’t talk about anything in depth,” he said. “Frankly, I didn’t think it was very good.”
The funny thing about Smith’s prolific writing is that early on he didn’t consider himself a writer, while others saw him as a mathematician.
“When I came out of high school, when I took the aptitude test I was very high in math and so-so in English and everyone said you have to become a math major, you’re a genius when it comes to mathematics,” he remembered, confirming his prowess in that area. “I said, ‘Yeah, but it bores me to death.’”
And so a historian was born.
“I was interested in history at the time. I was a history major and doubled into speech in college and then went on into communications studies for my M.A. and Ph.D. and learned how to write,” said Smith. “I’m not a natural. I had to work and work and work at it.
“For me, the art of writing is rewriting,” he added. “I outline before I start so my ideas are in order. Some people can write and their first or second pass is just terrific, but not me. I have to rewrite it and rewrite it.”
Smith was also motivated by being mentioned in White House Ghosts, the 2008 book by Robert Schlesinger, the son of Arthur Schlesinger, the renowned historian and presidential speechwriter for John F. Kennedy.
“It was about White House speechwriters through history and he did some pages on me in there and was very flattering,” said Smith. “He actually did some research I didn’t have using Freedom of Information Act to get some memos about me in the White House political operation in the Ford Administration. That kind of opened my eyes to how prominent I became in the Ford Administration spring boarding from speechwriter ready to go into policy if we had won the election.”
Confessions also covers Smith’s time as chair of four different departments while at CSULB—communication studies, journalism, comparative literature and classics, and film and electronic arts.