Daniel McGroarty: Reaction to the president's address
Daniel McGroarty was special assistant for communications to President George H. W. Bush, and deputy director of White House speechwriting during the first Bush administration. He wrote more than 200 speeches for Bush, including his first State of the Union and his televised speech on the first night of Desert Storm. He joined the CNN.com chat room from Maryland.
CNN: Welcome to CNN.com, Daniel McGroarty. Thank you for being with us today.
DANIEL MCGROARTY: I'm happy to be in the chat room!
CNN: What do you think the president needed to accomplish last night, and did he accomplish it?
MCGROARTY: I think one of the challenges in the speech last night was that it had to succeed on a number of different levels. The president had to command, he had to console, he had to unify, and he had to explain. By which I mean he had to operate on all those different fronts, if you will, to meet the kind of concerns that the American people have, and I think against that very difficult challenge, the president's speech was a resounding success.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much is the style of speaking taken into account when writing such an important speech as was given last night?
MCGROARTY: That's a good question. Style is very important. We want to always distinguish between style and substance. But the fact is, if a speech doesn't convey substance in the speaker's own style, it can't possibly succeed. Last night, I think we heard George W. Bush beginning to find his voice, if you will, and to have a tone that could be, at the appropriate times, commanding, as when he laid down the challenges against the Taliban, consoling, as when he grieved with the nation; and also his ability to use this device in the speech in which he asked questions on the minds of all Americans, and indeed, many international listeners, and then answered those questionsas best he can now. That was in interesting stylistic device that got the substance across.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: You mentioned that President Bush had to explain. Do you think that he covered his grounds well?
MCGROARTY: I did. I think it's interesting to notice that a speech is really a monologue, and yet this whole sequence of events since last Tuesday has created a huge desire on the part of Americans to discuss and examine and understand what has happened. And because the president constructed his speech around a series of questions, ranging from "who did this to us, and why," to "how will we wage this war and win" it gave the appearance of not a monologue, but a conversation with the tens of millions who were watching. And that goes back to the point another person raised, about style and substance. This was a stylistic approach that made the speech very substantive.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think President Bush's speech will unite not only America but the wider world behind any military action?
MCGROARTY: I think it at least begins that process. If you look at the way the speech speaks not simply to the American people, but takes into account the wider world in several ways, the president made it clear that this is a war on freedom, as much as it's a war on any one nation. As he cited the NATO charter, an attack on one is an attack on all. I think he made headway speaking to people outside the United States about why they should be supportive when the president orders strikes against terrorists anywhere.
The president also made it clear to the nations of the world that you don't have a sideline seat in this conflict, and he made that very stark statement that countries have to choose. You're either with us against the terrorists, or you're on the wrong side. I think the very pointedness of that statement really concentrates and clarifies this issue, whether you're watching from your living room in the United States, or anywhere else around the world.
CNN: Were you surprised about the strong statements he made regarding the Taliban government in Afghanistan last night?
MCGROARTY: Yes and no. I was not surprised that the speech contained those kinds of strong statements, because we were expecting the president, whatever else he does, to pursue Osama bin Laden. And to do that, one has to take a very strong stance against the Taliban, which has been hosting him for five years.
I was, however, surprised at the sternness of the demands, and really, if you look at them, the way they offer Afghanistan an almost impossible challenge, even if they were to comply. The Taliban has been told to hand over bin Laden, to hand over all his accomplices, to shut down the terrorist camps. And here's the one that I think is the real kicker, to then let the United States and others come in to verify that the camps are closed and the people gone. To do that, the Taliban would have to open its country to outside forces in a truly unprecedented and open-ended way.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Daniel, what key people are generally involved in revising and editing the speeches that are written for the president?
MCGROARTY: In the case of a joint session speech, particularly one with a strong national security component, the president's national security policy advisor, which in this case would be Condoleeza Rice, Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, would be examining and editing the speech, with a great deal of scrutiny. This speech, I'm told, was written by a team of three White House speechwriters, plus a key staffer from the National Security Council. And of course, the president was reading, revising, and making the text his own, for about three days, up until delivery last night.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why wasn't the fight against Communism mentioned? Was that so as not to upset the Chinese?
MCGROARTY: I think that's the most likely explanation. The president mentioned Fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism, which in some cases encompasses Communism, but by leaving the word Communism out of the speech, the president may have decided that that was the best way to avoid poking a finger in the eye of certain regimes that will be needed in the coalition against terrorism.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why was Canada not mentioned, and does it have anything to do with the terrorists found in Canada?
MCGROARTY: You know, I was working down through that list of nations who had lost citizens in the Tuesday attacks myself, and I can't account for why Canada wasn't listed among them. I would be surprised if the omission was in any way intentional, or meant to respond to some connection the terrorists might have to transiting through Canada.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did President Bush have that speech memorized? He didn't appear to be reading it off the teleprompter like he has on so many other speaking events.
MCGROARTY: It would be impossible to memorize it, I feel safe to say. It was about 2,900 words, which you could deliver at a straight clip without interruptions for applause, but only in about 24 minutes. So, he was using a teleprompter, but he had rehearsed the speech several times on teleprompter, and he's probably becoming more comfortable using a teleprompter generally. And finally, I think you see signs in this speech that the president really made this speech his own, so his comfort level was so strong that even as he read the speech, he was really inside the speech. That showed in his delivery. He was very comfortable from the time he entered the chamber last night, walking down the rows of congressmen, and that just continued into the speech. A final note, reading off a teleprompter is hard to do. So, we need to give the president points just in terms of mastering that technology.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much of that speech was aimed at satisfying American bloodlust, and how much was sincere intent for war?
MCGROARTY: This will sound strange for me to say, but for a speech that was meant to explain and justify a reprisal against the terrorists, I don't think there's a lot of bloodlust in the speech. I think there's a lot of grieving in reaction to the magnitude of the attacks and the lives lost. If I were on the terrorist side of this, I think what would worry me most about the speech isn't that the president seems emotional or angry or driven by bloodlust, but that he seems to be all business, ready to act in a calm and calculated way.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Daniel, Why did President Bush leave out the impending casualties or was that not part of the speech?
MCGROARTY: I'd have to look back again. I thought there was a glancing reference. But perhaps I'm reading between the lines. Certainly you're right, in that the president didn't dwell on that. It may fall to others, like Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, for instance, to continue to educate the American public in this conversation I'm talking about, that this isn't going to be, and the president did use these words, a war of instant strikes from afar. The president said actually "a war of instant retaliation and isolated strikes." So, what he's saying is that people will have to get close to the terrorists in order to take them down, and I think the American people will begin to understand that that can't be done from 30,000 feet.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why didn't the president mention anything about Pakistan?
MCGROARTY: I'm trying to recall... it's interesting that he didn't dwell on it more, because if you look at what Pakistan said, and the assurances it has given over recent days, they appear to be quite favorable to the U.S. position, and quite accommodating to U.S. needs. My only answer is that perhaps the president is waiting for follow-through, and waiting to see in the event itself if the basing promises, the intelligence-sharing, and the fly-over rights are all honored by the Pakistanis when it really matters. I think the president will be very gracious if and when the Pakistanis assist us in that way.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Many have said that last night's speech was one of the greatest speeches ever given by a president. How do you think history will view the speech?
MCGROARTY: I think the speech was very, very successful. I think history renders its verdict over time, and the speech will be seen as the first sustained presidential effort to speak to us about a radically new world, the threats it presents, and the strengths that we have to turn back those threats. So I think this speech will be very well regarded, but I'm also cognizant about the limits of any speech, and that is that the actions and deeds it points to have to take place, and that's where we are now waiting for the follow-through.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?
MCGROARTY: Well, it's a pleasure to participate, and whenever I do the chats, I'm always struck by the thoughtfulness of the questions, and the seriousness with which people take these important speeches.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Daniel McGroarty. We've enjoyed having you.
MCGROARTY: Thank you.
Daniel McGroarty joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Friday, September 21, 2001.
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