Caitlin Walsh Interview with Chris Michel, 9/12 (audio transcript)
CW: Thank you so much for joining us for this interview with The Beacon. To start right off with your background, you’re originally from the Bay Area, from Dublin specifically, which is a very liberal part of the country. You went to Yale College and Yale Law School, both liberal institutions. But you also clerked for John Roberts and worked for President Bush, who are conservative figures. Have you been a lifelong conservative or has that shifted over time?
CM: Yeah, I think I have been a lifelong conservative, which means that I have been a fish out of water for most of my life. I actually think that that’s been beneficial for me in two ways. First, you get a lot of experience refining your arguments. Also, I have learned a lot from people who come at life and politics from different perspectives. As you suggest, a lot of my best friends from home, from college, and from law school are on the other side of the political aisle. But I like to think that hopefully I have changed their mind on a few things and that they have refined my thinking on a few things. I think I have benefited from that background.
CW: Definitely. Have you found that speechwriting and clerking are pretty nonpartisan, or did your politics factor into that?
CM: In that way, speechwriting and clerking are somewhat different. In speechwriting, the most important thing is the match between the speechwriter and the principal. In some sense, it’s largely a match of language and comfort with words. But I also think that it would work a lot more smoothly if the speechwriter agreed with what the principal is saying most of the time. That’s certainly not to say that there has to be one hundred percent correspondence in political or ideological views, but I would not be comfortable or happy writing for somebody that I was frequently disagreeing with, and I imagine most politicians would not be happy with having a speechwriter who didn’t believe in most of what they were writing. So it’s likely to be a lot of agreement on that.
Clerking is a little bit different. Both the justice or judge and the clerk themselves are attempting to follow the law as they see it. Policy is a consideration that can sometimes come into play in legal interpretation, but it is never the primary consideration. In fact, the best judges will sometimes have to make decisions that are in tension or in contradiction to their political views because they recognize the limited role of the judiciary in our democratic system. When Congress and the President have done something that they disagree with, they still have to follow the law as they interpret it. So politics was a lot less of the job in clerking.
CW: Certainly. To follow up on something you talked about in the seminar, you were also Editor-in-Chief of the YDN while you were here. The YDN often features contentious opinion pieces and political dialogue in op-eds. How did that experience prepare you for speechwriting?
CM: It definitely did. What you were trying to do with an editorial is persuade the reader that your view is correct. At the Daily at least, there’s another level to that. Most of our editorials were the result of dialogue and votes by the managing board of the newspaper. So you had to try to persuade your colleagues on the newspaper that the paper should take this position. Once you had decided on the position, the editorial itself aims to persuade the reader more broadly, or sometimes the university more specifically, to adopt a certain position.
Speeches are not that much different. Once the administration, if you’re a Presidential speechwriter, has made a decision, the purpose of the speech is to try to persuade the country in general or sometimes Congress, in particular, to adopt a certain position. I think a lot of the argumentative techniques that succeed in one area can be transferred to the other.
CW: Definitely. On that point, have you found that the best speeches and editorials drew from the head, heart, or both?
CM: That’s a good question. I think it should be a mix of both. Logical argument is important, especially when you are trying to convince a sophisticated audience, whether it’s the general public audience or something more specific than that. In the judicial world, if you’re a lawyer trying to convince a judge, you have to appeal to objective factors.
On the other hand, no judge wants to do something that they think is wrong. It’s also true that people are ultimately much more motivated and persuaded by things that they are passionate about than pure, cold logical arguments.
I think an effective speech or editorial or legal brief or judicial opinion or really any kind of writing will blend those two. There may be some places where one should take precedence over the other, but you will likely succeed if you are applying some combination of both.
CW: I agree. I think it’s especially clear with Presidents, who have to varying degrees their own writing styles. Ronald Reagan was famous for using personal anecdotes and stories, as we talked about during the seminar. How involved do you think the President should usually be in the speechwriting process? Is there an ideal?
CM: I think that the more involved the President can be, the better. In the real world of scarce resources, there are limits on how involved any President can be. The President simply cannot write all of his own speeches from scratch, or if he did, it would be at the expense of other more important Presidential functions.
That being said, I think it’s very important for a President to be heavily involved at every level of the speechwriting process, especially on the most important speeches. If a speech is not authentically in that President’s voice, or if the President has not personally taken ownership over the language of that speech, either by writing it himself or editing it heavily, or giving the speechwriters the ideas and guidance they need to craft the language, then the speech just won’t succeed.
Presidents would be well served to spend time on the process and spend time with the speechwriters. From the speechwriter’s perspective, the more time you spend with the boss, the more you get to know him and his voice or her and her voice, and that will only make the future speeches even better.
CW: Certainly. So moving to your career, most of your roles have been important but behind the scenes. Do you see yourself entering the public sphere or running for office one day?
CM: That’s a good question. I really don’t know. You’re right that playing the role behind the scenes supporting other people has been the bulk of what I have done so far. I’ve found that to be very fulfilling work, in part because I’ve been fortunate to have such great people that I have worked for. I have learned a tremendous amount from them.
I do have a certain inch to do my own thing and be my own person. How I do that is still something that I’m trying to work out, but I think that you’re right, in the next phase of my career, I would like to take on more of an independent role for myself. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.
CW: Oh really? One fun question I have is about your career as a speechwriter. There’s obviously a lot of variety in the speeches that Presidents give. You talked about that in the seminar as well. There are media addresses, responses to tragedies like 9/11, the Thanksgiving turkey pardon, and so forth. Do you have a favorite one you’ve written?
CM: There’s so many different aspects of them. One speech that really stands out to me, that I got to work on was a speech in which the President presented a Medal of Honor to a veteran of the Vietnam War. The man’s name was Bruce Crandall. He was receiving the Medal of Honor in about 2006 or 2007 for acts he had done during the 1960s. He was a medical helicopter pilot who had saved dozens of lives flying into combat zones into live fire in Vietnam. He had actually been nominated for the award decades earlier, but he refused to accept it until his wingman had received his own Medal of Honor. He was just an incredibly inspiring person.
The Medal of Honor ceremonies were often bittersweet since many of them were awarded posthumously. But this was one where the recipient was alive, albeit several decades older than he was when he did the heroic acts. So it was a real celebration. The chance to get to meet Bruce Crandall and to help the President honor his service was really exciting and rewarding for me. That speech will always stand out for me as one that I’m proud of.
CW: That’s amazing. That’s a really great experience, especially as you’re so young. My last question: Any final advice for young adults like ourselves going out into the world?
CM: There are two things that come to my mind. The first thing is you do have to be willing to take some risks. A lot of us in life who have the good fortune to go to places like Yale go through life thinking “Oh, I always want to keep my options open.” In many ways, I think that is a good lesson to follow. On the other hand, there are times when you have to take a risk and say, “I’m going to go down this fork in the road.” You can’t constantly be keeping your options open. Being willing to take an intelligent risk is, I think, necessary to have success.
The other thing I think that’s very valuable, and I have been very fortunate in this respect, is to find people who are going to be mentors to you. I have had three great mentors in my career: President Bush, Judge Brett Kavanagh—who is a Yale graduate and a Yale Law School graduate that I got to know in the White House and later clerked for and is a member of the Court of Appeals in D.C.—and of course the Chief Justice. Those are three people who have really taken an interest in my life and career. I have learned a great amount from them. I still ask them about important decisions and hope to be in contact with them for many years. I think finding those people is very important for a young person to succeed, and I’m really fortunate to have found that.
CW: That’s all great advice. Thanks so much again for joining us.
CM: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.