Stephen Miller: Can Speechwriters Learn from Him?

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This article by David Murray, editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day, originally appeared on his website here. It has been reposted with the author’s permission.

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White House speechwriter Stephen Miller has used his position as a trusted and convicted policy articulator to become a broadly influential policymaker. Isn’t that what everyone wants to do?

“Mr. Miller now occupies a large West Wing office and has influence on nearly every element of immigration policy, from the words the president uses to the regulations he promulgates,” according to a cover profile on Miller in yesterday’s New York Times. “Mr. Miller is a speechwriter, policy architect, personnel director, legislative aide, spokesman and strategist.”

In other words, Miller is a Sorensenian speechwriting superfreak.

The question is, can you and I look past Miller’s acidic demeanor and truculent dogmatism (not to mention any disagreements with the policies he pushes), and learn how to turn a speechwriting chair into a seat of power?

Thanks to my personal politics and my childhood preference for people who look like R2D2 over those who look like C3PO, I loathe the sound and sight of Stephen Miller—with or without spray-on hair. In fact, I kicked my own shin for writing “Sorensenian,” above.

So if I can sing Miller’s praises, anyone can.

Based on the Times piece, here’s what Stephen Miller does right that most speechwriters don’t:

• He connects his career to the single issue he seems to feel the most strongly about. So cranking himself up to charge into the office early every morning hasn’t been a problem. That would be handy, wouldn’t it?

• He has found clients who appreciate his rhetorical pugnaciousness. From his first boss, Michele Bachmann, to his second, Jeff Sessions, to his current captain, Donald Trump—he has worked for people who aren’t trying to tone his act down. Can you imagine?

• He has not stayed in his lane—or, in his office.“I don’t agree with his policy on reducing legal immigration, but I’m in awe of how he’s been able to impact this one issue,” a Marco Rubio aide told the Times. “He’s got speechwriting, he’s got policy, he’s got his own little congressional-relations operation, he’s got allies whom he’s helped place across the government.” Do you get out and about as much as you ought to—throughout your organization and industry and beyond—and make as many useful connections as you should?

Of course, one of the reasons I like speechwriters is that they are not as single-minded, abrasive and Machiavellian. And I respect speechwriters who say, “I would prefer not to.”

But speechwriters who do want to use their peculiar place in an organization for max impact should watch Stephen Miller, if only from a safe distance, and through a set of high-powered binoculars.

Or, they can just read Ted Sorensen’s classic, Counselor, with their Professional Speechwriters Association-issue bifocals, and a nice glass of red.

David Murray is editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day, an 85-year-old magazine that collects the best oral communication in the world. He is also executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He cowrote the New York Times-bestselling memoir Tell My Sons (Random House, 2013) and a memoir about his advertising copywriter parents, Raised By Mad Men. His writing has appeared in publications and media outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Advertising Age, Sailing Magazine, Golf Magazine, Car Collector Magazine, Vibe.com, the Huffington Post and Chicago Public Radio. 

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