Q&A with Paul Orzulak: Former Speechwriter for President Clinton

Former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and founding partner of West Wing Writers discusses his journey and experiences as a writer

By Julia Konow

Paul Orzulak began his career as a sportswriter for the local newspaper, The Norwich Bulletin, after graduating from the University of Connecticut. Orzulak was a speechwriter for numerous politicians, including President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Orzulak has also written speeches for senior vice presidents and chief executive officers at the world’s leading information technology, energy, health care, auditing, media, and entertainment companies.

Orzulak is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, which has locations in New York, Washington D.C., Austin, and San Francisco. This firm writes books, speeches, corporate messaging guides, op-eds, and more for the world’s best-known leaders in government, business, philanthropy, sports, and entertainment. Orzulak has appeared on NPR, ABC, CNN, FOX, CNBC, Wall Street Journal Live, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and more. He published an article in The Washington Post and has been quoted within articles written by The New York Times, among others. Orzulak currently resides in Maryland with his wife, Beneva Schulte, and their three daughters.

What is the best advice that you have ever received?

The best advice that I ever received came from John Breen, who was a professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut when I was a freshman. I graduated from high school in 1984 and planned to attend Northeastern University to study criminal justice (to be an FBI agent). At least, that was my plan when I applied. By the time I was accepted, I was no longer sure I wanted to study criminal justice and couldn’t justify the lofty price tag of a Northeastern degree.

During one of my last days at high school, I visited my honors English teacher, Ernie Dodge, to thank him and tell him how much I enjoyed his class. He and I sparred all year long, but he liked me, and ended up giving me an award on senior day for best writer in the class. He asked me what I was hoping to study, and I said, “criminal justice—or psychology, or pre-med, or something like that.” He asked, “Why would you want to do that? We all know that you should be a writer.”

It was the first time anybody ever said anything like that to me. I ended up passing on Northeastern and taking a year off. I took a few classes at the local community college while working a series of really crappy jobs. In the middle of that year, the sports editor at our local weekly, who had covered me when I played baseball, heard from my dad that I was interested in writing, and asked me if I’d be interested in doing some sportswriting for him.

It was a bit of a revelation for me. I loved it and ended up applying to UConn (in my backyard, the most affordable option), thinking I’d study journalism. It was during my first few weeks at UConn that I met Professor Breen, who had been assigned as my advisor. We talked for an hour about writing and sports during our first meeting, and he took a liking to me.

He asked me what I was hoping to do with my life, and I told him that I wanted to be a writer, which is why I planned to study journalism. He thought for a moment and said, “I wouldn’t if I were you. If you want to be a writer, don’t study writing. Just find opportunities to write, at the school paper or elsewhere, and write. Instead, study what you’re going to be writing about.”

That was the best advice I have ever received. I ended up graduating with a joint degree in history and political science, with a minor in journalism. I took him up on his advice to write—becoming a writer and columnist with the school paper, a stringer for the local Gannett paper, the Norwich Bulletin, and eventually a political writer in my junior year, when I left for a semester in Washington, DC and then worked as a paid staffer on a presidential campaign.

After college, I moved first to Chicago (where I worked as a writer for a benefits consulting firm) and then moved to Washington, where I worked a series of jobs writing speeches—first for U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, then House Democratic Whip David Bonior, then U.S. Secretary of Housing Andrew Cuomo, then Vice President Al Gore (as senior domestic speechwriter), then President Bill Clinton (as a foreign policy speechwriter), and then for Senator Joe Lieberman, when he ran as Gore’s VP candidate in the 2000 generation election.

After the White House, I co-founded a speechwriting and strategy firm with two other Clinton speechwriters called West Wing Writers. The firm has grown to about 50 people, with offices in Washington, New York, San Francisco, and Austin.

Professor Breen was exactly right—studying what I was going to be writing about made all the difference.

What made you decide to become a writer?

Growing up, I had this curious habit that I’ve never told a single soul about until now—which, when I think back on it, probably had a lot to do with the reason I became a writer. I loved to read, mostly about sports, when I was growing up, but I’ve always been a slow reader. I couldn’t consume a novel or even an article as quickly as others could. But the movies were something different—the chance to consume an entire story in one sitting. As a teenager, I fell in love with movies (and television shows) that told good stories.

When I was 13 or 14, I started doing this curious thing. Whenever I saw a movie, I would come out of the theater and pretend to be one of the characters from the movie for the next hour or so. I don’t mean that I pretended, say, that I was a Jedi knight after seeing “Star Wars.” Instead, I would take on the mannerisms, attitude, sense of humor, or personality of one of the characters, and wonder what it would be like to be that person.

I remember acting tougher than I was after seeing a Clint Eastwood movie, funnier than I was after seeing the “Breakfast Club,” and cooler than I was after watching Rob Lowe in “St. Elmo’s Fire.” I would try on these different personalities for a short time and see what it was like (which, now that I think about it, is probably why I always assumed that if nothing else worked out, I’d just be an actor—which is weird, because I’ve never done any acting and was terrified to get on stage).

I remember the most freeing characters I ever pretended to be were a series of Bill Murray characters. There’s something about the way he breezes through his films that was almost transformative. To this day, I prefer to learn about history or current events through the lives of fascinating people rather than as straight history. It gives me somebody to root for or against.

I guess I had an intellectual curiosity about what it was like to be other people, to see the world through their eyes, that lent itself to my interest to become a writer. Writing is all about observing and listening and researching and learning about the world that your subject occupies.

One of the common refrains we have at West Wing Writers—which my partner, Jeff Nussbaum, first observed—is that when a client says that something “doesn’t sound like me,” what they often mean instead is that “it doesn’t think like me.” Which is to say that left to our own devices, we all tell stories and make arguments in our own unique ways. Some are natural storytellers. Others use numbers and statistics, or humor, or quotes from famous people, or personal stories about their kids.

If something doesn’t “think like me,” it means that the draft is built out using the wrong approach. It’s why we insist on spending an hour or two with each of the principals we write for, asking a series of questions, before we write for them. We’re not just looking for their opinions or stories, we are looking for the connective tissue between those insights and stories, to see how they tackle a problem or make an argument—how they think!

Somewhere at the intersection of storytelling, strong listening, creative research, and constant learning is where I became a writer—and why, 30 years later, I’m still a writer.

Who is your role model and why?

Well, the answer to that question has changed over the years.

For most of my life, the people I thought were my role models were the ones who embodied what I wanted to be in life. As a kid, I wanted to play baseball like Red Sox great Fred Lynn and pitch like Angels great Nolan Ryan. As a sportswriter, I wanted to write like former Sports Illustrated great Frank DeFord. When I grew interested in politics, it was great speakers, like Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, who captured the idealism of politics for me and staff members like the great JFK writer, Ted Sorensen, who embodied what I wanted to accomplish through the craft of speechwriting. All of them were titanic figures, each of whom served as role models and inspirations for generations of kids my age.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’ve been inspired less by those who embody what I want to be in life and more influenced by those who model who I want to be—that is, the kind of person I want to be. In my experience, it is very rare when public figures, whether politicians, CEOs, entertainers, or athletes, are as inspiring up close as they are from a distance. The ones whose private and public selves are the same are the ones I’m drawn to the most now, because they live their values, strive to be good to other people, and use their positions of influence to achieve a purpose grander than themselves.

But that’s not the real answer to your question, either. When I think about the person who I perceive myself to be, and the qualities that most define me, on my better days, I think there are three things that the people who know me best would say define my personality. The first is hard work—I still work as hard today as I did when I got my very first writing job more than 30 years ago. The second is kindness—I go out of my way to be kind to every person I meet, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they do. And the third is to never take myself too seriously—to be much more interested in the stories of other people, to ask them questions, and really listen to their answers, much more than I ever talk about myself.

When I think about those qualities, there is no question who my true role models are. First, my father, who has worked harder than any person I’ve ever known in this life, despite starting life in the most difficult of circumstances. Second, my mother, who is the kindest person you will ever meet, who always has a pleasant word and a big smile for everyone, despite going through a lot of pain in her life. And third, my sister, who is the best person I know, who never puts herself first, who always works to put others in a position to succeed, and who is wryly self-deprecating about it all.

Seriously, how lucky am I to have my closest family members as my biggest role models in life?

What was it like to be a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton?

Writing speeches for Bill Clinton is a little bit like being a prep chef for José Andrés or a painting assistant for Picasso—it’s an absolute thrill to be there, it’s a constant education to be in his presence and see his mind at work, and you are constantly aware that he could easily create something 100 times better than you if he just had the time.

I wrote foreign policy speeches for President Clinton for about two years at the end of his administration, and our firm wrote his paid speeches for a few years after he left public service. We also wrote all the copy in his library (every exhibit, timeline, and snapshot of the Clinton years that appear alongside written copy), and we spent a lot of time with him in those first few years of retirement as well. He is, without a doubt, the most intellectually curious person I’ve ever been around. His mind just never, ever stops.

Explaining the experience of writing for him usually involves pointing out the differences between the notion of speechwriting in popular culture and the way it actually works in real life.

During the last few years of the Clinton Administration, one of the most popular shows on television was The West Wing. It was about a fictional president and White House whose writing staff, led by series creator Aaron Sorkin, included a number of actual veterans from the Clinton Administration. At West Wing Writers, we’ve joked for years that many of our young writers learned their craft at the “University of the West Wing,” they all know the show so well. But there is a scene in one of the early seasons that we always point to in order to differentiate between White House speechwriting as it is perceived on television and how it occurs in reality.

On the episode, President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, delivers a well-received State of the Union Address. After the speech, there is a “victory-lap” scene in the ornate Rayburn Reception Room in the U.S. Capitol. As guests are mingling, a voice of God announces for all to hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, the man who wrote tonight’s address, please welcome speechwriter Sam Seaborn.” Then, Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, enters the room to wild applause. That’s the fictional version.

In the actual version, President Clinton was also at a victory-lap reception after one of his SOTU addresses, meeting with friends and supporters in the Rayburn Reception Room. He was mingling with guests when his chief speechwriter, Michael Waldman, walked alongside him. President Clinton stopped and introduced Michael to the guests as “the guy who typed my speech.” Which is hilarious when you think about it, because it removed any possible creative contribution from the guy who actually framed the speech.

But I learned a lot from Bill Clinton. I think it was John Kennedy who once said that great speeches, great op-eds, or great books, make listeners think one of two things. Either, “I never knew that,” or “I never thought of it that way.” Bill Clinton was, and still is, an absolute master of the second category.

He has an incredible ability to talk about the same exact things that other people are talking about, but the way he connects the material, and the conclusions he draws from it, always make you see the world in a new way. It was the same talking with him. He would constantly draw references from something you mentioned 20 minutes before, or that somebody else mentioned 10 minutes before, weaving connective tissue between different points that just created a whole new dimension to the way you thought about or understood an issue.

From starting as a sportswriter to becoming a founding partner at West Wing Writers, how would you describe your journey as a writer?

I would say that three things have characterized that journey. First, whether as a sportswriter or a speechwriter, I’ve always had a reputation as a storyteller—somebody whose writing begins with a story that segues, perfectly and seamlessly if I work hard enough at it or I’m lucky, into the argument itself. I’m still largely known for it.

The part of the job that I still love the most is interviewing every client for an hour or two at the beginning of our work together, to hear their stories first-hand, and ask questions that very few other people get to ask. For example, in the fifth hour of a five-hour session with Martin Luther King III, I asked a series of questions about his memories of the week his dad died, how he thought and felt, and when his dad most comes to his mind now. The stories he told, which he’s never discussed publicly before, were astonishing and heart-breaking.

But it goes back to something I learned as a journalist: good writing starts with good listening, about really listening to what a person is saying, and following wherever the thread might go. That’s how you get to a deeper level of storytelling: by going three or four levels deeper than the top-line answer. By the way, when conducting research, either online or in books, I take the same approach. It’s usually the tenth or eleventh rabbit hole that I follow from one link to another where I find the best material.

Second, I’ve come to have a much better understand of the role that research plays in a good speech, story, or argument. Going back to those two things that make for a great speech—making listeners think “I never knew that” or “I never thought of it that way”—it’s impossible to know all there is to know about a topic without researching it first, even if you’re a Jeopardy genius. In fact, 75 percent of the time when I begin a speech, I don’t even know what I’m looking for—it’s in the research where I always get a sense of the public conversation around a topic, the language used around a topic, that I then layer into a draft.

It’s hard to do that kind of research when you work for a busy elected official because some days, you’re responsible for writing five or six drafts of various lengths, and don’t have time to do proper research, so you have to go on gut instinct and what you know. It’s why so many political speechwriters still go for the killer line, joke, or sound bite that will make the whole thing worth it. That’s a skill in itself, one that takes time to develop—but when you have time to research, the speech is always better.

Third, I’ve managed through the journey of the past 30 years to take my ego out of the review process. I invite as much constructive criticism and feedback as possible to drafts, and make most of the changes suggested. After all, I’m not the person who will be standing at the podium, responsible for living with whatever is delivered there.

I learned pretty quickly not to be too precious about my words or ideas. It’s all part of the process. I always tell students that if they can’t be comfortable staying silently in the background while others receive praise for the words they’ve written, then this probably isn’t the right profession for them.

What is the best memory from your writing career so far?

I’d say that the best experiences all involve my family and my hometown, and there are three.

One, in 2000, I wrote the president’s commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, which is about 45 minutes from where I grew up. I was able to arrange for my parents to be in the receiving line at the airport, and then to ride in the motorcade to the speech itself, which they still talk about to this day. I have three pictures in my office of Bill Clinton shaking hands and talking with my mom and dad, which was just a thrill.

Two, my dad is a former U.S. Marine who was very involved in staging a re-enactment of the fiftieth anniversary of the flag raising at Iwo Jima in our local community. On the day it happened, my then-boss, Congressman David Bonior, took to the House floor during the “special orders” section at the end of the day and delivered a speech that told the story of what my dad did, naming all of the fellow marines who participated by name. I was able to call my dad, who had watched it live on C-Span, and he was nearly speechless.

Three, in 1999, I visited the seventh grade classroom of an old boss, teacher, and friend named Walt Zadora. In speaking to the class, I asked them to write letters to the president expressing their hopes for the new century that was about to start, and promised that I would do my best to work their letters into one of the president’s speeches. They followed through and I received copies of the letters.

Turns out, the perfect occasion was one of the two speeches President Clinton delivered on the last day of the century and millennium, which I wrote. I quoted from a few of the letters. I heard later that Mr. Zadora’s class was stunned, and then jubilant, when they watched the speech. I’d like to think that it inspired some of them to consider a career in public service, or at the very least, to see elected officials less as distant figures and more as real people that care about what they think.

Updated 6/3/19

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