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Confessions of a Presidential Cheat-Sheet Author

Axios just lately reported that President Joe Biden carries cheat sheets with him into conferences with supporters and donors. A few of these supporters have expressed alarm {that a} president would do such a factor. Maybe these playing cards—aide-mémoire, in any case—are an indication of age and frailty?

From 2001 to 2002, I had the job of writing speeches for President George W. Bush. Bush was 54 years previous after I began working for him—nearly 10 years youthful than I’m now. He was a president of extraordinary bodily vigor. He delighted in mountain biking down the plunging slopes of Catoctin Mountain at Camp David. When he did middle-distance runs, he’d be upset if his velocity slowed a lot under seven minutes a mile. He lifted weights. He chopped brush. And when he spoke to teams at White Home occasions, he relied on notice playing cards.

The lifetime of a presidential speechwriter could seem glamorous from a distance: deciding on the phrases that might sway the future of the nation, even the world. However the unglamorous fact is that about two-thirds of my time was spent getting ready such playing cards for the president’s conferences, each private and non-private, with constituents and supporters.

President Bush had—and has—phenomenal recall of names and faces. Opposite to some detrimental stories, he had a deep mastery of coverage element. However like all people in a extremely demanding job, generally stress and exhaustion overpowered his energetic thoughts. I bear in mind one White Home assembly early on within the administration during which Bush mentioned his hopes for good financial outcomes from his plan for a tax reduce. He talked about the advantages of reducing the highest tax price to … after which he blanked.

This, from a person who might simply title each county decide in Texas.

So the president took to utilizing notice playing cards. The notes for Bush had been printed on giant cardboard playing cards in 14-point Arial font—he was not making an attempt to cover his reliance on them; there was no means he might.

On the primary card, we’d describe the group he was assembly with. For the members of the Nationwide Pork Producers Council, at the present time on the White Home can be an expertise they’d always remember; for the president, it was one among as many as 18 such conferences in per week. After the pork council may come the American Medical Affiliation, then the Persian Gulf ambassadors, then main donors to the Republican Nationwide Committee, then a delegation of Nice Lakes  mayors, then the Teamsters union. You may think that you simply’d by no means combine them up for those who had the job of chatting with them. You’d be mistaken.

On the second card, we’d record the names of the occasion’s attendees, every spelled out phonetically. Calling the president of the Indiana Bar Affiliation “Elaine” when her title is “Eileen” might sound the pettiest of small errors, however that little error may cost a little the president her assist, and the assist of all her household and associates—which might probably price the reelection marketing campaign an important margin of victory. What number of hours did our small crew spend double-checking, then triple-checking, the pronunciation of the names of spouses and youngsters? Many, many.

On the third card, we’d record related info and figures. It’s possible you’ll occur to hold in your head {the electrical} capability of the New Jersey energy grid or the names of the ships within the U.S.’s Mediterranean battle group or an inventory of the kids whom Thomas Jefferson fathered with Sally Hemings. However all of these info? With one set of them required to be summoned at 3 p.m., the subsequent at 3:30, the third at 4? Whereas additionally negotiating with the leaders of the Home and the Senate, and getting ready for an pressing cellphone dialogue with the president of Brazil?

The fourth card would provide a choice of jokes and quips. Presidential humor ought to be mildly amusing however not laugh-out-loud humorous. Laughter is usually the human thoughts’s mechanism for resolving discomfort; the extra acute the discomfort, the louder the laughter. Take into account the way in which that President Donald Trump destroying a 7-year-old’s religion in Santa Claus was excruciating-funny. Presidential humor ought to soothe, not shock. Kimmel, not Chappelle.

The fifth card can be the important thing web page: the speaking factors. What was the message we had been driving residence? Imagine it or not, presidents should not equally interested by each measure that lands on their desk. The brand new freeway invoice is likely to be crucial to the fortunes of the president’s get together in Congress, however it may not appear the uppermost precedence in contrast with recommendation from NASA {that a} large meteor would quickly go perilously near Earth.

So, for the cheat sheet, we’d itemize what number of new bridges the invoice would assist, what number of new interchanges during which key states—all to assist a president whose consideration may nicely be preoccupied with another matter fully.

Card No. 6 was to me probably the most fascinating: choices for making information if the president wished to make information in that place, that day. Because the saying goes, you make information by attacking an enemy, shocking a pal, or asserting a brand new program. We’d pile these choices one atop one other. 4 occasions out of 5, the president would select to disregard them fully.

President Barack Obama most popular a teleprompter to playing cards, if he was having the form of assembly the place one may very well be used. His critics preferred to mock this—as if Obama, of all folks, couldn’t converse coherently and fluently unprompted. But when a misplaced phrase from you may knock 20 p.c off the S&P 500 inside minutes, wouldn’t you desire a cheat sheet or a teleprompter your self?

I as soon as had an thought for a film scene in regards to the work of the presidency. From the perspective of an aide, you’d see the president backstage, behind a curtain, talking urgently right into a cell phone. Then the curtain would half. The president would say “Maintain on,” go the cellphone to another person in his entourage, and step out past the curtain. From backstage, you’d hear snatches of a speech to a bunch or an affiliation. Applause. Then the president would step backstage once more, retrieve the cellphone, and resume his pressing dialog.

Being the president is a tricky job. It’s the middle of every thing. It comes with an enormous employees for a motive. Winging it’s not a advantage.

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