Harvey Milk addressed supporters at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978; four decades later, Pete Buttigieg launched his campaign for president in South Bend, Indiana. (San Jose University Collection; The New York Times )

A year before his murder, Harvey Milk — the most visible LGBTQ+ politician in the country at the time — delivered his last stump speech as a will and testament, in front of a lawyer and his tape recorder.

Like most of his remarks, it started off stilted. Milk would begin his speeches by reading from a notepad, shoulders tensed and arms at his sides, occasionally breaking eye contact. But — always, eventually, and inevitably — Milk would get comfortable. His shoulders would relax. The notepad would fall to his side, his other hand raised into a fist. …


Toni Morrison addresses the graduating class of 2004 at Wellesley College (Wellesley College)

“I was very anxious about having to figure out something to say to this particular class,” says Toni Morrison at the start of her commencement speech for Wellesley College’s class of 2004.

These are surprising words from the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Toni Morrison is, after all, a woman celebrated for her ability to craft “something to say,” the author of sprawling tales exploring everything from the legacy of slavery, to the lives of Black Americans, to the complexities of motherhood.

But commencement speeches are unique undertakings, even for literary giants…


Dr. Roxane Gay takes the TEDWomen stage in May 2015 (Marla Aufmuth/TED)

Dr. Roxane Gay’s practical guide for feminists—”good, bad, or anywhere in between.”

My mother refuses to call herself a feminist. During dinner table debates, wielding freshly sharpened silverware, I have fought to change her mind, pointing out the bra-burning evidence stacked against her:

You’re a triple board-certified doctor in a male-dominated field.

You throw around the terms “mansplaining” and “manspreading” with Gen-Z ease.

Not to mention, you believe women are equal to men. And you’re willing to fight for that belief.

My mother is unmoved. This is how she explains it: she wants to be seen as a success, not as a woman who managed to be successful. She wants to be…


Presidents Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter at their inaugurations; Secretary Hillary Clinton at President Trump’s (From Getty, the Library of Congress, History.com, The LA Times, and the Carter Center)

Six speechwriters explore their six favorite lines from inaugurations past

Today, we celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden. He will continue one of America’s greatest traditions: commencing his administration with a speech. To honor that oratory event, six speechwriters at West Wing Writers shared their thoughts on some favorite lines from previous inaugural addresses.

President Martin Van Buren, 1837

Unlike all who have preceded me, the Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my actions with…


Christmas Speeches from Her Majesty Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II, preparing to deliver her first and most recent Christmas addresses

Every year on Christmas Day, after the cured meats but before the cooked ones, I find a quiet corner of the house to watch Queen Elizabeth II give her annual Christmas speech.

She’s been giving these speeches far longer than I’ve been watching them, since she took the throne in 1952. The format has changed over the decades, from radio to television to YouTube and Facebook Live. The monarch has changed too, from plummy twentysomething to sober nonagenarian. But in 68 years, the speech itself has, for the most part, stayed the same.

She always talks about Christmas: about Jesus…


Mary Fisher addresses the crowd at the 1992 Republican National Convention. (Mary Fisher)

At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Mary Fisher spoke to an audience convinced of their own immunity — to a virus sweeping the nation, to the sin of prejudice, and to the problems of their fellow Americans.

Her country presaged our current apocalypse. Unemployment spiked and civilians rose up against police brutality. A transformed Republican Party governed the United States. But the most significant similarity came in sickness: just as we now fight COVID-19, Americans then battled the new and terrifying AIDS epidemic.

HIV/AIDS was first identified in the U.S. in 1981, the year of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. Because…


Four years before he’d make history by becoming the first Black man to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, a state senator from Illinois strode on stage at the FleetCenter in Boston and opened by acknowledging the unlikelihood of the moment.

He was, after all, young and Black. And he was delivering the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, endorsing John Kerry for president.

He described America as “a magical place” — where his Kenyan father and Kansan mother could share “a common dream born of two continents.” A place distinguished from every “other country on…


Khizr Khan’s speech should not have worked.

When Khan took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention with his wife Ghazala, he broke some of the cardinal rules of rhetoric.

His delivery was slow and plodding, and his body language stiff.

He asked rhetorical questions, and concluded with the phrase, “in conclusion” — two things that would make any high school English teacher wince.

And toward the end, he went completely off-prompter — a speechwriter’s worst nightmare — and ad-libbed the final minute of his remarks.

So why did it work?

Khizr Khan pulling out his pocket constitution at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (Voice of America)

Four years later, Khan’s speech is still…


Reports from the first day of the Democratic National Convention highlighted a set of speakers not on the original schedule: a booing delegation in the audience.

The media interpreted these disruptions in a variety of ways: Bernie-or-Bust delegates were threatening Democratic unity, and/or were emotional fanatics, disavowed by the candidate himself. Alternate readings drew on the impact of the location, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, with writers highlighting the city’s history of both political activism and vocal audiences.

Regardless of how you interpreted them, the disruptions to the convention fundamentally altered the “text” (the play-by-play of speakers…


Governor Jennifer Granholm giving her loving audience at the 2012 Democratic National Convention two thumbs up. (National Journal, adapted)

THE STAKES

Governor Jennifer Granholm served two terms as the first female Governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011, during the Great Recession and through the 2008–2010 automotive crisis that rocked the state’s largest and most iconic industry.

Although Granholm had spoken at the DNC before, she had never been on primetime. In 2012, however, she received a choice spot, teeing up Vice President Biden. Granholm had modest expectations about the kind of response she’d receive. After all, most convention speeches are short and play to a semi-captive audience.

During practice backstage, she delivered the remarks in a relatively spirited fashion, but…

West Wing Writers

A progressive communications-strategy firm founded by former Clinton and Obama Administration speechwriters.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store