In the White House, a thousand words are worth a picture. A thousand words is the length of the average speech we write for the president. The picture is the one taken of the staff as they brief the president before he delivers the speech. As a speechwriter, you are usually in the briefing, and you can request a free 8-by-10 glossy of the picture with you in it through the White House photographer’s office. I have a dozen such prints sitting in envelopes waiting to be framed, which I will do once I get out of here. They are the most prized possessions we have from our time in the White House. They capture a moment of actual work and bring to mind the hours and hours of effort that went into that moment. They typically feature the president sitting at this desk in the Oval Office, reading-glasses on his nose, Sharpie pen in his hand, editing the speech with half a dozen staff members arrayed in a semicircle in front of his desk. There are dozens of such photos that I might have requested had I not been too lazy to fill out the forms. Now it’s too late. The photo office has stopped taking requests—though in the future, apparently, we’ll be able to get photos from the Clinton library in Little Rock, Ark., for a small fee.
Yesterday morning, the president invited the staff of each White House department to come in for group photos. The lobby and hallway of the West Wing were jammed with hundreds of staff members. My colleagues and I waited for half an hour before being ushered into the Oval Office. The president was full of good cheer. He gathered us around him, directing various people where to stand so that everyone’s face was in the shot. He had his hand on my shoulder as the picture was taken. The whole thing took about three minutes, and we were out.
A few hours later, I was with the president again, for a briefing on the speech I had written for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The briefing was in the Red Room of the mansion—one of the rooms you can see on the public tour—and included HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo and White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director Mickey Ibarra. As always, my role in the briefing was to answer any questions the president might have (he had none); come up with any new language he or others might want to add (no one did); and add the names of any late-arriving VIPs to the list of acknowledgments at the top of the speech (I added one). The photographer was there to capture all the drama.
The president then moved on to the Blue Room, for more picture-taking with a select group of mayors, and to receive a couple of awards. Then into the East Room, where the crowd of mayors gave him a standing ovation. Big-city mayors adore Clinton. Most of them are Democrats. All of them have been invited to the White House many times (and have the 8-by-10 glossies on their office walls to prove it). Most of all, the president has directly involved the mayors in the making of federal policy, on everything from crime to economic development, to a much greater extent than did previous administrations that professed great belief in local government.
It is at times like these, when he is speaking before a familiar and friendly crowd, that the president is most likely to depart from the prepared text. That is what he did here. He read the first couple of paragraphs, skipped over the quote I gave him from Pericles (“All things good flow from the cities”), and took off on his own for 20 minutes, glancing only occasionally at what I’d written. It bothered me not at all. Most of the time, he has used most of what I have written for him. I’m happy with that record. And anyway, I have plenty of pictures.