Craig Smith, a former professor of communication studies at Long Beach State, has had a long, illustrious career crafting and teaching the art of speech.
From writing for the late President George H. W. Bush to founding the Center for Free Speech at LBSU and teaching classes in subjects such as argumentation and campaign persuasion, Smith has shown that speech writing is powerful enough to leave lasting messages in the minds of millions.
The Daily 49er sat down with Smith to talk about his experiences with Bush and his work teaching speech writing.
What are some lessons you’ve learned while working with Mr. Bush that you carried on with you and even applied while teaching at Long Beach State?
I think one of the things I learned is that if you’re a speechwriter, you need to find out the authentic character of the client. Who are they really? When they’re authentic, particularly when you’re on television, people know that. When you’re artificial, people can tell. And so one of the things I tried to do was to help them build a persona that they felt comfortable with and that really represented them. One of the reasons why I was hired into the White House for President [Gerald] Ford was because these writers kept trying to make him sound like some kind of eloquent intellectual. And that wasn’t who he was and he didn’t like it. And so they kept getting fired and then I came along and I just sat him down and said, “What do you want me to do? Who are you?” And he talked and he said, “I want to use the language of the common man. That’s who I am. I’m a common man. I’m plain spoken.”And I used the same approach with George Bush, who did not want to sound too eloquent. He wanted people to know [who] he was, you know? He’s served in the military. He’s served his country. But wasn’t some type of philosophical mogul. I think the important thing for speech writers to do is to determine what is the authentic character of the person and then go with that.
Did you keep in contact with Bush?
Yeah. Ronald Reagan won the 1980 campaign, but luckily George Bush gave a very good speech Wednesday night at that convention in 1980 and Ronald Reagan liked it so he put Bush on the ticket and so Bush became vice president…and so we kept in touch during that time. In the meantime, I moved on and became deputy director of the National Republican Senatorial committee and in that capacity I was coordinating 33 senate races across the country, so that was where my time was occupied. But we were both in Washington and we saw one another in functions and remained friends. Then, he brought me back to do a little writing for him in 1988 at the Republican Convention in New Orleans, where he accepted the nomination with a very famous speech. And then … with the ‘92 convention in Houston, I also came back. We were close friends over that time.
How did you feel when you learned about his passing?
I was very sad in one sense, but in another sense I thought, ‘What a glorious run he’d had!’ I mean 94 years is a long time. And he was forever young. I mean he was jumping out of airplanes, he [had] a boat that the secret service [couldn’t] keep up with that he’s speeding around off the coast in. So he had a wonderful life … his son Neil said on the news the other day that he would want us to celebrate his life, not mourn it. That’s the right spirit. That’s how I feel about it.
How do you feel you’ve been celebrating his life?
Well talking about it with people like you. I did CNN yesterday, I was on Sky News in England. Just letting people know about these personal anecdotes and how we interacted and what a great person he was and how sincere he was and how he wanted to make the country a better place, I think that’s a great way to celebrate him.
When you were a professor, did your students know you as the Bush speechwriter?
When I came … to Cal State Long Beach in 1988, I was a well known speech writer. [My students] knew that I had worked for Ford and I’d worked for Bush and I’d worked for Lee Iacocca. I was known for that and also I’d worked at CBS as consultant earlier starting in 1968 as a graduate intern in the research department for convention coverage, election nights and inagurals … I think that gave me a credibility with students that many other professors don’t have [who] spent their whole life in the academic world but haven’t gone out into the real world and done it and seen how it’s done and how it really works.
Is there any last thoughts that you would like to leave people with, either about Bush or your work as a speech writer?
I think I like to celebrate George H.W. Bush because the civility when he was president is not there now. The bipartisan effort to take care of America and pass legislation isn’t there now … I think if people would just go back and study the time when [Bush] was president, they’d see that we did have a “kinder, gentler nation” and we did have bipartisan support. When we went to war to rescue Kuwait against Saddam Hussein, the vote in favor of that war was 92-8. You couldn’t get that today. That is what I would celebrate with George Bush. We need to restore the sense of values that we had. We need to be kinder and gentler to one another.