While the world’s eyes are now on President-elect Joe Biden, its ears have been hearing words written by a Portland-area native.
Dan Cluchey, 34, has been one of Biden’s three primary speechwriters. With the presidential campaign now giving way to a transition effort, Cluchey isn’t sure what’s next for his career, but he admits he has had quite the ride from his childhood in Cape Elizabeth to his life in Washington, D.C.
Cluchey, in a telephone interview on Friday, Nov. 13, said he feels “exhausted and hopeful” heading into the Biden presidency. He also knows his career has given him unique confidence in the country’s next leader.
“Working with the president-elect over this time, I don’t know how many people who work for politicians can come out of that experience feeling better about the person than when they came in,” he said. “I think that’s sort of a rarity in some respects.”
Cluchey said he became interested in speech writing as an undergraduate at Amherst College. He had always enjoyed writing and saw his future career path as a “creative and niche” way to break into politics and make a difference.
Speechwriting, Cluchey said, is a profession “without a traditional route in” – no college majors or secondary degrees, and a lot of it relies on networking. So after learning many leading speechwriters had once worked as lawyers, he gained admission to Harvard Law School.
“It’s a small world, there aren’t a million speechwriting jobs and you have to chart your own path a little bit or back your way into it,” he said.
Cluchey landed a speechwriting internship for former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2011, and after graduating from law school began writing full-time for the 44th president.
Beneath what he called the “celebrated White House speechwriters,” he said, were a group of people like him who wrote speeches for other officials within the administration – the president’s advisers and cabinet secretaries.
His first job in the Obama administration was writing for former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, which began with writing mostly about health-care issues. Later, he took on trade and global economics.
Cluchey and his wife, Miriam Becker-Cohen, left Washington for a time in late 2015. She attended law school and he worked in the nonprofit sector before he had his first opportunity to work with Biden.
The former vice president was in need of a speechwriter at the Biden Institute and School of Public Policy & Administration at the University of Delaware, and Cluchey got the job in the summer of 2018. The role entailed writing speeches for Biden as he traveled around the country to different speaking engagements.
“This was long before he was thinking of running for president, but he was still out there talking about the issues that really matter to him, about the middle class, about health care, about immigration, (and) sort of his vision for where America ought to go,” Cluchey said.
Biden announced his campaign for president on April 25, 2019, and Cluchey was a part of the team all the way, through the President-elect’s victory over President Donald Trump two weeks ago.
The biggest hurdle he faced during Biden’s campaign, Cluchey said, was the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said scrambled everyone’s expectations about how the year would go.
One of Biden’s strengths, he said, is his ability to connect with people one-on-one, and many wondered how he would perform in a mostly virtual environment. Cluchey said the challenges the pandemic posed to him and his fellow speechwriters were “nothing” compared to how it affected the campaign managers “at the top of the food chain.”
But it did force the speechwriters to consider how to write a powerful speech that would translate well via videoconference. Fortunately, in addition to his two speechwriting colleagues, Cluchey said many different people on the campaign were regularly involved in the writing process.
The goal of speechwriting, he said, can be different depending on the person you’re writing for, but is typically to bring out the best of the person, not to reinvent them.
“The process has to begin and end with being authentic to that person, what they believe in and their experience,” he said.
In the case of Biden, he said, he has a “pretty long history of remarks” that are a crucial starting point because they provide a lens through which he might view a particular issue.
He also said the job involves talking to researchers about what issues to emphasize in a speech, as well as an extensive review process involving several people. It always, of course, also involves the President-elect giving his vision and “putting his spin” on it.
Cluchey said Biden is “very involved with the speechwriting process” and “everything flows from him.”
Though every speech is different, Cluchey said bigger speeches, such as remarks delivered at the Democratic National Convention, for instance, can be easier to write because they are able to involve more “advanced thinking” and planning than spur-of-the-moment statements.
While trying to write eloquently about complex issues such as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, Cluchey said, he was lucky to work with an “incredibly diverse campaign” of people who could “give input authentically on those issues.” He also believes Biden has been engaged with those two issues for longer than most leading politicians.
“We were just fortunate to have a campaign that looked like America in all respects and to have their input not as some sort of afterthought but as a critical part of the process,” he said.
Cluchey’s official campaign duties ended Sunday. He said his next steps are up in the air because “we’re still very early in the transition process” to the Biden administration.
He said he would never run for office himself, but he loves speechwriting (and has also written a novel, “The Life of the World to Come,” which was published in 2014).
“I genuinely just love speech writing and writing in general,” Cluchey said. “So I would like to keep doing it in some capacity until they kick me out, but that’s not for me to decide at this point.”