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White House speechwriter John McConnell ‘86 presents convo

<ast Friday’s convocation was presented by alumnus John McConnell, a White House speechwriter who served during the entire eight years of the Bush and Cheney administration.

McConnell graduated from Carleton in 1986 with a bachelors in economics and then went on to Yale Law School where he graduated in 1989. He later joined the national campaign staff of George W. Bush in Austin, Texas in 2000, after which he went on to work in the White House.

This was McConnell’s first visit to Carleton after graduation day in 1986. He reminisced that his greatest memories of Carleton were of the people. He thanked Professor Bob Will, who is an inspiration to him “from that day to this”; Professor George Soule, for instilling in him a love for Shakespeare that remains to the day; and Professor Steven Schier, whose classes McConnell urged students to take.

“Give yourself a treat; but also give yourself plenty of time to do those assignments,” he said of Professor Schier‘s classes. McConnell went on to thank Professor Susan Jaret McKinstry, whose class on rhetoric he took freshmen year.

“And if you think about it, she must be very happy to know that no one has had such influence on the speeches of George W. Bush and Cheney as she did,” a declaration that was met with thunderous applause and much laughter from the audience.

McConnell thanked Martha Paas, Steve Strand and Mark Kanazawa and other members of the economics department who “gave me advice and self confidence.”

McConnell reminisced about his first class at Carleton, which was taught by Paul Wellstone. McConnell remembered how every time he saw him after his student days at Carleton, Wellstone would say, “you told me you would vote for me even though you are a Republican!”

While the chance to vote for Senator Wellstone never arose, McConnell said that he would have of course voted for him, as “friendship comes first and political affiliation later.”

McConnell spoke about his passion for politics, which began early in life. At the age of 16 he was appointed as a U.S. senate page. At Carleton, all his friends and professors knew of his deep interest in politics.

According to Professor Schier, McConnell arrived at school a Republican and a Reagan fan, which was and is a rarity for Carleton. Professor Schier also attested to McConnell’s friendliness, high integrity, and stated that he was one of the smartest students in his class.

McConnell’s original career plan was to come back to the midwest after getting his law degree from Yale and to start practicing law, get involved in the community and eventually run for office.

But as fate would have it, after graduating from Yale, McConnell found an internship for a judge in the Supreme Court and was subsequently hired by Vice President Dan Quayle. McConnell said that he was not hired because his “resume dazzled everybody,” but rather because he had good recommendations, he was available to work immediately and was willing to work for very little money. “It is amazing how fast you can get a position if you meet all three of those criteria,” he said.

Years later, when the opportunity arose to work on George W. Bush’s election campaign in Austin, Texas, McConnell became part of his speechwriting team.

After Bush won one of the closest elections in history, McConnell and his team went to the White House. They were charged with composing an overwhelming number of speeches. As McConnell learned, when you have no alternative, there is no problem: you do what you have to do.

President Bush was very involved in the editing process, McConnel said. When rehearsing for the State of Union address in 2003, President Bush did not like the conclusion.

“‘What I want to say is that the humanity we prize is not America’s gift to the world; but the Almighty’s gift to all humanity,’” McConnell quoted President Bush. Those exact words went into the speech.

McConnell said that the greatest thing about his job was that he wrote for somebody he liked.
“You are working with the President of United States who is the successor of many great men and yet I never thought the less of him for it, he was always the good guy and it was good to know that one of the most powerful people on the earth was also one of the least pretentious,” McConnell said.

“He knew everyone’s name who had any dealing with him and he always trusted his aides. He has a famous outwardly warm personality and while Vice President Cheney has a different perception of his personality, I can easily say that no one has been so nice to me in my career as Vice President Cheney. He was always decent, good humored.”

McConnell shared his experience of how on the morning of September 11, he was supposed to meet Vice President Dick Cheney regarding a speech he was writing for him. When he went into the office, Vice President Cheney was staring at the television. McConnell sat there with him and watched the horrible scene unfold as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center.

McConnell told the audience that political views are never a good proxy for personal character. “Whatever divides the good and the bad is not the party line, I am certain of that. I admire politicians, I have dealt with a lot of them and it takes a lot to go there and put everything on line and live with the challenges of that kind of life.”

McConnell told the students that in his experience, if things do not go your way, you should not give up, because the test is not the success of your ideals, but your loyalty to them.

“I worked on four national campaigns and only once the guy I was working for got the most number of votes and yet I ended up having all these experiences; it’s the defeats that should keep you going.”

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