Did Mitt Romney’s Impeachment Speech Rise to Greatness?

From this speechwriter’s perspective, the Utah Senator’s remarks contained elements of the nation’s great speeches

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Left to right, top to bottom: Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt , Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Obama (all images courtesy the Library of Congress

A Personal Perspective

Understanding what goes into a national-level speech

Over my 30-plus-year career as a speechwriter in service to Members of the House and Senate, and as a speechwriter for six cabinet secretaries under four presidents and both parties, I long ago lost count of how many speeches I’ve written that invoked the soaring or sobering words of some of the world’s great orators, philosophers, religious leaders, and politicians. Of all those inspiring resources on which every good speechwriter leans, I have the greatest affection and respect for men and women of courage whose remarks, written or spoken, define America’s treasury of notable speeches.

It is my unbreakable habit as a journalist and speechwriter to watch events like the recent impeachment House hearings and Senate trial with an ear tilted toward speeches that might rise to the level of the greats. I am usually disappointed; most Congressional speeches are staff-written and fall along the same tired and trite lines (that is not to say that Congressional staff writers are incapable of crafting excellent speeches, but only to note the reality that those writers are rarely working with the best speakers — you can lead a Senator to the podium, but you can’t make him or her read what you wrote, either directly or in the spirit in which you wrote it).

While listening to House or Senate speeches, I try my best to listen apolitically, sifting the chaff of party pandering from the grains of national service. I’ve seen first-hand how that task has become more difficult over time. What did not shift was my admiration for great speechwriting and soaring oratory by national leaders.

Learning from the “Top Nine”

When I listen to a member of Congress or a president speaking on matters of great national or global import, the speechwriter in me overlays an oratorical matrix created by my Top Nine presidential speakers: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. It is to those speakers who were tested in times of great personal and political adversity that I invariably turned for inspiration in the speeches I was writing.

It is hard sometimes for speechwriters to resist the temptation to insert a favorite phrase or move a few words around to suit a personal style over the style of the speaker. I’ve worked for speakers of both political parties who gave me more leash than they should have, and I’ve written for speakers who thought speechwriters were little more than touch-up artists. Striking the middle ground — where consultation, collaboration, and shared confidence between writer and speaker come together in happy harmony — is always preferred, but not often achieved. With that caveat established, and knowing that all of the men and women listed below availed themselves of the services and advice of their speechwriters to one degree or another, I’d like to share my favorite speakers and speeches.

For me George Washington’s Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address, Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena remarks, FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, Eisenhower’s Farewell/Military-Industrial Complex speech, Kennedy’s Inaugural address and Rice University/We Choose to go to the Moon speeches, Johnson’s Voting Rights speech, Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate and Challenger speeches, and Barack Obama’s Charleston Eulogy mark the constellation of stars at the zenith of presidential passion, persuasiveness, and humility.

Additional influences

In a-not-too-distant past, several non-presidential, but equally powerful voices raised clarion calls to rise above the daily fray and seek the best, not the worst, in others. For example:

Barbara Jordan (We are a people in a quandary about the present. We are a people in search of our future. We are a people in search of a national community.”);

Edward Kennedy (Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Deceit is a poison in its veins.”);

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (“Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.”); and

Margaret Chase Smith (“I am not advocating in the slightest that we become mutes with our voices stilled because of fear of criticism of what we might say. That is moral cowardice. And moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk. The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”).

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Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) Library of the Senate

A standout of courage in times of crises

Margaret Chase Smith was not afraid to speak truth to injustice

I would like to expand on Senator Smith’s contribution to the shelf of America’s great speeches, because she was one of the rare breed of elected officials in the 1940s and 50s who challenged the status quo at perilous times in our history. She spoke truth to injustice when such speech was condemned by power-usurpers and ignored by power-cowed colleagues.

In June, 1950, the Maine Republican drafted her “Declaration of Conscience” in the wake of a speech given earlier in that year by the rabid anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, in which he alleged the State Department was under attack from enemies within. He purported to have a list of some 200 “members of the communist party” who, he asserted with no proof, were still working in the State Department. McCarthy’s claims of fifth-column enemies of Democracy who “infested” government offices, and his insane quest to out communists in government and across the entertainment and private sectors, convinced Senator Smith to chastise the government’s leadership (then under Democrat Harry Truman) and the leaders of her party for bending to the outrageous pressures of McCarthy and his supporters.

A speech that transcended her time

You should read Senator Smith’s Declaration in full, but here are what I think are the salient passages that no one in elected office today — save, perhaps, Mitt Romney — could craft or speak:

“I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership in either the Legislative Branch or the Executive Branch of our Government…

“I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. I speak as simply as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart. I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American…

“I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul searching — for us to weigh our consciences — on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America — on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges…

“I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered; that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation…

“The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as “Communists” or “Fascists” by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others. The American people are sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed. But there have been enough proved cases to cause nationwide distrust and strong suspicion that there may be something to the unproved, sensational accusations.

“As a Republican, I say to my colleagues on this side of the aisle that the Republican Party faces a challenge today that is not unlike the challenge that it faced back in Lincoln’s day. The Republican Party so successfully met that challenge that it emerged from the Civil War as the champion of a united nation — in addition to being a Party that unrelentingly fought loose spending and loose programs. Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of “know nothing, suspect everything” attitudes. Today we have a Democratic Administration that has developed a mania for loose spending and loose programs. History is repeating itself — and the Republican Party again has the opportunity to emerge as the champion of unity and prudence.

“The record of the present Democratic Administration has provided us with sufficient campaign issues without the necessity of resorting to political smears. America is rapidly losing its position as leader of the world simply because the Democratic Administration has pitifully failed to provide effective leadership.

“The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear. I doubt if the Republican Party could — simply because I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans aren’t that desperate for victory. I don’t want to see the Republican Party win that way. While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people. Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican Party and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one party system.

“As a United States Senator, I am not proud of the way in which the Senate has been made a publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism. I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle. I am not proud of the obviously staged, undignified countercharges that have been attempted in retaliation from the other side of the aisle. I don’t like the way the Senate has been made a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity. I am not proud of the way we smear outsiders from the Floor of the Senate and hide behind the cloak of congressional immunity and still place ourselves beyond criticism on the Floor of the Senate.

“As an American, I am shocked at the way Republicans and Democrats alike are playing directly into the Communist design of “confuse, divide and conquer.”

“As an American, I don’t want a Democratic Administration “white wash” or “cover up” any more than I want a Republican smear or witch hunt.

“As an American, I condemn a Republican “Fascist” just as much as I condemn a Democrat “Communist.” I condemn a Democrat “fascist” just as much as I condemn a Republican “Communist.” They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country.

“As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”

I don’t know about you, but Senator Smith’s words were not just about the state of political affairs in 1950; unwittingly or not, she prophesied the future of the Republican Party as it would be 70 years later, in 2020.

When I was a speechwriter — for both parties over the span of my career — I often stole from Senator Smith because her words and her singular courage in the face of many odds inspired me. Sad to say, some Democrats for whom I wrote would not use any of Smith’s passages in their final remarks, and some Republicans insisted that Smith was an outlier or a “one-off” and dismissed her courage of character. Contrast her remarks as a Republican 70 years ago with those of Republican Senator Susan Collins, also of Maine, in 2020, who did not have the courage to do what was right in the recent impeachment debacle.

Did Mitt Romney rise to the occasion?

And then we have the lone dissenter

Standing on the same Senate floor on which Margaret Chase Smith stood, Mitt Romney, also a Republican, chose the high grounds of moral, ethical, and religious imperatives for his remarks condemning President Trump’s manipulation of Ukraine for his own political gain. Romney’s remarks are courageous — perhaps not rising to a Profiles in Courage level of courage (that will be for history to judge) — but certainly rising far above the McConnell Party line parroted by virtually every Republican Senator but Romney.

“What he did was not “perfect” — No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests, and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.

“Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.

“I believe that our Constitution was inspired by Providence. I am convinced that freedom itself is dependent on the strength and vitality of our national character.

“I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me. I will only be one name among many, no more or less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial. They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the President did was wrong, grievously wrong.

“We’re all footnotes at best in the annals of history. But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that is distinction enough for any citizen.”

I would have been a very proud speechwriter to have had even a touch of influence on Romney’s remarks, and if his speechwriter did help draft Romney’s speech, I can only applaud his or her ability to not interfere with Romney’s genuineness. Whether Romney’s remarks would have entitled him to an entry in JFK’s Profiles in Courage is unknowable, but I’d like to think that Kennedy would have at least considered the import of Romney’s speech, and not relegated the Utah senator to mere footnote status.

Written by

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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