Ep. 107 - Eli Attie

Update: 2016-12-22


Eli Attie, writer for The West Wing and former political speechwriter, talks with David Axelrod about how he went from being a speechwriter to writing television scripts for one of the most notable shows on American politics, his recollection of being in the room on election night when Al Gore rescinded his concession to George W. Bush, and how the fictionalized version of the political speechwriter is often at odds with reality.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the The The The and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the the most celebrated television series of the nineteen nineties and early two thousands was The West Wing is sometimes idealized but often accurate depiction of life in the White House and one of the reasons that it was so true to life were the core of White House veterans who worked on that show Eli was Al Gore's speech writer during Gore's years as vice president and the White House and was very familiar with the rhythms and the plotlines of life there he took that to Hollywood and ultimately became chief script writer for The West Wing and went on to play that same role on shows like House Eli also is a graduate of PS forty City and a guy with an incredibly interesting story I sat down with Eli a couple weeks ago in Los Angeles to talk to him about his life in politics is life in Hollywood in PS for the the the new Addy we have led parallel if you can weep let it paralyze at different times but were both sons of New York City this is true and graduates of PS forty York City life begins at forty yeah we both had this wonderful elementary school teacher you think you don't think teachers can make a difference this woman Lee Roth made a huge difference in my time to actually and when she my brother is a couple years older than me he went to PS forty before me and had her as first grade teacher and I was assigned a different first rate teacher and my parents actually went to school and demand they insisted it was hard to do apparently that I've switched into her class was phenomenal she exposed her for first and third we read Martin Luther King about Martin that this was in the early sixties Martin Luther King civil rights movement she introduced us to all these poets an interest in broadening access to public school she would tell us our homework assignment in the first great would be to go home and watch a cello concert on PBS I mean it was it was very unusual she brought Ogden Nash remember the limit the Limerick oh sure guide to Nash candy is dandy but liquor is quicker that Becca she brought him to John Charlie just incredible it was incredible experience but I digress new York City tell me about your experience and I've been exposed to you're late father's work because you wrote a book and your mother's an artist and I took the liberty of looking up some of her artwork too which is kind of interest yes my both my parents wonderful gifted artist my mother died Addie still very actively working and showing her work and is in many bees in class great stuff she's terrific she's some describe her is kind of feminist painter Xi Yu doesn't like to be categorized I mean she you know her her attitude is as long as people write positive things they can call or whatever but it's really about my mother is some great career and still does we learned a few years ago the family kind of acts and that there's actually an all girl punk rock band in Portland Oregon named after noted rock and indie Addie and my mother says now that it's the greatest things ever happened to her professionally because she's a member of the National Academy and has been you know got all kinds of great grandson is in the Whitney in MoMA collections but everything like that that's ever happened hurt she has all these friends have had the same thing happened to them and this is the only thing that's unique to her as she heard the band play she's not seen them live because they really haven't played on the east coast of what we're hoping actually to get them to play her next opening in your diet gals are listening your dad was a graphic artist and photographer yeah started as a as a commercial illustrator and then he became a photographer and was a I think phenomenal photographer who died when I was very young and old were you I was fourteen nine And he was using his sixties he was older than my silver young and the E U know what was it was a very wonderful actively working commercial tar for photograph lot of interesting people and things and then just nobody really lifted a finger to keep his workout in the world so the book you're referring to a few years ago I started rifling through his archives just to kind of find interesting things I don't really know if I had a clear goal you've been and found incredible portraits he took of Truman Capote be in the nineteen fifties and portraits of Bobby Fischer taken right before he became the World Chess Champion and the rock group The Band at their peak in nineteen ninety nine taken in Woodstock New York so my father was not a celebrity photographer so by happenstance publisher became interested in these Capote the pictures and also pictures my father took of Capote his Brooklyn neighborhood in the late fifties he lived in Brooklyn Heights at the time way before it was as hip as it is today and for all of Brooklyn was as though that's for the absolutely when it was still funny you look at these pictures of Brooklyn the nineteen fifties and it's um it's multi ethnic and there's after American kids playing with my kids playing with kids with turbans on the street and ironically New York is so wonderfully diverse Brooklyn Heights like the white is placed here city today by Dom this book came out last year and wonderfully got a lot of attention has survived my father's name little bit juju was with politics part of what you guys talked about growing up absolutely I grew up in a very partisan Democratic household my father whom I would describe as a kind of New Deal Democrat and dumb FDR was his hero and I also when I was a kid growing up my parents were huge Nixon haters in Reagan haters and you know staunch progressives the interesting thing is that my mother come in late nineteen sixties I guess she was very angry at Hubert Humphrey for the Vietnam War and so she didn't vote for him free in the Democratic primary in nineteen sixty eight she voted for Dick Gregory running in sort of the Jules Stein yes Ralph Nader meets Pat Paulson kind of weird third party candidacy and to this day she thinks she helped elect Richard Nixon so I I kind of grew up with this belief that like you have to be principal you have to be progressive but there's also a place where rubber meets the road and so my mother really even more than my father has sort of taught me you know you stick with the person is viable you support the beleaguered incumbent even in tough times mean there were times when I was working for Al Gore not to skip ahead here in our story when when I was very disputed by Bill Clinton's problems let's say and she would buck me up and basically say he's our president we need to stand behind him but look at what he's trying to achieve a look at what they're trying to do you know and so that I I I think I wouldn't have worked in Democratic politics in the way that I did it wasn't for for my mother and that sort of teaching me that you don't you don't go with the crank candidate even if there's a couple things that they're saying about you know have subsidies are you that you think are delightful you know you are but you didn't you you gravitate to this through writing on Yes and No actually you know when I first got out of college my first job you were before you get energetic college talk about being a writer and you obviously that was something that that would came to you it was important to you from a very early age that both your hair both your parents were in this sort of visual that's right that's right and you took to writing that's right the funny thing is um ah a This is the funny part of of of sort of looking at my career now which is that I never set out to be writer and I never really had any particular I didn't think of myself is right here for long long time for whatever reason that I can't describe it wasn't that I had an interest in it I always from the time I was in elementary school junior high school was able to write these little one or two page papers you would have to write for school easily and the key just felt like I could express myself in that way not in some deep poetic way I didn't do much creative writing little bit here and there but it just was easy for me easier than taking a test so as I went through high school college and started to be able to pick classes I would always pick the classes that have a lot of papers as opposed to a lot of test that just was more comfortable which is easier you actually develop some sort of rubric for teaching writing to students when you are when you're an undergrad yeah I guess that's right I worked my way I went to Harvard College and there was a writing center there which was a place where students could go get help on papers from other students and we were trained in how to do it and it was a very kind of non directive counseling center was actually really cool place where you would come in with the paper and I would look at the paper and not tell you what to do but ask you questions about it and try to guide you to your own realizations about what you're trying to say and whether or not it was actually in the thing you've already written because we really instructed you can't do people's work for them and I'm so appalled now or you know I have friends whose kids are in private schools and they just have armies of tutors who very often write the papers and I dislike it so horrible but Europe all because you think that we're leaving living you could admit I was twelve and that nobody did that for me I just ripped off no but so so I started to realize in college that most of the drafts of papers that people bring me in this counseling center were so bad and they didn't have the fondest idea of even the basics of how to structure an argument or what the professors were even looking for so I I wrote I guess Miss year of college kind of a three that writing center with their service support the kind of a guide for mostly grad student teaching assistants for how to even just structure an assignment for paper in a way that gave the students some idea of how to structure their argument in the paper that just was nobody helping teach writing there were some spots are writing classes that you take but you know you would think the people teaching you day in day out with would care about and they would get back these very incoherent papers and did you ever think to yourself maybe you should have gone to a more elite institution work its new header and this Harvard College is kind of an amazing thing that um that that anywhere you go hmm most writing is bad yet I think I worry a little bit that one hour and Twitter's Twitter universe and you know we don't know writing is all in shorthand now so the right punctuation is gone right capitalization is gone but it's funny I was just thinking about you know the novelist Charles Murkowski once said something that I think maybe explains my career as a writer which is the town he said I write not because um so good because everyone else is so bad I sold my soul where you politically active there were you in the Did You Go by The Institute of Politics at Harvard I did actually I I you know I didn't do anything formal with the ensue politics I was I was on the Harvard Crimson so I was kind of a student journalist that was a little bit of the form of activists and you're a journalist and if you consider that a form of activism new national justice but I never was involved in like us Democrats or anything like that but I did hang around the I O P an interesting enough I got a grant from the I O P E to help me research my senior thesis which was about to Reagan's invasion of Grenada so I think even though I didn't necessarily get involved in campaigns are things like that I follow politics very closely all my friends did we all were sort of frosting at the mouth you know liberal Democrats and it definitely was always a big part of the conversations I was having it so talk about the transition to starter Ellis wrote a column that's right I did start right out of college and in terms of being a writer I actually wanted to go to law school when I was in college and not for any reason I could explain now just other people were doing it I was kind of a general list I did know what I wanted to do with my life people do and they don't know yet which is really ridiculous because laws so specific and you and I know eight million lawyers in most of them are pretty unhappy if they're working as lawyers and it's a little bit like saying you know I'm a general lists I could do a lot of different things so I think I'm going to go to dental school it's so specific and so many people find themselves doing glorified clerical work in Haiti but fortunately for me I decided to take a year off after college and apply the law school during that year off and I worked in your city government four For David Lincoln's when he was the mayor and that was the year that changed my life couple ways one I learned that you could actually have a great time and enjoy what you're doing without a graduate degree I just looked around and so many people working in politics in just in New York in general were thriving having so much fun and they didn't have graduate degrees and I thought why do I need that but the other thing was I stumbled into political speech writing and i wasn't something I set out to do I don't think I was even aware there was such a thing but I was in a program that still exists called the Newark City Urban fellows Program in the way it works is your paid a very small salary out of a foreign degree program and you work anywhere in the government that will have you and your FREE for the office that you work in but the deal is the Can't Make You Do entry level work and somebody introduced me to a guy who's a friend of mine to this day and John Segal who has been very involved in your politics and his lawyer but he was the first chief speech writer for David Dickinson I met him and we kind of said Look all one I work for you and you know if you like me all even a few weeks and if I don't like it or leave a few weeks is very casual and loose and I started doing research for him and he assigned me speech and it's a funny thing because David Akins who is very fond of and still in touch with her staff to Mayor years after American mayor and only only American mayor unless you count the Basel which some people do you know the Palazzo fact I did didn't you Bill Bill and I both worked for David Dickinson and I knew Bill fairly well and I'm interrupted know that you know I think I was saying that it was my David Dickens could sometimes lapse into a kind of legal ease you know when he was holding a punitive to county was holding a press conference when he was just even reading a prepared speech and I learned the hard way over a couple years of working for him that with the right stripped down punchy language you could really make a difference in his presentation and I was a kid and I didn't know anything about policy or or anything and eleven political wisdom I wasn't at any strategy table or any of those conversations but you know I developed a good relationship with Him and with lots of the other people deputy mayors and so is this kid I was kind of suddenly in the mayor's office for all these meetings and fly around in helicopters with him sometimes and and so I was I was like ten valued amazingly even I didn't have any wisdom or experience or anything like that and I just was addicted to I have to be honest and say that I was really addicted to the absurdity of it in addition to helping to do something and helping to advance a cause that I like damages the situations I was in was somewhere so we are just flying over Queens in a helicopter you know with the mayor of New York in some Dino tents you know white ethnic enclave you know it just it was it was the un reality I think that maybe that was the beginning of my thinking as a screenwriter and that says you look at it from a writer's perspective to where you step back and look at the scene I realize now that I did I realize now that I loved kind of observing the weirdness of room or thinking about the odd personalities in trying to analyze them and something that we all do I think working in politics is we spend hours just sitting back and analyzing the complicated psyches of our bosses because the people who get these jobs are very complicated year the number of nights you spend over a whiskey you know talking with your other friends who work for the same senator about liking you wise the senator like that you know it's um that was the beginning from the Expos learning to get more later I know I Yeah but um you know one of the reasons one of the fun things but working for Brock Obama for me was he brought a writer's sensibility to everything we did and so he would always be of the scene but he would also be stepping back and watching the scene in observing the characters in the room and he always had interesting observations about the scene itself about the people in the room good insights into them but they were very much a writer's sensibilities you know and it also is one of the reasons you know he obviously was a great speech writer and of themselves I think I've said this to you recently actually that um as as you know crushed especially now as I am that he's leaving the White House I admire him so much and I love him so much the the small silver lining to that cloud is there's going to be a truly great book of Acts presents so I think I hope that this this particular chapter may have ended less happily the needed hope from this perspective but just one question the speech writing a song talking about your experiences in Washington who are going to Hollywood is you talk about writing for Jenkins how important is it for speech writer to gain an understanding of how their candidate can and can't use language how is it how do you get to a point we are reading what is authentic to that person because everyone's different you know it's a funny thing I think that um I've worked for some politicians for whom and I've written a lot of speeches some new NIE working together for people I didn't work for um you know for a lot of people who don't really care that if it seems good and punchy and rises to kind of a presidential level or whatever it is office that they're seeking build a sort of take it and go with it I think the great politicians are incredibly particular about language and small things like the placement of a comma or phrase to describe something in particular that no one will recognize as the speech goes by I become so meaningful to them and so I think that the best working relationships I had a speechwriter that was true without Gore were based on a deep kind of accumulated knowledge of how they like their sentences to run and subtle things in the sentences you know it's funny because just an example it always comes to my mind Gore would always like to use the phrase self government more than government and you would not catch that in the speech most of the time but to him it was this kind of very animated concept that that made the whole thing come alive to him and and it's of being a speechwriter there's so many different ways to be speechwriter which say some people don't consider there to try to be important staff person some people consider to be their closest confidant was actually rank lane our friend Ron Klein who introduced who hired me work for Gore who said to me because I use to talk alot with Ron about well if I think this should I bring this to the vice president or should I push back on that were due on me bring up this uncomfortable thing with him or would you rather do it and him saying to me once he didn't want me to raise a difficult issue with Gore and he was going to do because the Sydney your relationship with Him has to be kind of like priest and penitent you know he just felt and I think that's true that a speechwriter or you can express your opinion especially when ass sometimes you get a chance to weigh in on significant things in the dark of night but you have to be a boost or a cheerleader a friend a supporter get inside their head tap into the idealistic strain that some aides won't even notice it so it is a a is a writhing process that is really really important that level of of of collaboration and understanding I saw it with all of his speech with me and with all of his speeches but you know it's interesting you say the little things that a good good speaker cares about Obama was has a very musical sense about how words play against each other and he would rearrange sentences because of the cadence yeah of those words John Pharaoh who was his chief speechwriter for years if the town is a Bandit and a musician he's a he's aware of how interesting pianist and I think they shared the sense of musicality that contributed to the way words were arranged yet in these speeches or was it was an interesting process interesting process to watch we can take a quick break and we'll be back with Eli Addie rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rocket mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty so you had you get to Washington from New York and how did you end up with with Gore will so what happened was I was working for David Lincoln's and I was very happily living in New York and having a great time right after college and um David in Kansas lost his reelection campaign and I had gone from being one of the sort of city hall speech writers to being his main campaign is only campaign speechwriter on every election campaign so that brought me into the sort of World of Political consultants and strategists and I met how the keys and I met Bob trying and I met David Doak and all these people who really were Washington people kind of dipping a toe in Rye New York politics and so as the campaign was ending I guess Dick Gephardt was looking for a speechwriter and and bobs from those who work in the campaign dough can sch thats right two cont rum working on that campaign and Bob from said Duquette parts looking for speech writer and you wanna you should interview for it and I was actually very interested because I thought of going to win re election I was happy in New York I just didn't think of myself as I thought of Washington is this kind of sleepy town and um and actually interesting Lee I then started to think to my When I met Dick Gephardt I liked him alot actually but then I thought to myself Gee from going to go to Washington maybe I should try to get a job in the White House and I tried to Herald a couple of people are just that I was unable to break through again but potential uses this was nine the year for oh so so yeah Clinton right first Clinton term so I ended up getting this job offer from the cup part and kind of on a whim saying you know all move there for your all just kind of try this out like it was come back to New York and um I was leaving Manhattan for Washington it was a bit of culture shock and you know these giant streets with these monolithic buildings and nobody walking on the street is how it felt to me I felt like a nuclear bomb had hit the city when I first arrived and I grew to really love and very soon after moving to Washington I made were still some of my closest friends in the world Tony blinking and Jay Carney and all the people we serve no uncommon and um and and grew to really love Dick Gephardt and he was so much fun and of course very soon after I moved there we lost control of the Congress and I felt like Congress was where you wanted to be and not the White House it was actually a very vital effort to kind of stopped this new Gingrich revolution it's funny because about a year into my job for Gephardt and work for a couple years I was offered a job as White House speechwriter I guess I just got to know some people and the then chief speechwriter called me and I went down there first time ever went to the White House was called down by Don Baer and I and I turned it down which was amazing as your before I was desperate to get a foot in the door and I just thought I'm involved in something now that seems more important actually and Dom so short version of the story is about a year later when the reelection campaign was in high gear shortly before you know I'm actually I realize now it was all about this campaign and I called on there who'd been promoted to communications director and I said I don't know if you have a job but I kind of like to come there and you know took a little while actually for me to for me to get hired by Tom but certain the last few months of the ninety six campaign I've started in the White House is a kind of a communications aide to President Clinton not an important person in syrup and an aide to an aide really be occasionally in these oval office meetings with more whispering You're my boss if he forgot something and it was an exciting chaotic super intense year of my life and after one year I thought you know this thing that had been my dream working the White House a few years earlier at least I thought I've done this and it's a rough lifestyle and a lot of people were changing at the beginning of the second Clinton term and and actually a political consulting firm offered me a job and I thought maybe I'll do that for a while and try that and was more because I just was maybe burned out and right as I was out the door on them run clean invited me to lunch who is Gore's chief of staff who I had known a little bit I've known a little bit when he worked for National and I work for guests or break a brilliant you know what brought him in two thousand to do the debate preparation for Obama to know that and he did it again in two thousand and twenty he was Joe Biden's chief of staff for the first few years of the Obama administration he did Hillary's debate prep and that trio of debate performances by Hillary I still think is the highlight for campaign I just think especially the first debate and you can I don't know exactly how much that's Hillary now much of it is run by Ron is one of the truly brilliant people I've worked for him he had a session on the on the podcast news that was the best listener that with this because he's he's just he's somebody that that I used to love on you know long flights on Air Force to just hearing him break down the state of politics meets press meets policy is one of those rare you know what they used to call Stephanopoulos who really understood that place where politics policy and strategy me
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Ep. 107 - Eli Attie

The Axe Files with David Axelrod