Daniel Benjamin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Dan, welcome to Berkeley.
Thanks for having me.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, when my father was doing his medical residency, but I was raised in Stamford, Connecticut.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
As with many parents, it's often in opposition. My parents very much wanted me to be a lawyer and I did everything I could to do something else. And frankly -- and I don't mean this in a very critical way, but it was only when my first book came out as a book on tape that my parents decided that I achieved something in life!
What got you interested in public affairs and journalism?
The term from the investment world to describe what I've done is a "blind walk." I began wanting to be an academic. I started a doctorate in history at Princeton in the mid-eighties and decided that I was not cut out to sit for the next nine years and I was too interested in all of the different areas I was studying and not focused on one. So, I dropped out and I was fortunate to get a job at Time magazine in those days. It was very fortunate because Time was still gambling on people and hiring people with limited professional journalism experience. I had been on my college paper but had only about a year's experience as a professional.
I spent a couple of years working in New York and then three more years working in Germany for Time, went to the Wall Street Journal, and then I was wondering what I would do next when a call came from a friend who was then the special assistant to Tony Lake, the National Security Advisor. He said, "We're looking for a foreign policy speech writer, and I put your name in." The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Washington. I spent three years as a foreign policy speech writer for President Clinton. From there I had the good fortune to be hired by Richard Clarke, a very well known person in American life, and spent two years as one of his deputies.
Let's go back a few minutes because you've covered a lot of material. Where did you get this emphasis on writing clearly? I know you had a co-author in both of these works, but as a writer and obviously in these roles at Time and the Wall Street Journal, that became part of your repertoire of skills, shall we say.
Hard to trace the headwaters of that. I had been doing a lot of writing from the time I was in high school, and in college, as I said, worked for my college paper. [In] a number of classes [I] got by on the writing and not my knowledge, often. So, it was just fortuitous.
So, you get into the White House via the route you just described. What are the particular challenges, first of all, of writing speeches for a President of the United States on foreign policy?
One of the first challenges was the transition from having the last bit of unalienated labor in the world -- being a foreign correspondent -- to becoming a cog in the enormous machinery of the White House. It was a terrible, terrible bit of culture shock. Writing speeches is a very different sort of thing from writing journalism. When you write journalism it's almost desirable to have every sentence different and to try to use fairly complex structures that carry your reader along. When you're writing a speech for a president the language needs to be a lot simpler, a lot more direct, and you also have to inhabit the voice of the president.
That's the challenge at the beginning, to master the way that individual speaks. That was something of a challenge, but I thought Clinton was a terrific orator, and so I enjoyed the challenge.
This movement to the National Security staff from being a speech writer, how did that come about? Was it the skills and knowledge that you had that made you useful in this other realm?
I was on the National Security Council staff my entire time in government. The first three years as speech writer, Tony Lake had created a cell of foreign policy speech writers who did only foreign policy, because he felt that in his previous experience in the Carter administration that when the general pool of speech writers did foreign policy they tended to muck things up. So, I had close working relationships with everyone at the NSC because at some point or another, pretty much everyone had a speech on their subject. I got to know Dick Clarke and I became very friendly with Steve Simon who was his principle deputy working on counterterrorism.
Most speech writers last about eighteen months in the White House and I'd been doing it for over three years. It was a classic Washington paradox where you don't have time to find a job, so I was lucky to get one inside. I think Clarke valued people who had varied backgrounds. If I had any skills that helped him, it was that I knew how the White House worked. He was prepared to teach me the rest or let me learn on the job, and so I was very, very lucky in that regard.
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