Professor Cary, thank you very much for this interview. For a start, please introduce yourself to our readers.
A little bit of my background: I am a Class of 1985 graduate of the University of Virginia as a Foreign Affairs major. Back then, I was involved with the previous alternative to the Cavalier Daily, the University Journal. It was the conservative voice on Grounds and a great success. We liked to state that it was an underground paper because it was not funded by the university.
But anyway, after graduation, my first job out of college was answering phone calls on Capitol Hill for a Congressman out of New York. Then, I saw an ad in the papers and got a job answering phones at the ABC News Washington bureau. I did that for a year. Then, one of my colleagues from the University Journal said that he heard of a startup for a political news service that was looking for writers. Back then, there was no such thing as a political news service. This was before Politico or Axios, or any of those; so, it was very innovative. They had a Republican and a Democrat managing editor, and we covered the 1988 presidential campaigns through the primaries. I covered the overnight shift from midnight to noon.
By the end of the primaries, I said, I can’t work that shift anymore. I needed a day job. So, I called one of my friends on the Bush campaign and asked: “Hey, do you know of any day jobs? I just can’t do this overnight thing anymore…” He proposed working on the campaign. But I thought all people on campaigns were volunteers, so I said: “Sorry, but I’ve got to make money.” But he said: “Don’t worry, we pay.” And I was like: “Oh, you guys pay?!” He told me to come in and talk to his boss that afternoon. The boss actually remembered me from a dinner party six months earlier where we sat next to each other. He just said: “I remember you. You’re just the person we’re looking for. When can you start?” I was amazed: no interview, a day job that pays. The only problem was that George Bush was losing in the campaign by seventeen points. But I thought everybody needs to be on a losing campaign once— it’s good for your character.
Well, of course, he won the election, and my boss asked if I wanted to come to the White House. My job on the campaign was as a senior writer for communications. I was writing sound bites, factoids, and anecdotes that could be used on television. Then they had me ghostwriting magazine articles for George Bush. After about six months, my boss came to me and asked if I wanted to start writing speeches. I became the only woman—definitely the youngest—on the speechwriting team. Most of my colleagues were older gentlemen who came in from various Senators’ or Governors’ offices. All of them were very experienced speechwriters. I had to learn to swim quickly. But in hindsight, I realized how this string of jobs, starting with writing columns in the college newspapers, had led me on this career path.
At the student newspaper, I learned the basics and to work with deadlines. When I started writing at the news service, I had to distill a tremendous amount of information into a single paragraph. At the campaign, I was writing catchy sound bites. When I was writing the magazine articles, I was writing in somebody else’s voice. If you take this list of skills, you get what a speechwriter does. It is fact-based, persuasive writing that is catchy; in someone else’s voice; distills a tremendous amount of information; and is delivered on a deadline. With all my past experience, I found speechwriting very easy. I believe that everybody can write speeches. I was at the White House for three years. After that, I freelanced as a speechwriter for twenty-five years. I wrote for all kinds of fascinating people. It’s a great way to make a living because you meet all kinds of people and learn about many different subjects. Every speech is a new challenge. It always keeps you curious. It’s a career I would highly recommend to undergrads.
That’s a really fascinating story, especially considering how quick it all went. You just got out of college and then started writing for a future president!
It was amazing how fast it all went. When I was at the White House, I was just 24. It was not what I expected to be doing in my life. But, boy, did I love it.
The Bush presidency fell into an exciting time— not only in American history but for the whole world. There was the Gulf War and, of course, the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War. With all these events in mind, what was important to you when writing speeches for the President? What message did you want to convey?
Part of President Bush’s success as a leader was his humility. He could pass a remarkable list of legislation domestically— even though the House and the Senate were controlled by the Democrats. But he had a great way of reaching across the aisle. For instance, he got the Americans With Disabilities Act through, which was very controversial at the time. Now, everybody takes it for granted, but back then, it was an uphill fight. He also made amendments to the Clean Air Act; there was the 1990 Civil Rights Bill and all kinds of stuff he got both sides to agree on.
A large part of bipartisanship is humility. You don’t say it’s my way or the highway. But you see that the other side has something valuable and that you’ve got to give and take. His consensus-building ability and humility put together an unprecedented coalition in the first Gulf War. Look at how many nations stood with us. Something like that hasn’t really been done ever since.
Another thing regarding the end of the Cold War: He was very thoughtful in how he reacted to thing, not to provoke the hardliners in the Soviet Union to crack down. It could have been a very bloody end to the Cold War. But I think President Bush’s humility and discretion not to shout from the rooftops that we have won was the reason why we saw the end of an empire without a single shot being fired. I think that mindset came across in many of his speeches. For example, he would circle the word ‘I’ when we used it too often. He believed that in a democracy, a president should always speak of a ‘we.’ His mother taught him that as a child. “You shouldn’t use the word ‘I’ too much because of the great ‘I Am’ in the Bible. Don’t be the great ‘I Am,’ George,” she would tell him. His humility and loyalty were why he was so successful as a president. He used to say that loyalty goes down as well as up. That came through in his speeches a lot. He was careful to treat everybody with a lot of respect and dignity, whether it was the head of the Soviet Union or the butlers at the White House. It was fascinating to see a leader like that. I think that by the end of his life, he finally got a lot of credit for what he did. Obviously, it didn’t feel too good when we lost the election in ‘92. But, I think by the end of his life, many people have realized what a tremendous president he was.
What would you say is the legacy of the Bush administration?
I think he is now seen as the most successful one-term president in American history. Just look at the fact that he navigated the end of the Cold War and the first conflict afterward, the first Persian Gulf War. Nobody seems to remember that the Soviets were on the same side as us in the Gulf War. That was huge. This will go down in history as a pivotal moment.
Following your time in Washington, you became a college professor. Why did you decide to get into higher education?
That’s an interesting question. I was already very active at UVA as a member of the College Foundation board. With a group of other people, I started the alumni board of the Politics department. I started spending more and more time here and have always enjoyed UVA. I lived on the Lawn, and these were some of the happiest times of my life. Once I got to know some of the people in the administration and the other profs, I realized how much fun it would be to be a practitioner adjunct.
The first thing that happened was that the Miller Center asked if I wanted to be a Senior Fellow when they first started the program in 2016. We’re a bipartisan group organizing panel discussions and policy debates. It was great fun. At one point, the dean and I were talking, and he asked me if I ever considered teaching speechwriting. I had never thought about that. He told me I’d have a great time, so I took him up on it and started giving my first class on political speechwriting. My second class was called “Democracy Out Loud.” I taught it for two semesters.
But then Covid hit, and the university put all adjuncts on hold. I didn’t think I was going to teach that fall, when UVA approached me asking if I wanted to co-teach a class on the upcoming 2020 election. I agreed immediately. Jennifer Lawless, the chair of the Policy department, and I taught it together. She ran for Congress in Rhode Island a few years ago as a Democrat; I have, obviously, worked on a presidential campaign for the Republicans. But we decided to teach this class as Democrat and Republican side by side. We loved it; it was great fun. UVA agreed to keep that format, and I have already agreed to do that for the “Election 2024” class two years from now. Before that, Jennifer and I will co-teach a course in the spring of 2023. It will be called “50 Things You Need to Know About American Politics.” She has a book coming out soon that will be the textbook for this class. Again, we’ll teach politics from both sides of the aisle. I will give the Republican perspective on things you need to know about American politics. Also, I’m teaching “Democracy Out Loud” this semester and taught “Political Speechwriting” last semester. The students have been terrific. From what I can tell, most of them enjoy speechwriting. This course has been an absolute pleasure to teach because I’m learning right along with them.
I find it interesting that you are teaching this class together with your colleague who is a Democrat. That seems to be a pretty new concept in academia. How did your other colleagues react to it?
We were the only class about the 2020 election in the entire United States taught by a Democrat and a Republican. We were even contacted by USA Today, who asked us to write an op-ed about our experiences. At the end of the semester, we did some interesting polling of the students. Nine out of ten students—and we had over two hundred—said they wanted more classes co-taught at UVA. I think it makes UVA unique that we are doing this. It’s crazy that not more schools are doing this, but we’re honored to be the only ones.
It is refreshing to see some diversity of ideas. From my experience, some professors tend to be rather dogmatic about their beliefs and try to impose their worldview onto the students. What lessons do you want your students to take from your classes?
I think co-teaching is the future, especially in politics classes. But it could also be done in economics, religious studies, sociology, et cetera. You could have many different perspectives co-taught— not just Republican and Democrat. I think it’s a great thing for the university to consider. Dean Baucom is supporting it, and Jenn and I will continue it. In classroom conversations, there is a lot of self-censoring— not just because the students fear that their teacher will give them a bad grade if they don’t toe the line, but there is also a social side to this where people fear they will not get a date anymore or nobody wants to sit at the lunch table with them.
The antidote to this, I would say, is more reasonable conversations. You don’t have to change people’s minds. But it is always a good thing to ask questions. Ask people if they can defend the statement they just made. What’s their evidence? It doesn’t have to be as contentious as people think it might be. In my speechwriting class, I have noticed that there is this problem that if you’re discussing a policy with another person and they believe X, you believe Y, and you just can’t agree, they start to get into name-calling. Thus, we started beginning the conversation on common ground everyone shares. Mostly, this goes to the values that we believe in. For example, you can start by saying: “I believe in equality,” “I believe in liberty,” “I believe in free speech,” or whatever it is, then say that these are the ends that we all agree on. From there, say why your means are the best way to meet these ends. You can tell the other person why you think their means are wrong, but you should also be humble and admit when you are wrong. That, for me, is a productive conversation. You’ve got to be open to changing your own mind. If you can get the other person to agree on the ends first, you’re less likely to end up with a horrible name-calling situation.
One of the things that we are working on at UVA is a new center called Think Again. The idea behind this is to have events where people listen to opposing arguments and get to reconsider their position. Maybe they change their minds, maybe they don’t. But there is much more back and forth between different ideas. This might cause people to think again about their own beliefs. I see a lot of potential in that. I went to the Second-Year Dinner the other night. The interim Dean of Students spoke, and she talked about her favorite book, Think Again by Adam Grant. Of course, I went out and bought it. And, boy, is it good. The subheading is: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. It’s all about keeping an open mind, listening to other people, asking them questions, drawing them out, and how to eventually either reconsider your own positions or get other people to reconsider theirs. I would highly recommend this book. I think it would be very helpful for students who are careful not to say what they believe and afraid to defend their positions.
You touched on a crucial point: we live in a highly polarized society. We might have shared goals in reaching the common good. But the ways of getting there are so contested that we start to dehumanize our opponents. We especially saw this in the last presidential election. How did this reflect in your experience teaching this class in 2020? Was there a shift in the students’ mindset from the beginning to the end of the semester?
I can even give you some numbers. As I’ve mentioned, we had some polling at the end of the semester. One of the questions was: Did this course make you more partisan or less partisan? 43% said they were more partisan, but 56% said less partisan. 87% of students said they wanted more classes to be taught by a liberal and a conservative in the future. That’s almost nine out of ten. Here’s another good one: How many of you want to get involved in politics in the future? Here, 85% said yes. I think showing the students that reasonable people can have different opinions really worked. We had a tremendous number of guest speakers from both sides of the aisle, and they were all very conscious of modeling good behavior and not getting nasty.
Professor Lawless has taught this course every four years since the year 2000, but until 2020, she has taught it by herself. So, she had these lectures that she’s been giving forever with no alternate side. For example, one of her lectures early in the semester was about the electoral college. She argued that we should get rid of it. But I disagreed and asked to rebut. Jenn agreed, and I explained my point of view. From there, it became a thing throughout the semester. We called it “She Said/She Said.” We had a graphic that would pop up every time I wanted to rebut. From early on in the semester, I had the opportunity to provide an alternative viewpoint. Seeing that the two of us were able to do this—and we actually became better friends as the semester went on—helped the students not to become as tribal as they might have been otherwise.
Because there were so many students in this class, they told us they had to turn their cameras off. The only way for them to participate was through the chat box. So, it basically was like a social media feed. It would have been easy for them to pop off in the chat box where they don’t have to be face to face with each other in the classroom. At first, I was really concerned about that, and we had a few students who did that. But most of the time, the students were getting along and interacting with us and one another very positively. I think that shows in the numbers. Them getting less partisan, actually, is a good thing. Especially during an election year, it is important to keep the tone down a little bit.
Many conservatives on Grounds are afraid to speak up. What advice would you give them?
Many conservative students don’t realize that when you look at the polls, the majority of Americans are either moderate or conservative. I know it doesn’t feel that way on many college campuses, so I can see why conservatives may think we are outnumbered. But out in the rest of the country, we are not. That is one of the reasons why there should be more viewpoint diversity on our college campuses because that is how our world operates. The more we have that here, the better our graduates will be prepared for the world out there. The more we can advocate for viewpoint diversity, the stronger our democracy will be, the better our economy will be, the better our general welfare, the common good will be. That would be my word of encouragement to conservative students. Just because politics is the way it is right now, doesn’t mean it has to stay this way. It hasn’t always been like this in the past. We have the power to have more viewpoints and strengthen our country for the challenges it faces.
You obviously have a lot of insight into politics and have covered the 2020 election quite a bit. Now, I want to shift focus to the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election. Glenn Youngkin started with a classic GOP agenda focused on economics and lowering taxes. At first, he wasn’t doing well in the polls. Although, in the last quarter of the election, he shifted his focus to the topic of education. As somebody who is both a lecturer and has worked in Washington, would you agree that education is the issue that will help Republicans win upcoming elections?
There were many reasons why Youngkin was so successful in his campaign. First of all, in the primaries, he was the candidate most careful not to be too much associated with Trump. This was a smart move, because later in the campaign, when Terry McAuliffe tried to paint him as a radical Trump supporter, it didn’t really stick. Everybody who watched the early competition knew that that was wrong. Youngkin has embraced many parts of Trump’s agenda, as many Republicans have, but not necessarily Trump the person. Education came up as a topic with the incident in Loudoun County and the tragic things that happened there. At this point, Youngkin realized that more people identify as parents than as Republicans or Democrats. Opening up the debate and saying that it’s about all parents, Youngkin got a lot of people to cross over and support him. It was a politically wise thing to do, but it was also the right thing to do. His arguments were absolutely morally right. Youngkin gets asked this all of the time, but he is a very humble man. So, he doesn’t like to say that this was about him or that he is leading the way— that what he did is the future of the Republican party. He talks about it as a parents’ rights issue, a movement of families, of working-class Americans. The size of the government has just gotten too big, too expensive. It’s controlling too much of our lives. That rings true for a lot of people. Recently, I have read a lot about redefining the conservative cause as the cause of working-class people. I think that is really smart and the way forward. More and more, the Democrats have become associated with the liberal elites in our country. They’ve become all about controlling people’s lives. I don’t think that is a winning political strategy. The more conservatives can identify with working-class families who have common sense values, that’s the way forward.
So, if I understand you right, you propose Republicans take a grassroots approach in the upcoming midterm elections?
If you look at polling websites, the most important topics to Americans are the economy and inflation, the Covid measures, and rising crime rates. What you don’t see at the top level of interest are things like climate change, gun control, and race relations. Yet these are the things that the Democrats are focused on. My advice to the midterms is to stick to the economy, the end of Covid, and how we can get back to normal again.
Sounds good. Bringing the discussion back to the local level: what is your favorite thing about UVA?
That’s hard! There are so many good things. When I was an undergrad, I went to many football games. But I didn’t go to any of the men’s basketball games. Now, as an adult, I am a season pass holder. It’s so much fun; I think they are the best team. Tony Bennett is doing a great job. That has got to be one of my favorite things about living in Charlottesville: going to the basketball games at JPJ. Go Hoos! I wish I had done it as an undergrad. More undergrads should go to the games.
My final question: If you had one message to the UVA community, what would it be?
One of the greatest things about UVA is the concept of student self-government. Thomas Jefferson had the idea that an educated citizenry would be the way forward for our democracy. Having students in charge of so many institutions on Grounds—including the Honor System, which we all believe in and want to grow stronger—is great training for UVA graduates to go out and be the future leaders of our country. All the different student organizations do so much good: the volunteers at Madison House, the debate societies, even the a capella singers. It’s amazing. People get involved in so many different aspects of our university. That makes us very different from so many other schools in this country. This is what makes me so proud to be associated with UVA. I hope that the students realize how unique it is here and how much it prepares you for leadership for the rest of your life.
I know that you have a busy schedule. So, thank you very much for taking the time to speak to The Jefferson Independent. It was a pleasure!
Leave a Reply