Christopher Michel – President Bush Memoirs Collaborator and Speechwriter, Dublin High School and Yale Alumni
How many people can put the following on their resume by the age of 26: Deputy Director of Speechwriting to the President of the United States and memoirs collaborator, Air Force One frequent flier, Yale University (Class of 2003) summa cum laude graduate and Dublin High School (Class of 1999) alumni?
OneDublin.org had the privilege to talk with Dublin native Christopher Michel who in addition to collaborating on President George W. Bush’s memoirs (“Decision Points” – available Nov. 9), was editor-in-chief of The Yale Daily News during his undergraduate years at Yale University (where he is continuing his studies at the Yale Law School).
From Dublin High School to Yale University
[OneDublin.org] Tell me about your time in Dublin, the schools you attended and your family.
[Christopher Michel] I was born and grew up in Dublin. I started out going to Nielson Elementary, then Wells for middle school and Dublin High. My parents are still in Dublin and have lived there for almost 30 years. My younger sister also went to Dublin schools. We have close ties to the city, and it was a great, great place to grow up.
[OD] Where did your sister end up going to college?
[Michel] She went to Marquette University in Milwaukee, and then got her Master’s degree and teaching credentials from UC Santa Barbara, and is now a teacher at Harvest Park Middle School in Pleasanton. I’m very proud of her. I think it’s great that she’s teaching seventh grade, which is one of the toughest grades to teach. It’s the age level that she prefers and the kids are lucky to have her.
[OD] What was your experience at Dublin High? How did you create the portfolio that got you into Yale?
[Michel] Well, the truth is I didn’t set out to create a portfolio to get me into Yale. It just happened by following my interests. I was involved in a lot of activities and probably the most important thing I did was to play on the golf team, which I did my freshman year. I was the 13th guy on a 12-man team.
The coach turned out to be a real mentor for me and took a chance on me that first year, and I was able to improve my game a lot and I ended up playing for all four years. The guys I met on the golf team were people that I probably wouldn’t have come across in my classes or other places and are still my closest friends. Golf was a really valuable experience for me because it showed me I can do something that was hard for me and I can improve – the value of practice and working hard.
One of the most important activities for me were speaking competitions held by the Lions Club and the Rotary Club. And that was really my introduction to speeches as its own kind of writing form and art form. Little did I know that I would ever end up writing speeches for the president. That was way beyond anything I ever imagined but in retrospect it was a pretty important class.
I did mock trial which was a really fulfilling experience for me. You get to meet some interesting people and that was my introduction to law: looking at a case from different angles and trying to make the best argument for a side whether or not I agree with it. Little did we know [classmate] Eric Swalwell would end up an Alameda County prosecutor ten years later, so it’s funny how these things ended up setting our paths.
In senior year I was in student government as vice president – my first very low level experience in politics, campaign for the job and serve the class. It was a useful experience. I learned that leadership can be tough, that you can’t please everybody all the time.
I think I learned as much from my experiences with extracurricular activities as I did in the classroom.
Landing a Job in the White House
[OD] You’ve had the opportunity to interact with President Bush as speechwriter that few have experienced. How did that come about? What were your responsibilities and what have you learned through that experience that you’re going to take with you in your career going forward?
[Michel] I was editor of my college newspaper [The Yale Daily News], where I developed my interest in writing. I’d always been interested in politics so speechwriting was a great intersection of writing and politics. One lesson that I could offer everybody is for young people to try to find mentors in life. I have been very fortunate to have a lot of good mentors. [article from The Yale Daily News authored by Christopher Michel]
And one of them was the guy who was Editor in Chief of The Yale Daily News forty years earlier than I was, and he was on the alumni board. He knew some people in the White House, and I had expressed an interest in – it was really along the lines of, wouldn’t it be neat to work in – the White House and to write speeches in some way. And it was more just a pipe dream kind of off-the-wall thing for me to say.
He said, “Well I’d be happy to connect you with somebody down there.” And [the White House] said, “Well, we don’t give jobs to people right out of college, but you can apply for an unpaid internship if you want.” And I said, “Okay.” And this was my senior year of college.
I had a couple of job offers, paying, real job offers in other fields. But none of them had appealed to me as much as the unpaid internship opportunity. I decided to take a chance on it even though I’d miss forgoing paid jobs in other fields. I just thought the White House is the kind of thing that it’s such a great opportunity that you can’t say no to it.
One of the pieces of advice my dad always gave me was make the most of your opportunities in life, and I had that in mind when I was making that decision. So I did it and went down there June of 2003 just eight days after graduation. I had been planning to drive across the country with all my friends, but all that was off to go do the internship. But it was worth it. In fact, the first person or almost the first person I met on the job was a colleague in the speechwriting office who I ended up marrying a few years later so for that reason alone, it was a valuable experience.
Speechwriting for the President – from Turkey Pardons to the State of the Union
[Michel] At the end of the summer, they hired me to be a researcher at the speechwriting office. I did a lot of background work, research and phone calls and interviews and things like that for speeches. And eventually, they said, “Hey, would you like to try your hand at writing a speech?” And I said, “Well, sure.” And so I did. I started with the most basic possible speeches – the Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon – stuff like that. And over time, they started letting me write bigger and bigger things, and I got promoted from researcher to speechwriter. That was in 2004, and then I ended up staying the rest of the administration.
So it was really a lot of good luck. I was in the right place at the right time and got the opportunity, which was really the key, and then obviously, I followed my dad’s advice and made the most of it there.
The President was very involved in speeches, particularly the big speeches. The general process was each week he would meet with a couple of speechwriters. And in the second term, I was able to go to those meetings, and he would go over the speeches for the week would give us some guidance for each one of them. The smaller speeches it would be less guidance. The bigger speeches he’d get into more depth and sometimes we’d bring him an outline or have something prepared to talk to him about.
Usually, there would be one speechwriter assigned to take the lead on each speech, and would write a first draft. We’d collaborate with the researchers and experts around the White House. If it was a foreign policy speech, we would talk to the National Security Advisor. If it was an economic speech, we’d talk to the economic team. We’d produce a draft and then I would sit down with the others, a couple of other speechwriters, and edit it together. We really did everything collaboratively, which was a good experience and helped round out the rough edges of the speech.
Then the speech would be sent to all the senior staff of the White House for comments and this is where you have to have a thick skin because everybody is making changes. We would incorporate all of that.
The big speeches, the State of the Union, prime time speeches to the country on the war and things like that, [President Bush] would probably edit six to eight, ten, 12 drafts of those speeches, so we would try and get them to him a week or two ahead of time. Every day, he would go at it and refine it a little more and ask for new information and try out new lines until he got it to the place where he was comfortable with it. And then, of course he would go deliver it, but he was deeply involved in the big speeches and really taught me a lot about writing and how to think and express yourself clearly.
He’s a very logical thinker and a logical speaker. He doesn’t like long ponderous sentences. He doesn’t like repetition in his speeches. I learned a lot of discipline going in there and having him edit his speeches until he got them where he liked them.
[OD] What about the speechwriting process surprised you once you got on the inside based on what your assumptions were looking at it from the outside? What was different than what you expected?
[Michel] Well, I have to confess I feel guilty saying this, I was probably one of the people who thought the President himself is not all that involved with the speeches, and I don’t just mean President Bush. I think I probably thought any President has speechwriters who do this for him and they just read whatever the speechwriter writes. And maybe that’s true of other presidents, I don’t really know, but I learned very quickly that’s not true of President Bush, that he knows what he wants to say and he will keep working at it until he has it the way he likes it.
And that, for me, was really reassuring. I had always been slightly anxious about this idea that there are these speechwriters that nobody knows, that nobody elected writing what the President of the United States says. And it was comforting to me to see that, no, it actually is the President himself who’s crafting [speeches] and who’s making decisions about what he tells the country.
I guess that was the most surprising thing. Every word – every word is scrutinized. It’s amazing to see something that you’re working on in your office and talking about with two or three people on the front page of the newspaper or being criticized or praised. We liked it better when it was praise instead of criticism, but we got plenty of both. On the blog or on the news, that’s a weird feeling at first. I’d think, “I can’t believe this is something I was working on yesterday and now it’s on the evening news.”
But you get used to it over time and that’s one of the thrills of the job is the immediate turnaround on your work. You could be doing something one day and see it have an impact the next day. It was always fun to see one of the speeches impact people in a personal way. That was always very rewarding.
Some of my favorite speeches to work on were when the President awarded Medals of Honor to people, military heroes. I wrote one for a guy who won a Medal of Honor for Vietnam but it wasn’t presented to him until 2006, because he had refused the medal until his wingman (he was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam) was considered for it. Working with him was really rewarding. I interviewed him, and it was great to see his whole family in the White House. You could tell that winning the medal and the President’s words meant a lot to – meant a lot to the guy and his family. Bruce Crandall was his name. He was one of the inspirations for the movie “We Were Soldiers” about ten years ago. He saved people’s lives and people are around because of this guy. And to be able to take part in that story in a very small way was a really neat experience for me. [President Bush's speech recognizing Major Bruce P. Crandall]
Flying on Air Force One
[OD] That is a terrific story. I want to switch gears now and talk about a subject I’m sure Dublin students will be fascinated by – what was it like to fly on Air Force One for the first time?
[Michel] That was a real thrill. My first trip on Air Force One was in 2005, and we went to Columbus, Ohio where the President was giving a speech that I had written.
It was such a thrill. I had never imagined that I would do anything like that. You get to the plane ahead of the President. The staff rides over in a van from the White House, and you board the plane ahead of him. And it really is nothing like a normal airplane. It’s more like a flying office with computers and conference tables and everyone has two phones, a regular phone and then a secure phone if you need to make a classified phone call. And you never have to wait. You never miss a flight. You never lose your baggage. It’s a great experience, especially going on overseas flights.
I had the privilege later in the administration to take a lot of overseas trips. I went with the President to Africa for five days, which was cool. I went to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Israel. We went to the Olympics in China, so we saw some great places.
And the plane was a great place to work, too. The President had his own office up front and he would often use those long, international flights to work on speeches. He would call me or the other speechwriter, whoever was on the plane up there, and we would go over his speech that he was going to deliver when we landed in whatever country we were going to. Things were always more relaxed on the plane. It was fun to work up there because there weren’t as many phone calls or weren’t as many people coming in and out, so there was more time to just concentrate and work on the speeches, which was always fun. Plus, the food was great, the best airplane food you’ll ever have.
[OD] I did a lot of international travel earlier in my career, 150,000 miles a year, and I would have much preferred to have been on Air Force One. You mentioned earlier about how involved the President is in speechwriting. What else have you learned about the Executive Branch of government during your time in the White House?
[Michel] I probably started out in government somewhat skeptical of it, I think. And I learned there are really a lot of good people in government. There are a lot of people who are there trying to do the best thing for the country, that’s true whoever the president is, whether you agree with the administration or not. Of course, I did agree with the administration, so that made it a lot better.
But I think one of the things President Bush showed is that when the government sets clear priorities there’s a lot you can accomplish. His presidency was pretty unique in that he started out expecting to mostly be a domestic policy president, but then, of course, history had something else in store for him. And 9/11 happened and the war became the defining element of his presidency. I learned you have to prepare for the unexpected and to elect someone you can trust.
The other thing I learned is that sometimes there are things beyond the reach of government. And as powerful as the President is and the US government is, there are things that are beyond his control, things like hurricanes. Every problem in the world seems to come to the President’s desk and people seem to expect him, whoever it is, to be able to solve it. And one of the frustrations, I think, is that even in the United States, even in the Oval Office, there’s only so much you can do. And that’s something that I don’t think I fully appreciated until I saw it – until I saw it up close.
Collaborating on President Bush’s Memoirs “Decision Points”
[OD] You’re working with President Bush on his memoirs (“Decision Points”). Talk a little bit about your role and describe a day at the office in that process.
[Michel] Sure. At the end of the administration, the President asked if I would be willing to come down to Dallas and help him with a book, and it didn’t take me long come up with an answer. I was just thrilled and deeply honored by the chance to do that. I knew the President would be disciplined and would spend a lot of time working on it. I don’t think I fully expected that he would start writing it on January 21st, the day after he left office, which he did and started emailing me. I was still moving out to Texas.
Emily, my wife, and I had loaded up our Penske truck and we’re driving west. And along the way, I was getting emails from him with the first couple of passages of the book, which was really neat and showed how seriously and how engaged he was going to be in this project. And it’s been like that all the way through.
So a typical day at the office can vary as we’ve been in different stages of the book. For the first year or so we took it one chapter at a time. We’d start each chapter and talk through an outline. He would write passages of it. I was doing research. I would ask him questions. And once we got stuff on paper – just like speeches – we’d be constantly refining it until we got to the point where he was happy with it, and then, we would repeat the process for the next chapter.
After we got that done, we sent it all to our editor at Crown Publishing, the publisher of the book, and had a couple of sessions with him going through it word-for-word, line-by-line, and that’s pretty much where we are now. We’re probably on our third or fourth go through for the whole book, and we’re getting there. By the end of the summer, it’ll be pretty much done, and then, it’ll hit the shelves in November.
[OD] How should I refer to your role in President Bush’s memoirs. I see the term “ghost writer” used in other articles – but I’ve never really liked that term.
[Michel] Yeah. It’s not accurate. I think the term should be collaborator. That’s the industry term. Although, I think just describing me as helping with President Bush’s memoirs is probably the most accurate and simplest way to put it.
And I’m still writing speeches for President Bush – he does speak a lot in the country and around the world, and we’ve gone on five or six international trips in the post presidency period, so speechwriter is still an accurate title for me, too.
Back to Yale for Law School
[OD] You’ve decided to return to Yale for law school. It seems like you really enjoy being a speechwriter – what made you decide to return to school? And where do you see that taking you after you graduate?
[Michel] I always planned to go to law school. I started studying for the LSAT in my senior year of college. It became a running a joke among my friends, many of whom went to law school and graduated law school and went to work at law firms and are now in their third or fourth year there, it became a running joke that I was never actually going to go. But this is the way I saw it. I had such a great opportunity with the President and law school was always going be there. I felt like I had to seize it while I could.
So really, [returning to school] was just fulfilling something I’d wanted to do for a long time. The time in government did, I think, deepen my interest in the law. One of the things I saw in the Executive Branch is that to do basically anything in government requires some knowledge of the law from change of policy to diplomacy. To do pretty much anything you have to understand – you don’t necessarily have to be a lawyer – but you have to at least have a working knowledge of the law.
I was really impressed with some of the most senior people in the Bush administration, people who I respected a lot and who I continue to work with a lot, like Steve Hadley, the President’s National Security Advisor, and Josh Bolten, his Chief of Staff, were lawyers but not practicing law. They had practiced at some point in their career, but their legal skills really made them more effective at their jobs and I think helped them understand the government better.
And part of my experience has been don’t plan things out too far in the future. If you would have asked me ten years ago where I would be now, I would have given you an answer that was wildly off. So keep your eyes open for opportunities along the way, but don’t get too set in your plans.
Advice to Dublin High Students
[OD] What advice do you have for Dublin High students that are reading this article on how they can get the most out of their high school education?
[Michel] I think one of the things that’s important in life is to have the right balance between confidence and humility. I hope that Dublin students will have the confidence to know that it’s possible for them to do big things, whether it’s going to an Ivy League college or achieving something huge in sports or whatever their dream happens to be.
I was a very normal kid. I went along like everybody else did. And the lesson there is that Dublin High really will prepare you so set your sights high. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t be afraid to try for big things. The truth is I was ignorant enough that I didn’t know better.
Had I really studied the process, I might not have ever applied to Harvard and Yale and Stanford and places like that because I probably would have concluded that I didn’t have much chance to get in. But I was kind of clueless enough to just go for it, and I hope everybody would take a gamble like that because it – obviously for me, it really paid off. So don’t limit yourself.
On the other hand, I think humility is important. When I went to Yale I knew I was not the smartest kid in the class. I knew I was probably the fourth smartest kid in my four-man dorm room, but I concluded early on that I could be the hardest working person in the dorm room. And I could make up for what I lacked by working hard and by learning from other people and by asking for help and advice.
And as I said earlier, try to find these people along your path, mentors who will help guide you and will give you advice when you need it. Both of my parents made huge sacrifices for me throughout my life and inspired in me a love of learning and a love of history and things that have guided the rest of my life. And President Bush has also been a mentor to me in tremendous ways. So look out for those people and seek them out. And don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.
[OD] I think that that’s a great message that’s going to be very inspiring for the student that’s on the fence of whether they’re good enough.
[Michel] An important moment for me came early in my senior year. I somewhat audaciously decided I was going to apply to these schools. And I went to the counselor at Dublin High and said, “Look. Here’s where I want to apply.” And were I in his shoes, I might have laughed myself out of the room, but he took me seriously. And he said, “Look.” He said, “I think you can do this, but you have to go back and take the SAT again. You have to do better.” I was in my senior year and retaking the SAT was very low on the list of things I wanted to do, but I said, “All right. If you think I should do it, I’ll do it.”
And I went back and I did it again, and I scored a few points higher, and it very well may have made the difference. Who knows? But just like I was the 13th man on a 12-man golf team, I know I was not one of the first people admitted to Yale. I’m sure I was near the end on the bubble, so those few extra points probably made a real difference.
I was fortunate to have great teachers at Dublin High. I think they taught me not only the basics, but they taught me how to think and how to learn, and they fostered a real sense of independence and confidence that helped me a lot in college.
When I went to college, there were people who had taken more AP classes. There were people who had been to these big time east coast boarding schools that sent 20 students to Yale and Harvard and stuff like that. They had read all the classics and stuff, and I hadn’t done that. And it was intimidating.
I remember thinking, ‘man, I’m in over my head’. But I discovered that what I had learned at Dublin High was how to think and how to learn and how to make the most of those kind of situations. And I was able to succeed, and I ended up graduating at the top of my class and got the award for the highest grades in the school. And that was great, and I would never have expected that.
But obviously, whatever they did at Dublin High worked and there were a couple of teachers in particular that stand out in my mind. I had a teacher – the history teacher, who taught US History junior year and was a fascinating, passionate, kind of spunky person who brought these things to life, brought history to life and I think inspired in me a real love of history that led me to be a history major at Yale and continued to help me when I ended up working for a guy who was making history.
There were many others. My English teacher started my love of writing with the speech and debate class. And AP Physics – the toughest class I’d ever taken – taught me a lot about hard work and about grinding your way through a tough subject, and physics was not my subject, but I managed to get through it. That was a worthwhile experience.
So I do think it’s important – and this is a good parting thought. I was thrilled to read on your website and in the paper over the years how well Dublin students have done, but I hope that Dublin High will view this time of success as a time to push itself to do even better.
And there were times when the attitude on the campus was kind of like we’ll help students do whatever they want to do, which is fine. But I hope the attitude might be we’ll push students to do even a little more than they think they can do, that we’ll try to raise their sights a little bit. And that’s, of course, what my guidance counselor helped me do, and I hope that will be the guiding principle for the school going forward because we can always do better. Nobody should ever be satisfied with what we have. We should be proud of it, but that should be our motivation to push harder.
[UPDATE] In the Acknowledgements section of Decision Points George W. Bush wrote: “When I considered writing this book I knew the task would be a challenge. I did not realize how enjoyable it would be. The main reason is that I worked with Chris Michel. At the end of the administration Chris was my chief speechwriter. He knew how I talked and saw much of the history we made. His broad range of talents, from research to editing, has made the book project move smoothly. His upbeat personality was a constant joy. I will miss him as he heads off to Yale Law School.”