Corbett taps Bush speechwriter for budget address

Gov. Corbett faces a number of challenges as he seeks reelection against a crowded field of Democrats competing for their party's nomination.
Gov. Corbett faces a number of challenges as he seeks reelection against a crowded field of Democrats competing for their party's nomination. (AP, File)
Posted: February 01, 2014

HARRISBURG - Facing what political observers say could be a key moment in his reelection bid, Gov. Corbett has hired the man who crafted some of President George W. Bush's most memorable remarks to help write the budget address he will deliver Tuesday.

Despite a stable of speechwriters in the Governor's Office, Corbett's campaign will pay John P. McConnell to fine-tune the presentation, the closest thing in Pennsylvania politics to a State of the Union address.

The governor's campaign confirmed Thursday that it would pick up the tab but declined to say how much it would pay McConnell, author or coauthor of Bush's 2005 inaugural speech, four State of the Union addresses, and other public statements.

The decision underscores how critical it is for Corbett, who is running for reelection this year, to begin chipping away at the negative image poll after poll has shown voters have of him. A Franklin and Marshall College survey released Thursday found only one in four voters believed the Republican governor had done a good-enough job to deserve reelection.

Several people in the governor's inner circle, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said there was a feeling that Corbett cannot take any chances or risk any more political stumbles between now and the election.

For Corbett, public speaking does not come naturally, even his closest advisers concede. That has put him at a disadvantage as he has faced unrelenting opposition, ranging from Democratic legislators to advocates for children, excoriating him for slashing funding for public schools in his first year in office, and leaving districts with little choice but to sharply reduce school staff and programs.

Adding to the pressure is the steady drumbeat of criticism from a crowded field of Democrats seeking their party's nomination to challenge the governor.

Tuesday's budget presentation, televised and delivered to the full legislature, will offer Corbett a chance to tell his side of the story, without interruption, of his policies and priorities over the last three years. It also will give him the floor to offer a narrative of what his second term could look like.

"It sets the direction for the state for the year," Corbett campaign manager Michael Barley said. "It's important that he deliver that message in an impactful way."

McConnell, a Washington writer who also produced speeches for Vice President Dick Cheney, is experienced and savvy, the insiders said.

Political analysts said it was not uncommon for elected officials, even at the state level, to turn to an outsider for help in crafting a message, but the public rarely hears about it.

Corbett has staffers whose job involves writing his talking points and speeches. Those aides also worked on a draft of the budget speech, and that draft has been passed to McConnell to fine-tune, Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said Thursday.

McConnell could not be reached for comment.

As a senior speechwriter for Bush and Cheney, he was coauthor with Michael Gerson of Bush's second inaugural address in 2005, in which the president declared the United States' mission was to grow democratic movements around the world to fight tyranny.

After the 9/11 attacks, Bush was criticized for initial remarks that were halting and not artful, including a description of the fight against terrorism as a "crusade," an offensive term in the Muslim world.

But three days later, McConnell and the rest of Bush's speechwriting team came up with a widely praised statement of resolve amid grief that the president delivered during a prayer service at the National Cathedral. McConnell is also credited with one of the memorable phrases of Bush's speech to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, in which the president said the Taliban's ideology was headed for "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

The Corbett administration has been tight-lipped about its forthcoming budget, but a few things are known. The Inquirer has reported that Corbett is expected to propose a significant increase - several hundred million more - in basic education funding for public schools.

The governor has also spent the last week traveling across the state to announce good budget news. On Wednesday, he was in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, saying he would ask the legislature for $22.4 million more for programs that serve the intellectually disabled.

On Thursday, he stopped in the Harrisburg suburbs to announce an additional $10 million, for a total of $97 million, to help an additional 1,670 children from middle- and lower-income families attend prekindergarten programs that meet standards for certified teachers and curriculum design.



Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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