For those who too often stare at a blank page waiting for the right words to come, White House aide John Gardner must seem blessed.
In 1986, when he was named speech writer for the administrator of the federal Health Care Financing Administration, he had two weeks to absorb issues in the unfamiliar field of health economics and write four speeches for physician audiences. He did it.
During the 1988 Bush Presidential campaign, he often had only 15 minutes to write concise “talking points” for the Presidential candidate on subjects as varied as the environment and crime. He never missed his deadline.
Gardner says his ability to write good, clear prose under that kind of pressure did not come naturally. He learned it from one of his high school English teachers, Paul Piazza.
“He taught me how to write,” says Gardner. “Some people can write quickly, some can write clearly, but I learned the combination from him. I developed the ability to go into an area cold and write well.”
Those skills have played an important part in his professional success, he says. “I could not have been a speech writer without the skills I gained from Dr. Piazza,” Gardner asserts. He says these skills also enabled him to write a 250-page graduate school thesis. And he thinks his writing ability gave him the visibility and opportunities that helped him land his current plum assignment: special assistant to President Bush. At age 27, he is the youngest person to hold the title.
Gardner reviews all paperwork destined for the Oval Office, everything from congratulatory letters for the President’s signature to policy statements. His job is to make sure that they are not in conflict with official Administration policy and to see that the views of all relevant officials have been considered. He flags potential problems for his immediate supervisor, the director of the White House Office of the Staff Secretary.
Both teacher and student say that repeated writing assignments helped Gardner grow as a writer. Gardner recalls Piazza often assigning in-class themes and reviewing students’ work carefully. “He took pains to point out where a student did well and where he did poorly,” the former student recalls. “He liked to see his students grasp what he was teaching.”
“I hope [students] come out of my class with respect for clear writing,” says Piazza, who teaches English and chairs the English department at St. Albans School for Boys, the private school in Washington, D.C., that Gardner attended. “I want them to be thoughtful writers, not fall into what Orwell called ‘prefabricated English.’ I don’t want them to be merely facile.” Piazza says there is no “secret formula” to teaching that kind of writing. “I try to give students some general principles and then have them write a great deal,” he says. “It’s like a tennis coach who can show you all the steps, but if he is a great coach, he lets you develop your own style.”
Sometimes trying someone else’s style can help students find their own, Piazza says. Gardner recalls the time that Piazza had students imitate the writing of humorist James Thurber. It was his first try at writing humor and it came in handy, he says, when those political speeches needed a little levity. Gardner expects his writing to be an important asset throughout his career. “It’s one of the most valuable skills I have,” he says.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as John Gardner, White House Aide