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Writer Helps Politicians Beef Up Images With a Few Choice Words

September 13, 1987|DONNIE RADCLIFFE | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — He has put his best lines into other people's mouths. You may remember some of them:

"I'd never wear a crown. It messes up your hair."-- Nancy Reagan at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner in October, 1981.

"It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?"-- Ronald Reagan at the Gridiron Dinner, March, 1987.

"I wasn't quite sure what to talk about today. I considered telling you about George's recent conversation with the President, when the President poured out his secret, innermost thoughts on Iran, but then I thought, 'Oh, you wouldn't be interested.' "-- Barbara Bush at the Saints and Sinners Roast, December, 1986.

By all accounts, Landon Parvin is Nancy Reagan's favorite speech writer, and one of the President's favorites as well. Parvin has succeeded more than once in turning a troublesome situation to the Reagans' advantage through his skilled interpretations of their feelings, beliefs and what he calls "their voice."

Shows Self-Confidence

The Reagans also like Parvin's light touch. The trick to it, Parvin says, is "taking strange things and juxtaposing them with stranger ones." He believes that, since public perceptions cannot be denied, playing to them shows that the speaker doesn't lack self-confidence.

The result, in Washington at least, can be "personality rehabilitation," said fellow wordsmith Mark Shields, another Parvin admirer who collaborated with him on at least one occasion--the ghost-writing of Donald T. Regan's lines for the 1986 Gridiron Dinner.

Shields gives Parvin the credit for most of Regan's gags that night. One he cites as among Parvin's best was:

"You can tell a lot about people by the papers they read. The people who read the New York Times know they run the country. The people who read the Washington Post think they run the country. The people who read the Washington Times think the Washington Post runs the country. The people who read the Wall Street Journal think the people who own the country think they damn well run it. The people who read USA Today don't care who runs the country, just as long as the weather map is in color."

Because humor always stands out in Washington, Parvin sees lack of it as "almost a character issue--the public expects political leaders to have it." He is modestly aware that his way with gag lines has earned him the respect, if not envy, of anyone who ever dreamed of leaving 'em laughing, but he sometimes worries that they overshadow his serious lines, which he says make up 95% of what he writes.

The President's speech to the American Foundation for AIDS Research at a fund-raising dinner here was an example of that.

"Clearly, Landon is not just a writer of jokes. He's been selected to write the AIDS speech, which requires a sensitivity on several different levels--political but also moral, religious and personal, for victims and their families," said Dana Rohrabacher, a White House speech writer.

Though the White House has five full-time speechwriters, the Reagans frequently bypass them and hireParvin for special, high-profile occasions. He free-lances out of his northwest Washington home and also writes for Vice President George Bush and a number of other politicos and corporate chairmen.

"There's no problem at all having Landon write the speech," said Rohrabacher. "He's well-liked by everybody here. He worked here for 2 1/2 years, and he's no less a member of the team even now."

Parvin seems as uninflated by his success and by his access to famous clients as he is about what he writes for them.

"He's not the type to ask, 'Am I writing a great line? Will they call in the stonecutters tomorrow?' " said Gordon Stewart, a former speech writer for the Carter White House who is now vice president of public affairs for the American Stock Exchange. "Landon does not have an enormous personal ego that longs to write something so vivid and powerful that people ask the next day, 'Who wrote that line?' "

In fact, the speech-writing field is so mined with showoffs that Parvin's unflamboyant manner has set him apart as almost quaint.

Said Stewart, who knew Parvin before he ever went to work as a White House speech writer early in Reagan's first term: "Landon is not like the rest of us--he is not megalomanic. Most of us like the surrogate exercise of power but he does not have his own secret agenda for the world."

Parvin would be the last person in the world to deny that.

"Basically what I want from (people) is what they believe," he said. "I don't force my own opinions. I'm not an ideologue. . . . I could write something I disagreed with, but I couldn't write something I knew to be a lie."

For instance, when he and Reagan first talked about the nationally televised speech the President would make about the Tower Commission findings on the Iran- contra arms scandal, Parvin said he didn't have "a scintilla of doubt" about the character or honesty of Ronald Reagan.

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