Staying on message

Don Baer wrote speeches for Bill Clinton and still advises Barack Obama. These days, however, the chairman and CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller has his eyes firmly fixed on the corporate world

Baer is worldwide chairman and CEO of global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller as well as chairman of research firm Penn Schoen Berland (PSB).

Baer is worldwide chairman and CEO of global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller as well as chairman of research firm Penn Schoen Berland (PSB).

It was 23 April 1994, the day after former US President Richard Nixon had died.

The serving president at the time, Bill Clinton, had delivered a tribute to his political opposite the evening prior while standing in the White House Rose Garden.

As a Democrat, there was debate over whether he would then also speak at a memorial service in California for the former Republican president, but Clinton insisted and so a new tribute was needed for the occasion.

With much of Nixon’s life already covered in the Rose Garden address, a new “line” was required in what was a delicate situation given Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal, and chief speech writer Don Baer went to work.

The president’s entourage boarded Air Force One, which Baer describes as “a Madame Tussauds museum” in light of the number of famous figures onboard, but unfortunately for Baer, Clinton fell asleep for most of the cross-country flight.

Requesting a few changes to the eulogy when he finally awoke 45 minutes before arriving in Los Angeles, Baer rushed to his makeshift office at the back of the plane only to discover an annoyingly slow printer spitting out one page every two minutes and a military onboard with no idea how to fix it.

Compounding matters, the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, had boarded the plane when it landed in LA but declined to get changed on the aircraft, which would have bought time, following criticism a year earlier when President Clinton held up air traffic getting a haircut.

Eventually, Baer printed out the speech and took off for the service in a secondary motorcade. But, in a continuation of bad luck, he found himself in the middle of a traffic jam after cars flooded back into LA’s notoriously busy streets when the president’s motorcade passed.

Cue an exasperated Baer running along a highway, papers flapping in the wind, in a desperate bid to transfer into a smaller motorcade, followed by a race through the streets of the small town of Yorba Linda to the Nixon Library where the memorial was taking place.

With aides screaming over internal communications for the speech, Baer rushed to the president and the pair made a few changes in the men’s rooms before it was delivered on time.

The “line” - in the end - was: “May  the day of judging President Nixon on  anything less than his entire life and career come to a close”.

It was well received, but the real-life drama could easily have slotted into an episode of US TV show The West Wing, such was the frenetic pace of life working in the White House.

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