Laurence Pevsner ’14 has technically been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and many more leading publications. He was appointed by President Joe Biden to write over 600 speeches in two and a half years, most of which have been presented directly to the United Nations. He has churned out creative ads for the Biden campaign and other liberal politicians. But none of these are under his own name.
Pevsner is a speechwriter for nation heads, celebrities, politicians and CEOs of big companies. It’s difficult to get very specific about his work, Pevsner said, because people don’t want to reveal the fact that someone was writing for them — he is often subject to non-disclosure agreements that sign off his ideas to others.
“It’s the big trade you do when you become a speechwriter. It’s not about you,” Pevsner said. “And that’s okay because even though I’m coming up with those ideas in the moment … there’s a way that it doesn’t fundamentally feel like mine. I’m not actually writing what Laurence Pevsner would say.”
Right now, Pevsner is taking a break from speech writing as part of the inaugural class of Moynihan Public Scholars at the City College of New York, exploring how public apologies shape politics and the public, who either are tired of these apologies or tend to over scrutinize them, in addition to teaching a class at the college on speechwriting. This comes after two and a half years as speechwriter for United States Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a member of President Biden's cabinet.
The trick to speechwriting, Pevsner advised, is not trying to sound like the people he writes for, but trying to think like them.
“Ultimately, when I defer credit for something, it feels okay because it doesn’t feel like they’re my ideas anymore,” Pevsner said. “On the flip side, it makes it more challenging to publish my own ideas or think through my own fate. I’ve developed so much the idea of what someone else would say that right now, I’m trying to rediscover what it is that I would say.”
Speechwriting: An Obvious Marriage Between Writing and Politics
Currently, Pevsner is working on a novel based on growing up in “one of the more privileged towns in America.” Pevsner spent his younger years in Greenwich, Connecticut and the novel details people who go back for their 10-year high school reunion and end up discovering some gold treasures.
The novel is Pevsner’s second, his first being his law, jurisprudence, and social thought (LJST) senior thesis. Though a novel is not a traditional medium for the department, Pevsner wrote about a main character on trial due to her membership in a cult under the guidance of Professor of LJST Martha Umphrey and Professor of LJST Adam Sitze.
“That generosity toward your aptitude and intelligence really inspired me to rise to a higher level and take big swings, like trying to write a novel thesis,” Pevsner said. “That department as a whole made me feel like that kind of thing was possible.”
Pevsner honed in on his interest in speech writing while in college because he found the medium fascinating. Instead of writing for any audience, the audience is “right in front of you, right now,” he said. Although Pevsner was interested in rhetoric, he worried about the viability of a career as a writer. And his passion for politics rendered in him a sense of obligation to get involved. Speech writing was an “obvious marriage” between the two disciplines.
So, as any good Amherst student would do, he went to the Loeb Center. Despite the small field of speechwriters, they connected Pevsner to Aaron Nathan ’10, an alum a couple years older than him who was working at West Wing Writers, one of few left-leaning speech-writing companies. Pevsner applied to their internship his sophomore year but didn’t get it.
He was not undeterred. He worked to meet as many speechwriters as possible, spending lots of time searching the alumni directory.
“All of them said the same thing, which was, ‘Oh, I didn’t intend to be a speechwriter. I just kind of stumbled into it,’” Pevsner said. “That was really frustrating to me years ago because I wanted to do it intentionally so I just kept trying.”
Pevsner applied to the West Wing internship again his junior and senior years and still didn’t get it. But after graduating, he applied one more time and finally secured an internship. Pevsner moved with his friends to a five-person-apartment in New York City after graduating, beginning what would be a five-year-tenure at West Wing Writers.
After interning for three months, he got job offers from the Obama administration and the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign. While considering both of those, he was offered a full-time job from West Wing Writers.
“[West Wing’s] offer was very persuasive. I really liked the work I was doing and especially the people I was working with,” Pevsner said.
He ended up working there for five more years, including a stint in a small writers room for the Biden ad campaign. The campaign had a lot of money to be spent on ads, so the budget was essentially unlimited.
“Imagine any celebrity, any situation, any song, like, ‘Let’s put Tom Hanks in this one,’” Pevsner said. “We’ll see what works and we’ll just go for it.”
For Pevsner, writing those campaign ads employed a totally different skill set. Every word mattered; he thought of switching from speech writing to campaign ads similar to switching from fiction to poetry.
West Wing also made the solitary experience of writing more collaborative, Pevsner said. He had experienced a taste of this when he was editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, as well at Amherst as editor of The Indicator, the college’s student literary and arts magazine, and The Muckrake, Amherst’s satirical publication. In these, rather than being interested in students’ opinions on global issues like the Iraq War, which he felt was more adequately covered in bigger publications, Pevsner focused most on the idea of: “What could only a student say?”
He carried that hyperlocal focus into his work speechwriting. When writing speeches, he always asks himself, “What is something only this person can say?”
Over 600 Speeches in Two and a Half Years: Writing for Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
It is not always the case that speechwriters get to write for people who they admire deeply or who share their views. But when Pevsner served as the inaugural speechwriter for U.S. ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, he was lucky enough to share her values, and he admired her deeply.
“I was very fortunate to get to write for her,” Pevsner said. “From day one, I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew it was going to be a difficult job and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”
Though Pevsner didn’t come into the job with as much foreign policy experience as some would expect, what he did have was real mastery of how to be a speechwriter, how to write someone’s voice and how to quickly learn about the topic at hand.
“And boy are there a lot of topics to learn about the UN. You cover the whole world,” Pevsner said. “I had to understand the different dynamics of different countries and it was quite a challenge to be writing for multiple audiences at once.”
If Thomas-Greenfield was giving a speech at the security council about the cross-border mechanism in Syria, Pevsner would have to write one speech designed for many different audiences: the different countries at the table, the other member countries of the UN, and the press, who is ultimately writing for the public. Because Thomas-Greenfield was “constantly doing diplomacy, she was constantly doing speeches.”
Pevsner was impressed by Thomas-Greenfield’s experience. She lived all over the world, in Gambia, Pakistan, and Liberia, spending her career on humanitarian issues like helping refugees, eliminating the global food crisis, and helping the world’s most vulnerable populations. Together, they traveled around the world on a government fleet, meeting with refugees from Syria, people who fled from North Korea, and Iranian women to understand their plights.
“It was very easy to sign up for that mission with her and she is an amazing storyteller, which is such a gift for a speechwriter,” Pevsner said. “She also had another gift, which is that she really understands the importance of speaking clearly, especially to an international audience. She was always encouraging us to keep them simple and straightforward, without removing nuance.”
Another wonderful aspect of working with Thomas-Greenfield, Pevsner said, was that she cared deeply about inspiring and diversifying the next generation of public service workers. As a Black woman, she joined the State Department at a time when it was facing lawsuits regarding discrimination against Black people and women.
“She was really a trailblazing leader herself on this fight and because of that, diversifying public service is a real personal priority for her. That made it fun for me because it got to be a personal priority for me as well.”
Traveling the country and visiting college campuses, Thomas-Greenfield would spread a message that Pevsner wants to pass on to Amherst students: “All I’m asking is that you spend one or two years in public service.”
It’s a simple idea and message, but Pevsner found it powerful, because for “a person privileged enough to attend a school like Amherst, that’s kind of what you owe,” he said.
In addition to this, a piece of advice from Pevsner to Amherst students is to maintain their communities. College is where he met people who he sees as friends for life, who have given him intellectual stimulation, joy, and furthered his sense of self, and continue to do so in his current forays into scholarship.
Rediscovering What Only Laurence Pevsner Can Say
As a Moynihan Public Scholar, Pevsner is working to blend scholarship and public service in his work on public apologies, as “a lot of people will find it true that once they leave the academic bubble and go out into the world, there is really a disconnect between the academic world and the practitioner world,” Pevsner said.
As a speechwriter, Pevsner surprisingly found himself writing apologies frequently, making him stop and think about apology culture. “Public figures were constantly apologizing in ways that they never did before,” he said. “I also found that as a public, as viewers of these apologies, we were sick of them…I started to worry that the apologies themselves and the culture around them was driving our society apart.”
By not apologizing for fear of retaliation or scrutinizing every apology to the point where it was rejected, society is removing a tool for repair, Pevsner said.
This fascination with apology urged him to work on a book making the case for why the world needs to get better at saying sorry.
And this time, his work will carry the byline: Laurence Pevsner.