The 1965-1966 UCSB Associated Students President Ken Khachigian has been highly influential in the political arena, serving in the Nixon administration and as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. Today, the Daily Nexus is printing an interview with Khachigian with questions ranging from his thoughts on Pat Buchanan to whom he thinks will nab the 2008 presidential election.
After graduating with honors at UCSB, Khachigian went on to Columbia Law School. He began working for the Nixon administration at age 25, and later rose to become Reagan’s chief speechwriter up until the end of his presidency in 1989.
“An individual is really at his finest when involved in a campaign,” Khachigian said.
Later in his career, he was a key advisor and strategist to California Governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. He also served as the National Senior Advisor to presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996 and Sen. John McCain in 2000.
Khachigian now serves on the boards of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance and the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation.
In addition, Khachigian serves on the UCSB Foundation board. In 1989 the UCSB Alumni Association presented him with a Distinguished Achievement Award.
– Interview by Ryan Wah
Ryan Wah: How did your experience at UCSB prepare you for life after college, especially your career? What did you learn?
Khachigian: You really can’t prepare, per se, for the type of career I had. But I was a political science major, which underscored my interests, and I followed politics carefully. More importantly, I had to take Subject A English (that’s Bonehead English as we used to call it – a remedial course for those of us who lacked writing skills). That forced me to learn how to write – like learning how to walk. It was demanding and invoked discipline – so that had to help over the years. Finally, I was involved in A.S. politics. …and was A.S. president my senior year… good practice in the art of campaigning and communication.
How did you go from UCSB to working on the Nixon campaign and then to working for the administration? What work did you do on the campaign and for the administration?
I went to law school first… at Columbia University in New York. Nixon was practicing law in New York and I wrote a letter asking if I could work on the campaign. Got a note back from Pat Buchanan, showed up for an interview and got a “job” answering correspondence. … I persevered to do research and got hired for the summer as research and policy aide reporting to Alan Greenspan. I handled agriculture, housing and transportation issues and worked full time through the campaign and then finished law school before returning to D.C. in Jan. 1970 – ended up as communications aide initially, then political aide to Buchanan and then speechwriter for the President.
What was it like working for Pat Buchanan and what did you learn from him?
Pat and I shared an office suite. He’s highly intellectual, extremely well read, but a lot of fun. We’re still close friends. He had – has – great political instincts – very shrewd and very tough. I learned how to “punch up” a speech… looking for words that gain attention. I honed my research skills and oversaw much of the campaign research for ’72.
What was it like being senior speechwriter for President Reagan? What is the process of writing political and policy speeches? Is there usually a lot of collaboration in the writing?
These are questions that fill books. Writing for Reagan was a dream assignment. He was kind, considerate and a great writing teacher and editor. Had some of the best writing assignments in history. There are many checks and balances with policy speeches – running them through the traps with cabinet officers and senior aides… letting them work on the policy and substance, but not letting them dictate the rhetoric. With Reagan the only real collaboration was between the two of us – speeches written by committees turn out as disasters. Everyone wants to be a speechwriter except when they’re looking at a blank page.
As the National Senior Advisor to the Dole ’96 and McCain ’00 campaigns, what were your responsibilities?
I ran Bob Dole’s California presidential campaign after he won the nomination. I was in charge of all scheduling and issue planning for the state and supervising a large staff. With McCain I was largely a traveling advisor – for two weeks during the New Hampshire, South Carolina and California primary periods. Giving him ideas on his talks, and doing a lot of press and TV stuff.
What are your current projects? I believe you said you were writing a book on Nixon. What is that going to be about and when do you expect to finish it by?
Still thinking about the Nixon book and organizing my thoughts… also about doing a Reagan book. Nixon’s would be about the years I spent with him in San Clemente after his resignation and Reagan’s would be anecdotes and chapters on the bigger speeches and campaign stops. No starting date and no finishing date yet.
Are you planning on working in this upcoming campaign season?
I have no current plans for the upcoming campaign, but will certainly choose sides before too long and will be around to help the GOP nominee if asked.
What are your outlooks on Giuliani, McCain and Romney’s chances in the primaries? What do you think are the chances of Obama or Clinton winning the presidency?
Too soon to pick winners… Hillary Clinton doesn’t look like a President and can’t change that – her biggest detriment – along with a terrible stump demeanor. We’ll see how Obama looks after getting chewed on a bit. Look for Edwards to be tough and Bill Richardson and Tom Vilsack to be dark horses. Right now, Giuliani and McCain are both capable of winning California, and Romney may prove to do so (I’m referring to general election). It’s McCain’s to lose – the early leader. Giuliani has a couple of hoops to get through, and if he does, don’t sell him short. Romney looks like a President… and if he can handle the fire and tough hits in the next six months, he’ll be tough. All three are excellent fundraisers. Giuliani and McCain can both survive early primary losses and still hang in there. Romney will need some early wins to get national credibility.