A Passion for Anonymity: Mary Kate Cary [University of Virginia magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
University of Virginia alumni magazine
AS A FOURTH-YEAR LAWN resident in 1985, Mary Kate Grant (now Mary Kate Cary) had no idea that in a few years she’d be working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Her plan was to join the Foreign Service, but she ended up heading home to Washington, D.C., where she landed a position in the Capitol Hill office of Hamilton Fish, a Republican congressman from New York. The, next year she became a script runner at “This Week with David Brinkley,” which led to a spot as a reporter with “Hotline,” a daily news service for politics.
“I would sometimes work 18-hour shifts, go home, sleep for a while, then go back to work,” Cary says, noting that after covering the 1988 Democratic National Convention, she was beat. “My doctor threatened to hospitalize me for exhaustion if I didn’t slow down.”
She began looking for another position and made a few calls, including one to the 1988 Bush-Quayle Campaign. They offered her a job. The day she started was at the Republican Convention that nominated George Bush.
Cary was soon offered a job to write for the new president.
“I couldn’t believe I landed where I did,” she says. “I kept thinking I’d wake up and be back on the night shift.”
She worked for President Bush for the next three years, writing more than 100 speeches on domestic and foreign policy. The speech she remembers most vividly, though, is the one that got no applause.
“The assignment was to write about Jack Kemp’s idea on empowerment. Bush didn’t like the word—he thought empowerment sounded like it gave more power to the government. So I had to write a speech without ever using that key word.”
To make matters worse, the audience had been handpicked to represent a mix of professions. Unfortunately, when Bush delivered a line about how great teachers are, the teachers didn’t feel comfortable clapping. So there was silence. The same was true of the other professionals in the audience. “It was a total flop,” Cary says.
In fact, The New York Times said Bush’s domestic policy may have suffered because of his unwillingness to embrace the concept of empowerment—and Cary attributes it to the audience’s reaction to that one speech.
“The good news is that President Bush continued to joke with me about it, which made me feel a little better,” she recalls. “Every time he would call to ask me to pen something for him, he would always say, ‘Now Mary Kate, make sure to write a speech people will clap at.’ Speechwriting can be a very humbling experience.”
Humility, Cary admits, is an essential part of her craft. In fact, the last time she wrote under her own byline was as editorial page editor of the Cavalier Daily. She says she doesn’t miss getting the credit, though.
“It is an honor for me to know that someone who was elected by millions of people is saying something I wrote. It’s known in the speechwriting business as ‘a passion for anonymity.”’
She’s not so anonymous anymore—at least among political crowds. After the White House, and a stint at the justice Department, Cary went into business for herself. In mid-1995 she wrote the Republican Response to the State of the Union Address, delivered by New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. She was subsequently hired to be a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee during “The First Hundred Days” of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America.
On the 103rd day, a pregnant Cary was put on bed rest. That July, her first daughter, Annie, was born. In May 1997, a second daughter, Grace, joined the family.
Today, Cary writes speeches serving both corporate and political clients.