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Authors: Barton Swaim

The Speechwriter

BOOK: The Speechwriter
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In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin.

—Book of Proverbs

AUTHOR'S NOTE

This memoir is based on the three years and ten months I spent working for the governor of a southern state. I have taken some liberties with chronology, many of the names are changed, as are some identifying and other details, and some of the dialogue is imperfectly remembered I'm sure.

I didn't write the book to pay anybody back or to reveal lurid secrets and inside scoops. I wrote it because I had to. I am a writer, and a writer can't witness the kinds of things I did without writing them down for someone else to enjoy.

A few passages appeared originally as essays in the
Times Literary Supplement
's “Freelance” column, and I am grateful to James Campbell for accepting them and urging me to make them better. I'm also grateful to my editor at Simon & Schuster, Priscilla Painton, who made this book far better than it was.

1

THE DUMPS

A
bout twenty of us sat in the conference room waiting for the boss to walk in. The room was warm and smelled faintly of sweat. A pair of law clerks quietly debated the correct pronunciation of “debacle.” At last Paul asked what the meeting was about. “I think,” June said, “the governor wants to apologize to the staff.” She said it with a wry look, but nobody laughed.

Stewart looked up from a magazine. “He already did that,” he snapped. “He apologized to his mistress, and to his family—.”

“In that order,” Paul said.

Nervous laughter made its way around the room.

“I don't think we can handle another apology,” Stewart
went on, throwing down the magazine. “Because let me tell you, I know what an apology from this governor sounds like, and it ain't really an apology. It's more like—.”

He paused.

Someone said, “More like what?”

“I'll just put it this way. His apologies tend to have an unapologetic tone.”

Another minute passed, and then the governor walked in. All went silent. He sat in the only remaining chair and made jokes with one of the interns.

A week before, he had been openly talked about by influential commentators in New York and Washington as a presidential candidate. In national media reports, his name had been routinely used in conjunction with the terms “principled stand,” “courageous,” “crazy,” “unbalanced,” and “interesting.” The party's biggest donors had begun to call him and to pay him visits. Now he was the punch line to a thousand jokes; letters demanding his resignation appeared in newspapers; the word “impeachment”
circulated through the capital like rumors of an assassination plot.

“How are y'all?” he said. “Wait—don't answer that.”

More nervous laugher.

“Aahh.” That was his preface to saying anything significant. “Aahh. But that's why I called you in here. I just wanted to say the obvious, which is the obvious.”

Paul gave me a look of incomprehension.

“I mean, the obvious—which is that I caused the storm we're now in. And that's made everything a little more difficult for everybody in here, and for that I want to say the
obvious, which is that I apologize. But you know”—he rose up in his seat to an upright posture—“you know, I was telling one of the boys”—the governor had four sons—“this morning. We were up early and I was saying, ‘Look, the sun came up today.' It's a beautiful thing to see. And it's a beautiful thing regardless of the storms of life. Of which this is one.”

People shifted in their seats and glanced at each other questioningly.

“As it happens,” the governor went on, “and before this storm started, I'd been reading Viktor Frankl's book about being in a concentration camp. And it's just incredible to me how you can find beauty, you can find reasons to keep going, in the most appalling circumstances. And I just wanted to say to everybody, keep your head up. Keep pushing forward. And let's not be in the dumps here. The sun came up today. Aahh. We're not in a concentration camp. So let's not stay in the dumps. We can't make much progress on the important things if we're in the dumps. So if you're in the dumps, get out. I mean, of the dumps. Get out of the dumps.”

Nobody spoke.

“Aahh. So, anybody want to say anything? Comments? Pearls of wisdom?”

Still no one spoke.

“Okay, well—.”

“Actually I'd like to say something.” That was Stella.

“Okay.”

“I just want to say—. Actually maybe I shouldn't.”

“No, it's okay,” the governor smiled, “go ahead.”

“No, I think I won't.”

“You sure?”

“Mm. Yeah.”

The governor walked out. Stewart looked around the room and said, “For those of you who are newer to the office, that was the governor's version of a pep talk. Do you feel pepped?”

Later that afternoon I asked Stella what she'd been intending to say. She had often told me that she didn't like her job—her husband wanted her to keep it for the income—and had often tried to get herself fired. I thought this might have been one of those times. She narrowed her eyes and pointed at me. “You know what I was about to say? You really want to know? I was going to say, ‘You know what, governor—maybe what you say is true. Maybe we should be thankful that we're not in a concentration camp.'” You could hear a slight tremor in her voice. “‘And maybe we take the sun rising for granted, and we shouldn't. But you're not really the one who should tell us that right now. And if you do say anything, it should be more like Sorry I flushed all your work down the toilet, people. Sorry I made you all a joke. Sorry about your next job interview, the one where you're going to be brought in as a curiosity and then laughed at.'”

“Stella, I wish you had said that.”

She had tears in her eyes.

2

THE WRITER

I
first met the governor almost three years earlier. We were in his office with Rick, his chief of staff. I introduced myself; he said, “A pleasure”; and we sat down. He wore blue jeans and a navy polo. There was a bleached streak across the front of the polo, which was untucked. His half-eaten lunch, a sandwich and chips, sat in Styrofoam on the coffee table in front of him. He took another bite of it, eating only the interior of the sandwich with a fork, and mumbled an apology for eating. Then he closed the Styrofoam box, pushed it aside, and sat upright.

For a few long seconds he said nothing. Then it seemed he wanted to speak. His mouth formed a circle, as if whatever he wanted to say began with a
w
.

“Wwwww,” he said, staring upward. Then he fixed his eyes on Rick. “Wwwwwha.”

Rick seemed ready to interject, but at last the governor said, “Www. What are we doing here?”

Rick introduced me. “He's here to talk about joining us in the press office. He's a writer.”

“Oh, the writer.” Now engaged, the governor looked at me and asked if I knew some name or other. I said I didn't. He said this guy had had the job before me, that he'd been a writer at
The State
. He was a good guy. But he'd had to tell him it wasn't working out and he needed to find something else. The governor hadn't kicked him out onto the streets, he said, just told him he needed to find something else. “He couldn't find my voice.”

The governor was “very interested in this larger idea of a brand,” he said. Every written product with his name on it had to be in the same style and have the same “cadence”; people should be able to read it and know it was his, whether or not they agreed with it. He mentioned the name of a famous politician and the name of his speechwriter. “Every speech he gives, every op-ed or whatever, sounds the same. Not the same, like boring the same. From the same source, consistent. I like that. It's about consistency. You always know what you're getting.”

I said consistency was a good thing in a politician. It suggested reliability. I thought I'd blundered in using the word “politician,” but he said, “Reliability. That's a good word for it.”

He had seen some articles and reviews I'd written and
conceded I must be “erudite” but wondered whether I could write in a way that “the mechanic in Greenwood can understand.” (Greenwood is a small town in the western part of the state.) I was trying to explain that I could when he interrupted me. “Can you start a sentence with a preposition?”

“A preposition?” I asked. Yes, a preposition. Maybe he meant a conjunction?

“Wwwhatever,” he said.

“Well, it depends.”

“On what?”

I said the rule against beginning sentences with conjunctions was a very old rule and nobody really followed it anymore. Also, initial conjunctions are useful. In a tightly reasoned paragraph you need to turn your argument in different directions very quickly, and the best way to do it is usually to start your sentences with “But” or “Yet” or—

“Okay, whatever,” he said, flashing his great smile. “There's a rule against beginning a sentence with a prepositions—conjunctions, whatever—and you can't break rules.” He told me to “take a stab” at an op-ed on the folly of carving out special tax breaks for “green energy” companies or something like that and get it to Rick by the next morning.

A few days later the governor called me. He said something about pay, but so shocked and flattered was I by receiving a call from a sitting governor that I couldn't gather my thoughts sufficiently to negotiate a salary. When I hung up the phone, I was very pleased with myself.

I had been working in a library for three long years. I had come back from Scotland in late 2003 with a PhD in English almost in hand, and like most people with freshly attained doctoral degrees in English I had lots of specialized knowledge, high expectations, no job or even job offers, a growing family, and very little money. During those three years working at the library—my chief duty was to attach call number stickers to the spines of books—I had allowed a little anger to creep in. Which was a bitter surprise to me because I had always had a sunny disposition. Then one morning on my walk to work I found myself cursing under my breath for no evident reason. Was I angry at God? At myself for having had such preposterous expectations? Yes in both cases. But it didn't matter; there I was, a doctor making minimum wage performing a low-skill job I conceitedly thought was beneath me. My job title was “annex processor,” which was funny because I had long hated the word “process.” There's something dishonest about it: processed cheese isn't cheese, process theology isn't theology, process music isn't music, negotiations given the term “peace process” never end in peace, and a “processing fee” is almost by definition a lump of money charged to the customer for no other reason than that the customer is unlikely to notice. So that was me, a “processor.”

There was one wonderful thing about that job, though. It was a university library and I could find almost any book I wanted. I'd begun writing essays and reviews for magazines—the
Times Literary Supplement
, the
Weekly Standard
—and having instant access to millions of titles made the research part easy. Moderate success in nonacademic writing led me
to wonder if I should drop the idea of an academic job and try for something else entirely, something other than grading papers and going to faculty meetings and turning out articles read by no one but people looking for their own names among the footnotes. I now had a wife and two small children, and I liked where I lived, so getting a job on an oil tanker or joining the military was not an option.

What could I do well? I could write. I had always heard that you can't make a living by writing, but the idea of turning phrases for a living still seemed irresistible. Maybe you couldn't write essays and reviews and novels for a living (I mean, excluding unusual circumstances like writing a breakaway best seller or being married to an anesthesiologist or getting a plum job as a writer-in-residence at a university), but you could turn out copy for somebody else. One morning I picked up the newspaper and turned to the opinion page. There was an op-ed by the governor about the state budget then being debated in the General Assembly. It began:

Bolton, our third son, has always liked the story of the three bears—of the papa, mama and baby bear, and of the porridge being hot, cold and eventually “just right.” Work has begun on the state budget, and because that means hot, cold or “just right” now deals with your money, it's worth sizing up whether or not you think things are indeed right in this year's budget.

Without reading any further, I resolved to send him my résumé. I attached a cover letter. It was deferential but terse and
said something like “I don't know that much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer.” A few weeks later I found myself in his office talking with him about “brand” and “voice.”

For a long time the job of speechwriter had sounded romantic to me. The speechwriter, I felt, was a person whose job it was to put words in the mouths of the powerful, who understood the import and varieties of political language and guided his master through its perils. The speechwriter was a clandestine character; until recently, anyway, you didn't hear much about presidential speechwriters until after the president left office, and even then not much. An air of mystery hangs about the word itself: “Speechwriter”
or “speech writer”?
One word or two? A speechwriter has all the gratification of being a writer but has political power too, or at least a veneer of it, which was good enough for me.

When I started working for the governor, I didn't do any writing for a week or two. Mainly I just sat behind my desk trying to look busy. At some point the press secretary, Aaron, told me to read through the “op-ed book.” This was a giant three-ring binder of photocopies of the governor's published writing over the first four years of his administration. (His second term had begun just a month or two earlier.) Reading the op-ed book would help me get used to the governor's “voice,” Aaron told me.

I spent a few hours reading these pieces. It worried me that I didn't hear much of a voice. What I heard was more like a cough. Or the humming of a bad melody, with most of the notes sharp. One sentence stands out in my memory: “This is
important not only because I think it ought to be a first order of business, but because it makes common sense.”

At that time there were four of us in the press shop or, to speak more correctly, the communications office. Aaron sat at the big desk: he was the communications director, comms director, press secretary, or spokesman. He had been a reporter for one of the regional papers during the boss's first run for governor. He had asked the candidate relentlessly difficult questions and seemed to enjoy it. Aaron's fearlessness, together with his smoking habit, love of rap music, slovenly attire, and youth—he was only twenty-five during that first campaign—all suggested the kind of scorch-and-burn libertarianism that became the governor's brand. The governor-elect (as he became in the fall of 2002) hired Aaron as a speechwriter. That didn't go well. One of Aaron's first contributions was to insert into one of the governor's speeches a glowing reference to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an allusion that enraged the state's small but vocal Armenian population. Aaron was far better at talking than writing, and by the time I came on he was the governor's spokesman. He enjoyed arguing for its own sake and did it with a weird combination of conviction and phlegmatic composure. He would get into heated exchanges with other staffers over policy issues, and the whole time his eyes would stay half closed, as if he found the conversation slightly disappointing. Sometimes he would contend with reporters over the phone, the receiver clutched between his head and shoulder, and play video games at the same time. Aaron couldn't be shaken or hurt; he could endure
the governor's cruelest and most irrational criticisms as if he'd barely heard them.

There were three other guys in the press office: me, Nat, and an alternating member, which at that time was Mack. Mack was from the Department of Commerce, a cabinet agency. Commerce was on the fifteenth floor of a sleek downtown building adjacent to the State House. The governor had “borrowed” him from Commerce, which was his way of keeping operating costs for the office at about half of what it had been under the previous governor. Mack, who was from Nebraska or one of the Dakotas, seemed angry about being moved from the crisp, spacious offices of the Commerce Department to the governor's cluttered press office. He generally sat with his face sullenly fixed on his computer screen. I believe he had made the understandable but fatal error of interpreting the governor's criticisms of his writing as personal animus. Anyhow he moved on a few months later, and a myth grew up that he had been on the verge of killing someone.

Nat was a Michigander who had found himself in the South through some complicated set of circumstances involving a scholarship. He had a wife and two daughters, as I did, but a fiercer drive to succeed. Nat would usually arrive earlier and stay later than I did, and he was naturally inclined to become more emotionally invested in performing his job well than was healthy. There was a certain dry midwestern intensity about Nat: he laughed without smiling and always seemed to know something you didn't. Later the governor would put him in charge of operations, which meant he was
always telling you to do something the governor wanted you to do. He seemed uncomfortable giving direct orders, perhaps because this was the South and southerners don't always say things directly. So he would tell you to do things in awkwardly courteous ways.

“Barton,” he might say, trying hard to sound relaxed and friendly, “uh, two questions for you. One, how's your family?”

“They're fine,” I would say. “What's the second thing?”

The second thing would of course be the command, which Nat always put in the form of a question: “The Hibernian Society dinner is next month. Could you draft a few toasts for the governor?”

Our office was in the glorious and noble State House, which I reckon is the greatest building in the state, but the press shop itself was a cramped space with the smell of many years of reheated lunches and was difficult to negotiate owing to the great piles of newspapers, magazines, notebooks, and foam board–mounted charts. The walls too were cluttered. Recently there had been a rally outside the State House protesting the governor's veto of a million dollars or so in funding for a bureaucracy called the Arts Commission, and on the wall were two giant placards bearing the words “Keep Funding for the Arts.” There were several calendars on the wall, some of them two or three years old. Just over my desk was a picture of the governor, cut from a magazine. He was talking to a small crowd, both his arms extended to one side as if he had been indicating the size of something. Above his head someone had written, “And then a little man
about
this big
came out of the woods and told me to run for governor!”

After about two weeks of my trying to look busy, Nat told me to “take a stab” at a speech. (Members of the press office came naturally to use the governor's own diction, even in casual conversation; sometimes we even peppered our talk with “aahh” and “wwwww.”) The speech at which I was to take a stab was an address to one of the state's military brigades, a farewell address before the soldiers left for Afghanistan. I sensed that Nat didn't enjoy writing speeches, that he wanted to move to some other function in the office, and that he had had less than total success as the governor's writer.

The address flowed from my head with no effort at all. Nat told me the governor liked to have three points. Sometimes four, but never two. The speech had to do with honor, sacrifice, and something else, I forget what. It was all fairly predictable, I remember thinking, but I felt I had put the points together with some skill, and I had used two or three quotations that I felt sure would impress the governor: one from a Psalm and another from a speech by Adlai Stevenson, whose biography I had just read.

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