Speechwriter Interview


Barry feels too much like a child who’s in church. Nothing here in the hallway is younger than he is. The red carpet has begun to pill, has probably been pilling for the last five men who worked behind that gigantic door. Barry thinks they must have a vacuum exclusively devoted to this strip of red carpet. When it’s vacuumed, it must be stunning in its simple boldness.

The fussy guy who told him to sit finally comes back out; the man leaving with him smiles. He’s younger than Barry, not outside his peer group, but young enough that Barry feels the tinge of panic that comes when you’re only a year or so away from knowing that you have, without doubt, failed at something.

The man, the fussy one, he’s wearing a flat black suit. That’s the only way Barry can think to describe it: flat. The material isn’t faded; it just seems to give nothing back. Black suits that pop use the light of the room like a frame. The suit this man wears is plain, utilitarian, demanding and unappreciative.

The man in the unfortunate suit looks to the bench beside the door. Barry decides then he can’t ever like this man. They could end up working alongside each other for decades, and they could only ever be workmates. When the man told Barry to have a seat Barry had gone for the bench the man now looked to. He’d been chastised for this choice with a sharp, mechanical: “Not that one.”

Barry was back up automatically, and had stood stupidly, looking to the five identical benches that lined the office’s end of the hall.

“Where should I sit then?” he’d asked. The fussy man only gave him a look of confusion. Barry settled on the next bench over.

The man in the resentful suit looks to the bench behind him, then to Barry. He looks confused again. He seems to inspect each bench, like there’s a chance they only seem empty due to a trick of the light. Finally he looks back to Barry. “Come in,” he says, impatiently reassuring. He taps his thumb and finger together soundlessly, gesturing without any real meaning. Barry takes his leather folder and rises. The grandfathered bench almost startles him when it croaks.

The man and his sullen suit stay outside this time, and when the door closes Barry is alone with the senator.

“Have a seat.” Everything seems inflected with the senator. He gestures quickly, with a casual jerk of his eyes, to the leather office chair before his desk.

He’s writing. Writing is a prop in politics, but it’s also a practical one; every scene in a commercial of a politician writing is legitimate. There’s never enough time to put off the paperwork. Directors just film around the workload.

Barry sits.

“So, Barry,” the senator says. His writing quickens into rapid slashes, and with a snap he lays his pen down and sets the sheet of paper into his outgoing mail tray. Now it’s all eyes on Barry. “Director Wash speaks well of you.”

“I’m fond of Dr. Wash,” Barry says.

“Well, I’m sure Dr. Wash is mutually fond of you, but fondness does not necessarily translate into competence. Director Wash doesn’t make referrals on a whim.”

“No,” Barry agrees. “He certainly doesn’t.”

The senator smiles warmly but never gratuitously. He does not smile now, just watches Barry with tired brown eyes.

It takes Barry a moment to realize what he’s doing. People so rarely, honestly do it. He’s listening.

“Before I worked on Dr. Wash’s housing initiative, I interned with Senator McCormick…” He says this while opening his folder. The resume is three sheets of beautiful cream paper.

“I know your work history,” the senator says. “Dr. Wash was an adviser of yours, so I know how well you fared in school.” He’s a man who listens with both hands clasped against his chin. He sweeps his right hand quickly. “That’s just data. There are three things I want to know.”

He’s quiet until Barry realizes he’s listening again. Barry lets the resume hang limp in his hand. “What are those?” he asks, careful not to try and mimic the senator’s tone.

“The first is: why did you get into politics? And the second: what is your philosophy on writing?”

“Why I do what I do?” Barry shuffles the resume inside the folder.

“No.” The senator measures every word; now he allows a small measure of irritation. “I don’t want a summary. I asked you exactly what I meant to ask you. I only work with precise data. You are going to define for me the two aspects of your character I care most about for this job.”

“Well…” Barry fights the grin, struggles, “…I’m not sure those are questions with exact answers.”

I’m sure that they are,” the senator tells him. “At least I’ve always found them to be.” He gives a small smile, a brief one.

Barry prepares himself.

“Why did you get into politics?” the senator asks.

“There are…” the senator is a man of precise action and word. It is not easy for a poor black kid to rise to be the man he is now. His path was one with very little room for error. Improvisation for him could only ever be a decisive act. “There are,” Barry says again, his words now the pins they always are in his head, “so many people in this nation who need help. There are people who will…fight through this life with everything they have, and more, who will still fail if they are never given the smallest amount of help.” Each breath risks a pause. Any silence must be filled by pinning his thoughts to words: “Those people cannot be described in more honest a way than as helpless. And because it is human nature…inevitably…there are people who have the means to offer such help, and they have decided that human nature compels them to act.”

The senator is a smoker. He’s careful to take regular mints, but there is that unique huskiness to his breathing.

“It is…so very easy to adopt a cynical set of ideas regarding the political process. It is a very lazy, very seductive, very self-important mindset. There is, undeniably, corruption in politics. There’s corruption everywhere. Allowing yourself to become discouraged, to never fight behavior that is dwarfed by overall goodwill is, frankly, lazy. It is critically important that you do not focus on inconsequential negatives at the expense of inarguable good.”

“Those sound like a set of directions,” the senator tells him.

“They’re not.” There is no argument in the correction. “I got into political work because I believe there are people who honestly want to make things better. Certainly, I am concerned for my own interests: my professional advancement, my financial success, and my personal accomplishments. But there is something else that compels me to seek those things in such a way that this drive can be channeled for good. Essentially, sir, it’s this: I want to help the people who want to help The People.”

The senator grins. “Maybe I should just have you give the speeches. I can just speak into a dead mike.”

The words are pinned in place now, exactly where they need to be.

“Question two,” the senator prods.

“Words define half of who we are.” The folder leans against the leg of the chair, its spine nuzzling the lush blue and green carpet of the senator’s office. “The manner in which we translate those words into action completes that definition. There are those for whom words are simply shields to protect actions that are in direct opposition to what has been said. This does not mean their words do not reflect on their character; they do. Their hollowness reflects tremendously upon them.” Barry settles into the chair. The leather is smooth, soft, younger than the rest of the chair. “For those whose words translate into direct action, the value of their action also translates directly into the worth of their words. When they say anything, there is greater value there than in the words of those who do nothing.”

“So what about writers?” The senator looks down, glances between two documents just out of Barry’s sight. He looks back up. “Writers are their words, correct?”

“Everyone is their words,” Barry tells him. “But so too is everyone their actions. Writers are no different, we simply understand this connection.”

“So what would your action be? What actions do you connect your words with?”

“I connect them to those I have committed them to.” Barry, young, white, wealthy, has never suffered. The senator has. The senator has a strong instinct for untruths. He has had need of it. “My words are committed with the belief that they are the purest distillation of the truth. They have to be, because they are pieces of my heart that I have torn out, and laid into the hands of others. What I write must be true, and it must be true because it is all I can do for the good of others.”

“You’re not one for manipulation then.”

“One could say the truth is a form of manipulation, but it would be a lazy correlation, and a false one. The truth is not reliant upon manipulation. The truth is reliant upon persuasion.”

The senator looks to his papers again. “So…”

Barry waits. The senator isn’t listening yet.

“…why do you do what you do?”

Barry takes a single breath. “The same reason as you.”

There’s a quick nod, and the senator leans back in his chair, reaching for his pen. He shuffles papers and says: “I appreciate you coming in. You’ll hear from my office within twenty-four hours.”

His eyes are already following his pen as Barry grabs his folder and heads to the door.

“So you know,” the senator says, and the cliché is that Barry turns at the door, “the gentleman I interviewed before you is extremely qualified.”

“He seemed confident,” Barry remembers. “Did you ask him the same questions you asked me?”

“I did not.”

“But you said he was qualified.”

“I said he was extremely qualified.”

Barry gives a nod. “Have a good day, sir.”

“You do the same, Barry!” The sentiment is genuine but compartmentalized. He returns to his work before Barry is out of the room.

The fussy man, maybe eaten by his suit, is not at receiving. When Barry leaves the Chicago air is still, so it catches him off-guard when it blows in force a block away. It snatches at the leather heart in Barry’s hand, but his grip is firm, and he walks home.


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