How many writers did commercials? Just Jimmy Breslin.
How many writers did commercials? Just Jimmy Breslin.
I usually run the Soldier Field 10 Mile race here in Chicago, so I got a promotion for this year's race, boasting of this goodie bag swag:
I think this is dumb—even though it is a Memorial Day race some of whose proceeds go to military-related charities, and even though it does start outside and finish inside Soldier Field. Isn't that enough military stuff?
People who know they cannot fathom the sacrifice of a soldier might feel weird wearing soldier gear with their spandex pants and their silly running stockings ...
You wanna wear some camo stuff, wear it all, like these warriors.
Or maybe, like a sensible peace-loving civilian, you simply don't feel like wearing military-themed garb at all—not during a Memorial Day race, or during all the days after that, when you would normally enjoy your handy, sweat-wicking Soldier 10 Mile running shirt. Maybe you don't feel that wearing camo garb is any way to express gratitude to soldiers.
I am not anti-military personally, and in fact I regularly travel with an Army Reserve backpack with my name on it, given to me by the late Lt. Col. Mark Weber, who I helped to write the memoir, Tell My Sons. I feel a little weird doing this sometimes—especially when airport personnel try to usher me through security—but the bag helps me remember Mark, and gives me a chance to tell his story to anyone who asks.
But that's my call, and it's part of my story.
I think these race organizers are being unnecessarily heavy-handed and presumptuous by issuing army-themed uniforms to tens of thousands of civilians, each of whom has a different set of attitudes toward the military.
Can you imagine it happening in any other country?
This American exceptionalism is getting lonelier and lonelier.
This article originally appeared last week at the website of Vital Speeches of the Day. —ed.
“Why didn’t the shark eat Jean Cardwell?” my first boss Larry Ragan would ask his young editors. “Professional courtesy.”
But the late publisher of Speechwriters Newsletter always told it in a way that suggested he was joking about headhunters in general, and not Cardwell herself, who was the only recruiter to use if you were looking for a speechwriter.
And whenever we’d call Cardwell to get a quote on trends in speechwriting, we understood she was no shark—and in most ways, she was a professional friend, in an era long before the Professional Speechwriters Association, and even before the Internet, when professional speechwriting friends were awfully hard to find.
Despite the fact that we are both based in Chicago, it had been about two decades since I’d last spoken with Cardwell. She had long since been supplanted as the go-to speechwriting recruiter by specialty arms of larger firms, like Heyman Associates. But when an-out-of-work speechwriter mentioned her to me recently, I realized she was still in business and I asked her to lunch.
Jean Cardwell knows a lot of things, and one of them is how to do lunch. She suggested Gibson’s Steakhouse, out near O’Hare. The reservation would be in her name. Twelve o’clock. We were both there 20 minutes early.
I’d warned her I would bring my reporter’s notebook, and she didn’t mind my launching right into the questioning about of her recruiting days, which commenced mid-career, after she left a job as a communication executive in the early 1980s.
“I’m a tryer,” she told me. And so she tried recruiting. Shedding her first name Gloria in favor of what she hoped was a more gender-neutral middle name, she made visits to then-corporate HQ-heavy Pittsburgh and Houston, where she found her first client: Exxon. “I thought, ‘I’m the smallest company in the world and they’re the largest,’” she said. They made a good match, and Cardwell went on to conduct searches for speechwriters and other communication positions for Exxon, Mobil, and a number of other oil companies.
The large recruiting firms were content to leave communication recruiting to Cardwell, because, she says, “they considered it beneath them.”
Cardwell came to own it—and she kept on owning it for years, even after the Internet “made it a totally different game.” She continued to do all her business on the phone and in person, trading on her ability to do more than find bodies for speechwriting roles, but to assess the chemistry that’s so crucial between a speechwriter and a client and a corporate culture.
She prided herself, and still does, on her willingness to speak to any speechwriter who called. She would offer advice, counsel the speechwriter on a résumé—and she’d definitely pick up the phone to talk to a reporter from Speechwriter’s Newsletter, no matter how young and clumsy he was. “I hope that even when I was at my very busiest that I was never too busy to take time to speak to people,” she says.
And she especially liked talking to speechwriters. “They were the nerds!” she said. Far from the glad-handing “people persons” who dominated PR departments, speechwriters were erudite, literary and more monk-like than they are now. “They were sitting in a room with an IBM typewriter!”
And that’s actually how speechwriters were evaluated at some companies. At Mobil in particular, she remembers a prospective recruit named Mike O’Malley being given a stack of paper and a typewriter and a speech assignment to write on the spot. He got the job, and went on to a long and successful career at the company—a career chronicled by the PSA white paper, “What Is a Speechwriter?”
Cardwell said she always encouraged speechwriters to “see the big picture,” and find ways to serve CEOs beyond merely by writing speeches, because that was the best way to move up. “But a lot of them had blinders on,” she lamented, adding that she often wished they would take bigger risks in their careers—as she felt she had, by starting her recruiting business. “They were so talented,” she said.
Along the way, Cardwell began an unlikely moonlighting business, dealing in antique jewelry, where she also made some money. She felt her two careers had something in common—looking for treasure.
When I told her I was looking forward to telling some veteran speechwriters that I’d had lunch with Jean Cardwell, she exclaimed, “Tell them I love them!”
Henry David Thoreau said the man who goes “constantly and desperately to the post-office … has not heard from himself this long while.”
And so it is with a blogger, checking his traffic. Light traffic is disappointing, heavy traffic is thin gruel—and after eight years of daily posts, traffic patterns are predictable and not terribly instructive.
One bit of excitement comes when by checking the “Referring Address” details, I occasionally note that some single person gorged on a bunch of my posts in a single sitting, over the course of an hour or more.
Who could it have been? Typepad offers no clue. And so every time, I am forced to consider the whole range of possibilities:
• David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, on a desperate late-night search for fresh talent, realizes he has just discovered his own E.B. White. Remnick hasn’t reached out to me quite yet, because he hasn’t figured out a way to break the bad news to Ian Frazier.
• Kate Upton, wondering what a real man writes like.*
• A new business contact has stumbled onto Writing Boots, and is just blown away by my depth and humor, and decides that doing business with me is definitely a good idea.
• A family member or a friend who has been too busy to read the blog, is catching up on the latest posts with pleasure because it’s almost like having me in the room.
• A family member or a friend who will soon be a guest in my home is catching up on the blog out of a sense of duty.
• An old person somewhere is in too much pain to sleep.
• The programmer of a bot from Ukraine mistook “Boots” for “Boobs.”
• I am about to be sued for some reason, and a paralegal has been instructed to scour all 2,600 posts I’ve ever written to establish a pattern of asshole-ism. (After reading about a dozen posts, the paralegal feels he’s got more than enough material.)
• I drank a fifth of Old Overholt last night and sat with my laptop, clicking on my posts and cackling at my own prose, until I cried myself to sleep.
In the end, it does not matter. In the end, a writer responds to success or failure, obscurity or fame of any size by doing one thing—more writing.
* (This item added this afternoon, by my ghostwriter.)
Technically I'm more German than Irish. But I don't cry at German folk songs.
Tip 'o the cap to Tony Judge, and Happy St. Patrick's Day to all.
I grew up in Hudson, Ohio—a little farm town with a charming New England feel that grew itself during my childhood
into an uber-preppy bedroom community for executives in Akron and Cleveland. They used to say all the Democrats could fit into the phone booth at Saywell's Drug Store.
I follow a Facebook page, "I Grew Up in Hudson, Ohio." I saw this post last week:
I am a Hudson graduate of 2007. My mother was a graduate of 1977. (Barbara Collis) I am extremely proud of being a "hudson kid". I understand that this page is a fun place to post pictures and talk about the old days....BUT...some of you might know this...some of you might not. We need to stop keeping this a secret. Hudson has a heroin problem. This is an epidemic. Just 3 days ago a good good kid died. Its been going on for 3-5 years now. These our old quarterbacks and marching band kids, hockey boys, and cheerleaders. Kids that went to OU and Kent. GOOD KIDS. ... We have a huge problem. Im sorry but I had to say something. We have to figure something out. I love Hudson. But something is wrong. And we all need to come together to figure it out.
As I have written, I moved to Chicago 25 years ago and dug deeply into life here and formed a political philosophy that Hudson never demanded of me.
So it's hard to have sympathy for an affluent, white Hudsonite sounding the alarm because suddenly "good kids" are dying in suburban Ohio, as opposed to so many thousands of other kids who have been dying in big cities all these years.
And at the same time, it's hard not to.
Yesterday we discussed the fully institutionalized fallacy of "strategic communication," which implies that one can flap one's lips (or tap one's computer keys) with a faulty assumption of orderly intent, execution and a measurable outcome.
If communication were anything like that, I reckon I wouldn't be as afraid of it as I am—professionally, or personally.
I dread a business cocktail party, even though I'm the extroverted head of a professional communication association. I know an outgoing industry leader like me who found himself alone at one, and panicked. He answered his wallet and ran out of the room, pretending it was an emergency call. It was an emergency call.
I dread a lunch with someone I don't know. I usually arrive 30 minutes early—10 to be safe, 20 more to psyche myself up in the parking lot. And looking at our menus and deciding what we want: This is the hour of lead.
I dread telephone conversations. How many times have I readied myself for a big call—even one that could offer a real opportunity if it goes well—and as the other phone rings, I find myself hoping Obama won't pick up after all and I can just go back to my regular day?
That's because I dread communication.
I dread it like I dread a long run in January, because of the energy it will demand and the pain it will entail.
I dread it because at least half of it is out of my control, which means the whole thing is out of my control, because who the fuck knows what I'm going to say, let alone what the other person is.
I dread it because it happens so fast, and because it can get out of hand and it can go all the way bad.
I dread it because it involves bodily fluids and electrical impulses and rhythm and God knows what else.
I dread it because it is unpredictable—a big argument with your wife, or sex with not your wife, or opening the envelope, or hearing the results, or feet on the stairs, or death itself.
I dread it because it is communication.
(I love it because it is communication.)
But if it's not scary, it's not communication.
And if it's communication, it sure is not "strategic."
There is propaganda.
There is persuasion.
There is publicity.
But there is no strategic communication—any more than there is strategic love.
Someone who would communicate strategically is like the artist that the writer George Saunders writes about:
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express,” and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking—then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”
And yes, I have put on seminars promising "strategic speechwriting" and the like. But that's just to fool your boss into letting you go because it sounds businesslike.
And it's strategic, all right.
But it's not communication.
What is communication?
More on that tomorrow.
"The reason our elders mostly avoided scatological topics was as much practical as moral, I believe. They sensed that if we took an interest in the rich variety of one another's farts, craps and pisses, there wouldn't be much point in discussing anything else. Or time, for that matter."