Most days my dog Berkeley, a black labrador–cocker spaniel cross, takes me for a walk. If there’s time to kill, we weave through the 1960s-era suburban streets of Doncaster and follow an underarm of greenery that runs beneath the shoulder of the Eastern Freeway. If Berkeley and I are full of beans, we run to the freeway and back—a circuit just shy of five kilometres—although we’ve never mastered the heartbreak hill that is High Street. If time is tight, or I’m lazy, we amble to the oval at the end of my street, where Berkeley sniffs the backsides of my neighbours’ dogs for 20 minutes then announces she’s ready to return home by crapping in the grass beside the concrete cricket pitch.
The day Keith Sinclair popped into my head was a lazy day. Berkeley was working her way towards the concrete cricket pitch while I walked laps, listening to the New Yorker Poetry podcast (I know he’s not Scottish, but Paul Muldoon sounds like the poetry world’s answer to Sean Connery) and gazing at the craggy outline of Melbourne’s CBD to the west.
I wasn’t thinking about anything at all, and then I was thinking about Keith Sinclair in particular. This surprised me. After all, Sinclair had been dead for 20 years and I’d never met him nor read a word he’d written. All I knew, from a Claude Forell obituary, was that, as an editor, Sinclair ‘seemed an aloof, forbidding figure to many young reporters, but he was courteous and kind to those who worked closely with him’. Why, then, did Sinclair’s name keep floating out of my subconscious?
The answer was easy to divine. Sinclair, like me, had served time as a political speechwriter. Of course, the old boy had done more than crank out speeches for the duration of his four score years and one. He served in Bomber Command over the skies of Europe during the Second World War, rose to the pinnacle of his profession as the editor of the Age, and was a husband and a father. But what I’d stumbled upon during a researching sortie for some long-forgotten speech was that Sinclair had also become—at the age of 53—the first speechwriter to work for an Australian prime minister.
Graham Freudenberg—speechwriter for a litter of Labor leaders beginning with Arthur Calwell—may well have found Canberra first, but Sinclair beat him to the PM’s office, qualifying the former Age editor as the first man of prime ministerial letters. Sinclair’s PM was Harold Holt—a leader remembered more for dying in office than linguistic calisthenics—although, to be fair, two Holt one-liners have stood the test of time: his genuflection to US president Lyndon B. Johnson over the Vietnam Way (‘All the way with LBJ’), and what were supposedly his last words before disappearing into the surf at Cheviot Beach (‘I know this beach like the back of my hand’).
Walking laps of the oval, I toyed with the notion of establishing a luncheon party of superannuated political speechwriters. We could eat yum cha in Little Bourke Street once a month and call ourselves the Keith Sinclair Society. Membership would be by invitation only, like the Melbourne Club, only without the chauvinism or financial security or social status, because sophistry, much like prostitution, is an ancient profession without gold or glory.
Still, I keep bumping into people who think otherwise. I’ve been out of politics since 2009 and have cranked out books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but what most people are both repulsed and fascinated by is the main game: politics. As a consequence, if people want to talk to me about anything it’s usually speechwriting or politics.
One of the first questions I’m usually asked is: How did you become a speechwriter? The honest answer to that question is: Fucked if I know. That’s because speechwriting is a strange, nebulous way to make a living. There’s no university course, no training, no secret handshake. You’re asked to write something for someone else to say to a roomful of strangers about, say, the economy. Or a town. Or a suburb. Or a new factory or building or bridge.
You might have a week to come up with something. Or a day. Or a few hours. So the speechwriter will sit in his or her office and google random dates, names and places. And bivouac in the Parliamentary Library, sniffing at old books the way my dog sniffs at stale turds. And they’ll sit in a café and drink a coffee and doodle with their favourite pen. They’ll procrastinate and read the paper or text their boyfriend or girlfriend. And, maybe, with a deadline looming, they’ll panic and cocoon themselves in their office and, surrounded by a crater of papers and books, bang out a piece of oratory wallpaper, then print out the mess and rush down to the leader’s office and leave it in the in-tray of his or her executive assistant. Then they’ll wait. And, perhaps, fingers crossed, the somebody they’re writing about something for will like what they’ve written well enough that they won’t have to go back to square one and write something else. The next day they’ll be asked to go through the same process again. That, in a nutshell, is the life of
Living such a solitary and subterranean life does strange things to the human spirit. If you don’t believe me, consider the career trajectories former political speech-writers. Some drink too much (we all know his name). Some become radio shock jocks (Alan Jones). Some become prime minister (Tony Abbott). Others become fixated on names such as ‘Keith Sinclair’ and words like ‘conflagration’.
I was the kind of speechwriter who became fixated. My conflagration fetish occurred during my second year as the chief speechwriter for Steve Bracks, the former premier of Victoria. ‘Conflagration’ came into my head—like Keith Sinclair’s name—and refused to leave, demanding that I find it a home. So I did.
I engineered a line into a draft of a Bracks speech, scheduled to be delivered to a roomful of Melbourne businessmen, left the offending item in the in-tray of the premier’s executive assistant, and started working on another speech that would be free of the conflagration fixation. My conflagration speech didn’t bounce back to my desk demanding amendment. It was accepted as written. And then the day came for the delivery of the conflagration speech.
To understand what happened next it’s important to understand the ways different people speak. Some people breathe deeply and are therefore able to deliver long, convoluted sentences. John Thwaites, the then deputy premier of Victoria, was like that. As a consequence, when I wrote a speech for Thwaites I usually installed a few verbal chicanes—a long, convoluted sentence with a hydra of ideas and images he would have to slow down and savour to properly deliver, followed by a short, sharp statement where he could put his foot to the floor. Steve Bracks was a shallow breather. That meant complicated sentence structures were a no-no. Instead, I usually built momentum through a succession of short sentences connected by the repetition of words or phrases (anaphora is the fancy word for this technique) that either ascended or descended to a unifying thought or image or aphorism. I enjoyed writing in this way for Bracks. It came naturally to me and felt, at times, close to poetry in manner if not matter. And it suited his preference for big-picture storytelling.
Bracks had a reputation as a poor public speaker, but I thought differently. Most politicians sound like someone else. If you listen hard you can usually hear the cadence of the person who influenced them most, the former politician whom, consciously or unconsciously, they’re mimicking. Bracks, though, only ever sounded like himself. He may have swallowed the odd word or mangled the occasional sentence or strangled the name of golfer Ernie Els so that his surname sounded like Eels, but none of that mattered. What mattered was he sounded like a real person instead of a robot.
A robot would have made a better fist of conflagration. I must have known this. Must have known in my heart of hearts that I’d booby-trapped the premier’s speech by embedding ‘conflagration’ in its body, but I was so fixated on the word I couldn’t admit my error. So I did nothing. Instead of attending the luncheon and witnessing the carnage I stayed at my desk, writing yet another speech.
The premier’s chief of staff, Tim Pallas, did make it to the lunch. Pallas—a rolly polly former unionist who went on to become a politician himself—didn’t usually visit my office. On this day he made an exception after witnessing the premier deliver the conflagration speech. Rather than walk into the premier’s private office and take a right up a driveway of racing green carpet to his palatial office, the COS took a left and motored down to my paper cave. Pallas stood in front of my desk and said, ‘I just want you to know that the premier gave “conflagration” a red-hot go.’ And then he walked back out again. Not another word was spoken.
Needless to say, the offending word never found its way into another Steve Bracks speech, although when, a few years later, Pallas asked me to help him write his maiden speech as a parliamentarian I did insert ‘conflagration’ into my first draft.
I mostly loved working as a political speechwriter. Loved it because the job combined two of my passions: politics and poetry. The career path that led me to speechwriting—if you can call the goat track I took such a thing—was tangled and reaches back into my childhood. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family. We were ex-Labor, part of the tribe of right-wing Catholics that split from the Australian Labor Party in the 1950s, supported the Democratic Labor Party then, gradually, migrated to the Liberal Party.
What stopped me from becoming a conservative was poetry. You see, I attended a few Young Liberal meetings as a teenager, but decided it wasn’t for me. Poetry was for me. Having decided I was going to be a poet, I took the next illogical step and quit studying. This was during my final year of high school. Instead of writing essays, I filled up an exercise book with doggerel. Needless to say, by the time my October exams rolled around I was failing half of my subjects. At one stage I was dragged into an office by a teacher I liked, Mrs Hollingsworth, who demanded to know what drugs I was taking. I told her my drug of choice was the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
I stopped writing poetry long enough to weasel through high school and land a job at the Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne as a copy boy. After that I began following the goat track towards politics. By the time I was 18 I was working as a crime reporter at the Sun. Three years later I was covering the 1990 federal election in Canberra and shortly after that I was departmental speechwriting for the health minister in the run up to the 1992 state election. By the time I was 26, I was press secretary to the then leader of the state opposition, John Brumby. A year later I was living in San Francisco and working as a TV and internet producer—and covering the 2000 US presidential election. By the time I was 31, I was back in Melbourne working as press secretary to the attorney-general, Rob Hulls.
All the while I kept writing poetry, some good, some bad. It wasn’t until 2004 that all those poems would start to come in handy, politically speaking. By the middle of that year Bracks had been premier for almost five years. He’d also burned through four speechwriters and was looking for a fifth. I didn’t volunteer for the job—I was too busy writing poetry in my spare time—but, when possible candidates were being bandied about, my name was put forward by a fellow press secretary, Ben Hart. The reason Hart suggested me was that I had published poetry, which suggested I might have a facility with words.
I was called up to the premier’s office for a meeting. Bracks asked me a few questions and asked me to write a speech. And, just like that, I became his chief speechwriter. In other words, poetry made me a political speechwriter.
That’s not to say speechwriting was all about the words. What drew me to politics to begin with was a belief in participatory democracy: the conviction that, unless I was involved, I was in no position to complain; and the realisation that, as Cicero once wrote, you can’t choose your time and place to get involved. To quote the great Roman orator: ‘The opportunity of rescuing the country, whatever the dangers that threaten it, does not come suddenly or when you wish it, but only when you are in a position which allows you to do so.’
It’s as Camus said: time does not belong to us, we belong to it. That means circumstances not only define us, they choose us. Political speechwriting chose and defined me and I, in return, chose political speechwriting because I believed I should make a contribution and thought the language of ideas was the best way in which I could make a meaningful one.
As for the work itself, my life as a poet was perfect training for politics. That’s because, at its best, speechwriting is writing for performance. It is the spoken, not the written, word. You are writing to be heard, not read. You must therefore use language that has punch and verve. You must therefore use rhythm. You must be awake to the sounds different words make when you bang them together. And you must tell a story—something that encompasses past, present, future; where we come from, where we are, where we’re headed—because stories are what people remember.
I’m not saying speeches are poetry. I don’t buy what Shelley once wrote in his essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Shelley obviously never read the Crimes Act, because it’s more like Leviticus than Philip Larkin. As for me, I think the late Peter Porter was closer to the mark when he called poets ‘politicians of the printed page’. However, the best speeches can approach poetry. To achieve that, speeches must do more than parrot junk phrases or bureaucratic babble or the latest sound bites: speeches that fall into those traps come off sounding like bad rap songs. They must, to paraphrase the poet William Carlos Williams, become machines made of words that are able to transport the language and the listener.
Language is the root of our democracy—and demagoguery—because words define public affairs and words can be recalibrated to say just about anything. You see, language is not concrete. Is not black and white. Language is an identikit of words stuck together to try to represent a position that is—at its primal cognitive level—organic rather than linguistic. That is why language is, as writer Eva Hoffman has said, the ‘hobgoblin of abstraction’; or, as the poet George Szirtes has said, ‘the thin skin of ice over a fathomless pond with its black bed. With dark above and dark below.’
Language is not solid. It is not the raw material from which the three little pigs would choose to build a house. At best it is an avatar that offers the barest inkling of the dark, speechless matter that shimmies around inside us all. Language may well be a thin skin of ice over darkness, as Szirtes said. And a poem or speech should ‘like a piece of ice on a hot stove … ride on its own melting’, as the poet Robert Frost said, but without that ice there is only darkness.
Language is flawed, but remains the means by which we can approach consensus, if not truth; and that is why speeches matter—at their best, they can illuminate the darkness. All of which goes to the heart of what makes speechwriting a nebulous endeavour.
Finding the right words is difficult enough when you are writing in your own voice. Try writing in the voice of someone else. That requires imaginative projection. The speechwriter has to place him or herself in the shoes of the person delivering the speech—picture the audience they will be speaking to—and speak to that audience in the words of the speechmaker. Not the speechwriter’s words; the politician’s words.
That’s why, ideally, the person writing and the person talking are breathing the same air, thinking the same thoughts and speaking the same language. Simpatico of that kind is hard to attain and harder to hold onto. I can’t tell you how to attain simpatico, but I can tell you what it feels like. It feels like when you’re trying to solve a 3-D wooden puzzle in the dark, and there’s only one right way, and you have to fumble and feel your way around until the pieces click into place. And when they do, it feels a lot like poetry.