The politician from Queens – picture an Easter Island statue in a pinstriped suit – spotted me at a charity event. In a boom of a voice that could cause the earth to tremble as far away as Staten Island, he called out: “Sue sweetheart!” I smiled, delighted to see his huge, flat boulder of a face, and strode over. He hugged me and gave me a kiss that left a residue of pigs in blanket on my cheek.
“So, you finally back to writing speeches?” he asks brightly. I shook my head. He seemed peeved. “Why not?”
“I’m writing fiction these days.”
“Fiction?” He pronounced it slowly, as if it’s a word he’d read but had never before uttered.
“Novels,” I explained.
“No kidding! Hey Sue, you went legit!”
I suppose I did. But in this political season, I feel nostalgic for my old life. I find myself wanting to put words in candidates’ mouths, to work with them so that they’re the best version of themselves. On the other hand, having just finished a novel of which I’m proud (Goldberg Variations), I understand I made the right career move.
Okay, flashback time. After finishing at Queens College in the mid-60s, I got a job at Seventeen magazine. I started out writing advice to lovelorn and wound up as a senior editor. However, doing articles like “How to Say No to a Boy” (a concept that had never occurred to me during my own adolescence), was not overstimulating.
So one night after work, I strolled across Manhattan and walked into the headquarters of Herman Badillo, a then-Democrat running in the mayoral primary. The man interviewing me, someone from the Bronx with hair glistening with gardenia-scented pomade asked what I did. To “magazine writer,” he responded, “Oh, good, you can write speeches for Herman.” I tried to explain how a talent for writing about how to decorate a bedroom with crêpe paper flowers might not translate to politics, but he wasn’t buying it. I sensed the campaign had budget problems.
So that night I wrote a speech on municipal labor unions. Badillo was a smart, decent politician, but if he had a dry wit, I never observed it. Yet it became clear his goal was to sound like… JFK. Oy. However, knowing I was a volunteer and had kept my day job made me fearless; I suggested that he was an accountant of Puerto Rican descent, not the scion of a prominent Irish-Catholic family. But listen, I wasn’t any Theodore Sorensen (Kennedy’s speechwriter). Neither Badillo nor I were soaring rhetoric types, which wasn’t to say we didn’t have plenty to offer. So why not make the best of what we had?
We did, but Badillo lost to the machine Democrat. From there I worked for the liberal Republican candidate John Lindsay. Yay! Lindsay won. Except his reelection came when I was exceedingly pregnant with my first child. I said goodbye to the magazine and, I believed, to politics to become a stay-at-home mother. But some of my colleagues from the two campaigns I’d been on switched to other candidates, so I got occasional gigs as a freelance political speechwriter.
And this is what I discovered about politicians in the early 70s: they all wanted to be some variation of JFK. Kennedy the wit, Kennedy the practitioner of realpolitik, Kennedy the charmer. And I had to say, Listen, Brooklyn person, you will never be a gifted enough mimic to capture someone else’s magic. Let’s talk. I want to hear you explain your views on the capital budget so I can write about it in your voice.
Voice. Essential for a politician, because you and I can both hear when a political speech has emotional truth, that whoever wrote it, the politician or his/her writer, understood the views and the heart of a candidate. And you and I also know when we read a work of fiction whether a line is true to a character or sounds like something the author picked up at a dialogue garage sale.
As a speechwriter, I worked for a couple of New York aristocrats, that ex-accountant from the Bronx, a cold fish from Brooklyn, and several others. Each time, I told them to forget JFK. I tried to channel their voices so what I wrote sounded human and unique to them. Who wants to vote for an android?
Outside of science fiction, who wants to read about one? I don’t “make up” my characters or model them on anyone I know. Like politicians, they come to me and demand, “Write what I should say.” I listen not only to what they want to express, but how they’re conveying it.
After all, I went from politics to fiction, but I still want to create a true life, not a generic, spiritless facsimile. I hope, like my old pol-pal said, that I went legit.
Susan Isaac’s new novel is Goldberg Variations