February 14, 2008

"The Sam Seaborn Quill"

There is a great West Wing episode when Sam Seaborn insists on staying at work and breaking a date so he can finish writing a "birthday message" for the assistant Secretary of Transportation. President Bartlet encourages Sam to take the extra effort and really nail it. I got into a discussion with a friend the other day about how the screenwriter never creates a back story for Sam.

I wonder where Sam got his writing abilities. The only thing we know about his background is his education at Princeton--including a stint as recording secretary of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

An any case, I've been thinking about "The Walk" as a special case in political composition. It doesn't have any relation to The West Wing, except this idea of "cinematic" writing I keep considering. I think the biggest concern in writing at length about the walking campaign tactic is repetition. Chiles walked across all of Florida in 1970 and into history. But the feat did not end there. He reprised it in 1982 and planned to in 1988 before bowing out of his campaign entirely. Other candidates across the country tried walk-a-thons during the 1970s to replicate the magic.

Repetition can put even the best reader to sleep quick. But: it's also an opportunity. By replaying the Walk in different iterations, you can show evolution. That's the hidden benefit. The first Walk is by far the most important, the longest, the most exciting. The second goes only from Century to Tallahassee; the last is a misfire. In the three Walks, you can see the political journey from jubilation to disillusionment. So few politicians reach that realization that "this just isn't working for me any more...or the country." Or they do and don't act on it. As emotional and straining as it must have been for Chiles to put down his gavel as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and go back to Florida for good, there is something logical about it, too. The rules, the traditions, the camaraderie of the U.S. Senate that inspired his Walk in 1970; they crippled him by 1988. The bipartisan bonding he enjoyed in his first Senate years had ended by his last. The White House had stifled talk of budget deficit reduction. The Walk was as painful in 1988 as it was uplifting in 1970, I imagine.

After Chiles dies, the funeral cortege across the Panhandle follows the path of the Walk once more.

That's four times all together, each demanding different tone, length, and content.

Cinematic Writing: Revisited

I mentioned before how in The West Wing, the director or cinematographer likes to rest the camera on a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt or George Washington at opportune moments. It's a way to gently nudge the viewer, "Hey look, gravitas."

It works because Martin Sheen is a great actor as President Barlet and it makes sense in times of war and peace to match forefathers with aspiring leaders.

I think that in a book, a similar principle applies. Put a young man next to portraits Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, or Jacob Summerlin, and all of the sudden you're thinking "legend." If the comparison is dramatic enough, you can sell the reader that the subject of your biography deserves to live alongside the greats.

February 13, 2008

Condensing and Cutting

Right now, I'm trying to figure out whether there is enough material in the '76 re-election campaign to warrant its own chapter. I might just tack it onto the "Government in the Sunshine" chapter since almost all the material in the first and second terms fits under that rubric.

February 12, 2008

"Hearing Hoofbeats"

In All Too Human, a memoir of the Clinton presidential years by George Stephanopolous, the author tells reporter Joel Klein about all the mess of infighting in the White House after the first few months of honeymoon. Klein says that he comes from Kossack ancestors, and when times get real good, he starts to worry about the future. He listens for "hoofbeats" bringing bad tidings. His ancestors expected an actual cavalry attack, I imagine.

In The West Wing, I guess that Aaron Sorkin respects the "hoofbeats," too. He seems to appreciate the storytelling power you get when you mix the awful with sublime happiness.

For example, the night in Chicago when Jed Bartlet wins the Democratic nomination, Josh Lyman is off the wall ecstatic, asking Donna to dance with him. But not five minutes after victory is announced, Donna breaks the news to him that his father has died.

Another example: the night when Jed Bartlet soars to re-election--after winning the Dakotas, among other improbable victories--he misses some of the Teleprompter because his MS gets the best of him.

I think about the "hoofbeats" theme a lot when I'm framing the story for the Chiles Senate years. Political defeats are one thing, and so are victories sunk by tragedy, but what about just the wheels just coming off gradually one by one. That's compelling, too.

February 10, 2008

A Three-Act Play?

Someone I interviewed a while back said something like, "You know the truth of it is, seems like no sane person can stand more than three terms in the U.S. Senate; look how it ends up that way."

That was the Bob Graham-Lawton Chiles way of doing it.

When the last years are the worst, it's tempting to look at 18 years in the Senate as a tragedy in three acts. You introduce the gun at the end of the first act. Somebody picks it up in the second act. Then it fires in the third act.

When the Chiles-MacKay transition team finally got a look at how bad their budget shortfall would be in 1991-1992, someone on the staff commented, "It was like walking in on the third act of a tragedy."

Rules of Thumb

There are lots of writing techniques I've practiced on this project. Here is one: when you're gonna assert something audacious and wildly off-the-wall, it's better to capture it in a quotation or an extended excerpt than to use the omniscient narrator voice.

Much more powerful and distinctive that way. I think the more you buffet the reader with "I know more than you" narration, the more the reader tunes you out. It's okay for an academic position paper where the point is for you to engage in debate, but in a fiction-style biographical narrative, I think it gets annoying and it distracts from the subject.