Saturday, May 06, 2006

Ken Askew: "Confessions of a Wounded Speechwriter"

(Borrowed via Wikipedia)

One of my friends and NoZe Brother confreres at Baylor University was none other than Ken Askew, a missionary's kid from Japan who went by the Noble NoZe cognomen of "Brother KimoNoZe."

By "none other than" I mean that he is a well-known personality ... to me. You, by contrast, have probably never heard of Ken. If I were the sort of writer who enjoys a bad pun, I'd say that he's probably beyond your ken.

But that wouldn't really be true. Except in some deep, ontological sense known only to God, my old friend Ken is so sufficiently within your ken that you soon will feel that you, too, have always known him.

He will have become a kith among your kith and kin.

For the mid-seventies Baylor scene, Ken was unusual. Having grown up in Japan, he knew the Japanese language well enough to speak it in a way that to my ears sounded fluent. More importantly, this ability set him off from others at Baylor, aside from the occasional Japanese exchange student such as Junichi Nakashima -- artist, poet, and martial arts expert who worked with me in Penland Cafeteria and with whom I've utterly lost contact.

But this post concerns Ken, not Junichi.

Ken was also an excellent musician and had been accepted at The Julliard School of Music but chose Baylor instead because -- if I correctly recall -- he had never bothered to learn how to read music well and had no desire to learn. Why big Baptist Baylor? Free education for missionary kids. And being exceedingly intellectually gifted, he had done so well on all the various, requisite tests that he had also qualified for a full scholarship.

He therefore had sufficient leisure and money to devote himself to the life of an aesthete, so he spent his time and money on interests in music, art, and literature. Occasionally, he went to his classes but didn't appear to take them especially seriously and was repeatedly at risk of losing his scholarship but never did.

Upon graduating, we went our separate ways and lost contact, though I wondered, from time to time, what had become of Ken.

One day 1985, while I was studying at Berkeley, I got a call in the Office for the History of Science and Technology. It was Ken, who was writing a speech for Senator Sam Nunn and who needed some information about science in China. I put him in touch with my friend and Chinese history expert Lionel Jensen and lost contact again.

Years later, perhaps around 2002, when I was teaching at Hanshin University, in Osan, South Korea, I was learning how to use the internet for research purposes, and the thought occurred to me that I could probably find Ken through the internet.

I did a Google search, and up he popped -- as a member of Toastmasters International who had worked as a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush?! Not the current "Dubya" but the previous "Aitch Dubya."

Wow! I was only one degree of separation from power. Not that this did me any good. Rumor says it even hurt my bid for tenure: Too close to Bush, they whispered...

Some good came of it, though. I located an online article by Ken in which he recounts his years as a speechwriter for the high and mighty: "Confessions of a Wounded Speechwriter" (pdf), Ambassador, Fall 2001.

In this article, Ken tells a particularly funny story of writing speeches for President "Aitch Dubya" during the 1992 re-election campaign. Some desperate soul had decided that what "Aitch Dubya" needed was "a whistle-stop tour through the heartland" on the sole train that would get his campaign back on track.

Ultimately, this effort proved unsuccessful, but Ken nearly saved the day. Here's his story of those final days:

[I]f I never write another successful speech, Bush [at least] provided me with the high point of my career.

It happened during the desperate last days of perhaps the worst-run presidential re-election campaign in recent history, when some genius in our camp decided Bush should embark on a whistle-stop tour through the heartland. The team rounded up a train, gussied it with bunting and POTUS (President of The United States) was off and running, sort of.

The trick to campaign speeches is to string a couple dozen policy ideas together, each pearl a standalone point so the press gets to choose its bits. It helps to punch each pearl with a one-line zinger.

One idea before us this particular day was the long-standing Democratic control of Congress -- 38 years. In a moment of giddy fatigue, I threw out the line, "Thirty-eight years? That's 266 dog years!" It was so lame we put it in triple brackets to flag it for the president's review and moved on to the next idea. What I failed to understand was the president's fascination with dogs. Dogs are completely wonderful, according to Bush. He loved the line.

He used it at 8 a.m. to a crowd of half-asleep supporters at the first whistle-stop. It met with confused silence. What did the leader of the free world just say? Something about Congress and dog years?

On the way to the next scheduled stop, the president retired to the back of the train with his #2 pencil and wrote furiously.

Next stop, he tried the joke again. Again, confused silence. A sprinkling of polite titters. Back in the train, he barked out requests for more facts and figures. Next stop, lo and behold, the same dog-year joke, the same response. But this time, a paragraph later, POTUS describes the Pentagon budget in dollars, multiplies it by seven and calls it dog-dollars. The crowd begins to catch on.

You get the picture. By day's end the speech was crammed with facts and figures, each multiplied by seven. Dog-years. Dog-dollars. Dog-this. Dog-that. And as the train pulled out of the last station at dusk, the crowd was actually chanting, "Twenty-eight more years! Twenty-eight more years!"

Parturientes montes murem ridiculosum pepererunt: The mountains went into labor and there emerged a ridiculous mouse. It was my finest seven hours.

Until the next morning, when The New York Times, front page below the fold, suggested perhaps the leader of the free world had lost his mind. Time to rewrite.
Ladies and Gentlemen, as I promised: the redoubtable Brother KimoNoZe, the one and only Ken Askew.

... none other than.


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