What Made Me Who I Am
August 29, 2016
Bernie Swain draws on the impressive roster of the Washington Speakers Bureau for stories of the moments that defined them, and our time.
Bernie Swain is the co-founder of the Washington Speakers Bureau, which he started in 1980 with his wife Paula and a friend in Chuck Hagel's closet. (I could explain that a bit more, but I couldn't beat Swain's telling of the story, so I'll let you discover it for yourself.) A year later, they still represented no one and were out of money. Washington Speakers Bureau is, of course, now the industry leader. He tells us how they accomplished that feat in his new book, What Made Me Who I Am, but he does so briefly, because this is not a book about his own success. It is, however, a testament to it, as it contains stories from 32 WSB speakers who make up an impressive roster of today's greatest leaders and most successful people.
Washington Speakers Bureau has represented "three of the last four presidents of the United States, the last four prime ministers of Great Britain, five secretaries of state, countless government and military leaders, journalists, authors, and sports legends." Over the years, as he sat and talked with the people they represented, Swain began to notice something they all had in common:
In the life of truly successful and accomplished people, you will often find a turning point. … [S]uccess and accomplishment don't happen in a vacuum; they rise from experiences that have a profound and lasting influence.
What Swain has done is gather stories of such turning points from a wide array of people and professions—from Colin Powell and Madeline Albright to Mary Lou Retton and Terry Bradshaw, from Bob Woodward and Doris Kearns Goodwin to Tony Blair and Alan Greenspan. Swain credits Alex Haley, the author of Roots, with planting the seed of the idea for this book in him. Haley would occasionally show up unannounced at the at the WSB offices just to share stories and converse, sometimes for hours on end. On one of these visits, he said something that made a lasting impression on Bernie Swain:
On this occassion, Alex repeated one of his favorite sayings: "When an old person dies, it's like a library burning." That pithy phrase stuck with me, and as the days and months passed, I began to understand what he was telling me. Each life—the ones recounted here, the millions that go uncelebrated—is defined by experiences that have volumes to teach us. Each life is a storehouse of wisdom and knowledge, its own library, stuffed to the rafters.
Madeline Albright and Dave Barry set the tone for the book, writing intimate portraits of their parents and telling us how they affected the trajectory of their lives and careers. Tony Blair tells us how his father's stroke cut his political ambitions short just as he was about to launch them, and how the example his mother set in painstakingly teaching him to speak and function again, taught him what it means to struggle and forced him to put away his childish mischievousness and stop causing trouble at the age of ten. Tom Brokaw writes about being a party boy and ladies man in college, and the professor who helped him wise up. Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us how she learned the power of storytelling by keeping score while listening to Dodger's games on the radio, and recounting the details of the game to her father when he got home from work, and that is just half the story. The other half includes dancing with Lyndon Johnson at the White House soon after writing an article about how to remove him from power.
You'll hear from business leaders, journalists, politicians of every stripe, athletes and coaches, a medal of honor winner, and a soldier who was shot down in Bosnia and survived for six days behind enemy lines before being rescued. And the stories are intimate and revealing. Most stories are uplifting in some way, but there are a few that are also emotionally devastating, such as when a grocery chain CEO shares the story of his twenty-one-month-old son drowning, or a journalist tells of losing his wife to Parkinson's disease. Often, the moments that have defined them most have defined the times, as well. There are so many that are caught up in the great sweep of recent world history, like the story of Tedd Koppel's parents moving to England when his father was stripped of his German citizenship, and how he was arrested there during the war and sent to an internment camp because he was German. Koppel talks about what it was like to attend an English boarding school where he was an outsider, "one of only two Jews … and the son of Germans only five years after the end of the war," and how the lessons learned there helped him as a journalist.
To even know this many people who have had such an impact on the world in one's lifetime, to be able to count them as friends as well as colleagues, is impressive. To be able to call on them for their stories and have them willing to share them is epic. And to have them be about some of their most intimate and profound experiences, the moments that truly defined them and the course of their lives, is powerful and moving.
We have 20 copies available.