In many ways the title of Craig R. Smith’s book does not prepare the reader for what is divulged in its pages. The author’s brief preface, publisher’s synopsis, and testimonials by three communication scholars on the back cover provide a better window into the rich, multilayered narrative. His tenure as one of Gerald Ford’s speechwriters constituted less than one year, and time assisting George H. W. Bush between his first presidential run in 1980 and his presidency in 1989 collectively would not account for much more. Smith’s experiences, however, take the reader behind the scenes of the speechwriting process with all of its staff politics, vetting processes, and reluctant orators. Scattered throughout the book are also lessons, based on Smith’s rhetorical and debate training, for writing an eloquent and successful speech. Because Smith’s professional life alternated between academic and political worlds, there is also commentary on academic politics that led him to conclude in chapter 16 “that there’s more politics in education than education in politics” (305). Ventures into the corporate, media, and foundation worlds demonstrate how a liberal arts education steeped in rhetoric and philosophy provides the tools necessary to navigate diverse contexts and career options.
One of the most poignant elements of Smith’s narrative is the struggle with being a gay Republican in a political world that forced him to stay in the closet when “he could have been a role model” and that resulted in “wasted years without a relationship” (216). This struggle highlights that the political is the personal for many. The memoir highlights the social, political, economic, religious, and rhetorical influences in post-World War II America from the perspective of a participant observer. Smith refers to brushing shoulders with politicians, corporate giants, and Hollywood stars as “Forrest Gump moments” (210) and to the various aspects of society that have [End Page 177] influenced his life as “byways” (ix). The travel metaphor is appropriate because Confessions is both a recounting of Smith’s journey and a journey for readers that includes many intersections.
Smith relates the story of an academic conference in Edinburgh, where he spoke on St. Augustine’s rhetorical roots and the influence of Jesus. Smith describes his own rhetorical roots, beginning with his parents’ influences and lessons, in the preface. He unabashedly expresses his spirituality throughout the book, reflecting Augustine’s and Heidegger’s influences along with those of other theologians, philosophers, and his Roman Catholic roots. “Confessions” is an appropriate title. Like Augustine, Smith reflects on his own shortcomings, sense of guilt, and personal struggles while weaving a theme of redemption throughout. However, most references to the theme are in regard to the need for redemption, the achievement of it, or the lack thereof for others such as Robert Packwood and Richard Nixon. Smith’s style is one of reflection informed by rhetorical theories from Aristotle to Burke. Thus, the book is more scholarly than other political memoirs while still being highly accessible.
Because the memoir is composed of 17 chapters, rather than a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, the remainder of this review is organized around Smith’s byways: the American Dream, higher education, broadcast news, national politics from the 1960s to the present day, and the fight for freedom of expression (ix). Most American politicians claim to be a personification of the American Dream, either through their family’s colonial roots or through their family’s more recent immigration stories. Smith’s family background is a convergence of the two—a father whose ancestor was one of the first to die in the Revolutionary War and a mother who was a Russian immigrant at the turn of the twentieth century. This personal history enabled him to capture the essence of the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence for President Ford and to craft Lee Iacocca’s speeches on the rebirth of Chrysler and the importance of the Statue of Liberty. Unlike for most of us, Smith’s American Dream is more than a better...