Royer, Bob: My Apprenticeship with him by Tom Byers

  • By Tom Byers
  • Posted 4/17/2019
  • Essay 20760
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In 1977, Tom Byers took a leave of absence from his job at a Seattle health clinic to work on the mayoral campaign of Charley Royer (b. 1939), and later joined the mayor's staff as a special assistant for health, human services, and the environment. Here, Byers recounts his days (and nights) writing speeches with deputy mayor Bob Royer (1943-1919), Charley's brother and the leader of his speechwriting team.  

Shared Aspirations for Seattle

Working on speeches with Bob Royer was one of the great adventures of my life. Bob had honed his craft with his brother in the newsrooms of KING’s television stations in Portland and Seattle and came away from that experience with an approach to speechwriting that was all his own, comprised of roughly equal parts Edward R. Murrow and Hunter S. Thompson, with an occasional dash of Walt Whitman.

As the senior partner in the Royer administration’s speechwriting team, Bob set the drill. On most issues, one of us would take the assignment and just jump on it, believing that we knew Charley's mind well enough to write something he would be comfortable with. But if it was a major speech on a subject that Charley cared deeply about, Bob would schedule an hour for the three of us to outline the speech. At those meetings Charley would spin out the big ideas he wanted to cover in a rolling monologue while Bob and I sat silently, measuring the rhetorical possibilities of his ideas. In those sessions I learned that even though the Royer boys had been raised in television newsrooms, they were full-blooded members of a vanishing tribe of on-air reporters who actually loved the words they were broadcasting as much as the pictures. They relished nothing quite so much as finding just the right metaphor to drive home a point, bring an audience to tears, or bludgeon a bad actor.

One of Charley's great gifts as a politician was his uncanny ability to take a big, complicated issue that would take hours to explain and boil it down into a few phrases that people could understand -- and for the most part, agree with. For example, when he set out to integrate the ranks of the police department with women and minorities, he told the media that he had simply instructed the police chief to "make the force reflect the city it served." Who could disagree with that? He offered no long treatise on equal opportunity goals, no fierce debate over quotas or preferences. He just outflanked bigotry with the turn of a phrase.

While Charley had a gift for cutting to the quick, Bob's talent was of a different kind -- more like James Joyce than Ernest Hemingway. His writing -- and his thinking -- never traveled in a straight line; it bobbed and weaved, slithered and then soared. A razor-sharp metaphor in one sentence; soft, rolling hills of poetic images in the next. Sometimes the audience had to think fast to keep up with his prose, but they always enjoyed going along for the ride.

Bob had a prescribed ritual for our work on important speeches. After the bull session with Charley, we would each take our notes back to our own office to prepare separate versions of the same speech. During the next few days, I would chip away tenaciously between meetings and phone calls, and usually managed to have a pretty complete draft in hand two days before the speech was to be given. Then I'd check in with Bob, and in almost every instance, find that he had yet to put on paper any words at all. Only when so much time had drained away that it no longer seemed remotely possible to write a good, tight, thirty-minute speech without working around the clock, would Bob finally kick into gear.

He would cast aside the piles of papers that covered every surface in the maelstrom of his office, place his beloved antique Smith-Corona type writer in the center of the cleared space, and gently lay two cigars to the right of the keyboard. Then he would draw three deep breaths and begin banging at the ancient keys in a brutal rush of creative energy that could go on for hours at a time. Then suddenly and without warning, the banging would fall silent. Bob would look up from the keys, take a deep drag on the cigar and stare into the blue-gray smoke.

These pauses were always the hardest part for me. Most of the time they only lasted a minute or two, but on other occasions they could hold him back for an hour or even longer as he stared into the smoke while he searched for just the right phrases to bring disjointed fragments into harmony. Meanwhile, what little time we had left was evaporating.

Finally, you could see his lips begin to move, and hear him quietly testing phrases for their rhythm. Somehow, like an old-time stunt pilot, Bob would pull out of the spin at the last second and soar into the heavens, rolling out the rest of his draft as if it were effortless.

By then we'd be hopelessly short on time, with two completely different versions of the speech still to reconcile. That’s when the real fun began. This was in the days before word-processing, when reconciling our drafts meant cutting our work with scissors and piecing together a unified version with scotch tape. As senior partner, Bob took charge of that task.

"I like my opening," he'd always say, placing the first couple of pages of his draft to the left of the Smith-Corona. "You’ve got some good graphs here on the revenue thing. We’ll keep those," he'd say as he sliced a page of my work and add the paragraphs he liked to the pile. "I'm going to say we need my piece on energy independence ... " Five more pages of his draft on the pile. "Nice segue way into your piece on the Cedar River watershed ... " Two of mine.

And on it would go until Bob had grafted our work together with tape. Then he'd make three copies, send one in to Charley, give one to me and keep one. Stopping just long enough to make a fresh pot of coffee, we'd each return to our separate cubicles and begin again, each refining the hybrid draft in our own style. A couple hours later, we'd meet in his office with our revisions. By now time was really running out, and we were beginning to feel the heat. Charley would poke his head in, having just read the first hybrid version, looking a little worried.

"It’s pretty rough guys. This is supposed to be a budget speech, not a goddamn treatise on energy policy! Where's the part about our housing levy?"

"We're already working on the rewrite Charley," Bob would answer, rubbing bloodshot eyes. Now was about the time tempers would begin to fray.

"I’ve got to go do an interview on KUOW. It's supposed to be about the speech. You guys might want to listen in so you know what to write," Charley said with a laugh, but I could tell he was getting peeved.

"Just give us a fucking break your majesty," Bob muttered beneath his breath as Charley moved down the hall. Now the adrenaline was flowing.

With less than three hours to go, we were flying. Bob trimmed his sails on the energy section while I did my best to knock out a heart-wrenching plea for support for the housing levy. Bob taped it into the draft and we worked on the segues.

We were working on a single version now, poring over it line by line, clipping out unneeded words, replacing my soft verbs with Bob's more vigorous prose. By now we had less than an hour until Charley came back, and he would have only an hour to rehearse before he stepped to the podium in front of the television cameras. Every typist in the office was hard at work on revisions as Bob began reading the speech out loud, pausing to change any word that wouldn't roll off the tongue.

"There is no such verb as 'maximize' Tommy," he said. "I taught you better than that!"

He was beginning to recover his sense of humor. He crossed the offending word out and replaced it and began reading again. Before he had finished, Charley returned.

"How is it?" he asked.

"Well, it hums, but it doesn't sing," Bob responded, meaning that it was pretty goddamned good but there was still room for Charley to make "improvements" if he wanted to. He handed Charley the draft he had been reading and the Mayor retreated into his office to have a smoke and make the speech his own.

A few minutes later, Charley called us in, told us that it was "a nice piece of work" and said that he just wanted to sharpen the ending a little. We left him to it with a full twelve minutes to spare.

The speech was out of our hands now, but we were still running on adrenaline and couldn't sit still. We headed down to the council chambers, got the best seats we could find and fidgeted until the gavel pounded, the Mayor entered, the cameras rolled and our words began to ring out into the chambers. Bob and I followed along with our copies of the text, making notes in the margins when something worked -- or didn't; when people applauded -- or should have.

Charley's natural abilities covered a multitude of sins and self-indulgences -- our speeches were always too long, but they were usually well received anyway. This one was no exception. Afterward Bob and I got lots of pats on the back and positive comments. The glow lasted for about two hours, until the evening news eviscerated our flowing rhetoric with badly edited 30-second sound bites. Then, with the adrenaline fading, we wandered back into our offices to find the mountains of phone messages and memos that had piled up while we were working on the soon-to-be-forgotten speech.

Those speeches didn't bend the arc of history very much, if they bent it at all. But they were honest expressions of shared aspirations for Seattle in those times. When I read them now, I think of Bob, sitting in front of his typewriter staring into the smoke of his cigar and banging out this sentence: "Seattle is a city that lies gently in the arms of the land."

I have been trying to write a sentence about our City as clean and true as that ever since.


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