The hot wash of the stage lights had no effect on Aaron Cannondale. He was on. He could feel his connection with the audience building. It was as if he’d thrown them a lifeline and they were clamoring to be pulled in:
“… On July 4, 1776, King George III wrote the following entry in his diary: ‘nothing of importance happened today.
That’s because he had no idea that a group of men 3,000 miles away in Philadelphia had just declared their independence from the British Crown. I bet the fair king wished he’d had a television, or a telegraph, or a radio … anything that would have connected him to the rest of the world a bit more quickly. Even today, a lot of people still wish they had such outlets. Half of the world still lives on $1 a day. Half of the world has yet to make its first phone call. As immediate as the world has become, plenty of places are still in the dark. But that’s changing … We sit on the eve of a new frontier …”
Aaron noticed a portly fellow in the front row hanging on every word. That’s how he wanted them — mesmerized, hypnotized, his.
“The digital railroad tracks of the future continue to be set in place as we speak. Tremendous progress has been made in getting information from A to B quicker than ever before. But it’s not good enough. Those without cable modems or DSL lines — the majority — still endure the pain of sluggish email, and stalled-out Internet connections and ten-minute waits for our browsers to load. Would any of us put up with this kind of shoddy service from our cars?”
Hayden Campbell, Aaron’s speechwriter, sat in the back of the UN central chamber, his lips silently syncing the words coming out of his client’s mouth — the sixth richest man in the world. Aaron paced around the stage now, just as Hayden had instructed him. Hayden liked that Aaron listened to his advice. He appreciated that Aaron remembered his pointers, like the fact that 70% of every speech was visual. This was the way a speech giver and speechwriter were supposed to work, a symbiotic relationship between pen and mouth. There was trust and mutual admiration for their respective abilities.
Aaron wasn’t like the others Hayden had served. There had been clients — humorless clients — who pulled 14-hour days at the office, who didn’t know their children, who walked around like modern-day Atlases, boldly trying to support the weight of the world with some self-delusional notion that they, or anyone for that matter, were actually equipped to do so. His last client, the head of a major oil company, fell into that category. The executive had been a complete disappointment — a guy whose arrogance often caused him to make bad decisions — one of those dangerous kinds of men who, having read the Cliff Notes version of The Prince, were under the impression that they understood how to play that game, even though they failed to grasp that running a company with shareholders was considerably different than running a fiefdom with armies.
Hayden had been hesitant when the client recommended him to Cannondale. He assumed it would be more of the same, but the two men couldn’t have been more different.
Then there were the other clients — ruffians who dealt with triads and metaphors the way a wrestler might manhandle a porcelain figurine. And there were the terrified, the ones who were so afraid of getting up in front of an audience that the only way they could deny that fear was to attack Hayden by questioning his research, or his sources, or his ideas.
In the late ’90s, when technology temporarily replaced religion and the word “genius” was thrown around loosely, Hayden had found himself working for a particularly untalented speaker — good executive, bad speaker. Their first trip together was to Atlanta. When they arrived at the hotel lobby, the executive pulled him aside. Hayden thought the man was going to ask him to add something to the speech or put the text in a larger font. Instead, the executive asked Hayden to run out to the airport to pick up his lost luggage. Hayden had just started out. He needed the money, and the reference. So he picked up the monogrammed bag and returned to the hotel ballroom to catch the last few minutes of the executive’s mediocre delivery. Hayden gave the bag to the guy’s secretary backstage and then camped out in the green room.
The man was bad, real bad, but to Hayden’s immediate right sat a medieval-sized pewter bowl of peeled shrimp. It was full when Hayden got to it; it was practically empty by the time the two or three lobotomized souls in the audience who actually seemed to like the speech began to clap. Hayden slipped out the back and grabbed a cab to the airport. He relished the thought of the executive looking around for him after the talk, eagerly waiting to be regaled by the kind of ass sniffing that previous speechwriters had afforded him over the course of his career.
Sure, Hayden’s new client Aaron Cannondale was as arrogant as they came, but somehow he carried it. His ego wasn’t too large to listen or to learn. He valued words. He understood that putting them together just the right way was like having a backstage pass to people’s hearts and minds. The guy just got it.
Aaron’s inflection was perfect now. His body language was strong. Eye contact was good. He owned the oxygen in the room. The venue was a UN-sponsored conference on closing the digital divide. People were still talking about the “haves and have-nots.” Aaron had balked at making an appearance; “too much on my plate,” he’d said. But Hayden had talked him into it. A couple of other headline CEOs were there. It wouldn’t have looked right if Aaron had missed it.
It was a time of reckoning. The technology industry had been battered around the head. CEOs and CFOs were getting hauled up before grand juries and Senate committee chairmen to answer for accounting gimmickry. Under pressure to move quickly against corporate corruption, a bad piece of legislation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, had rocketed through Congress in 2002. The costs to publicly traded companies were now in the billions. Small and medium-sized businesses were beginning to list overseas instead of in the States.
Rounding errors carried the threat of prison sentences. U.S. corporations, paralyzed by fear, sat on their cash, too timid to invest.
Value investors, who were once ridiculed as conservative stegosauruses, were enjoying telling people “I told you so.” In the mid-90s, the Telecom Act had opened the floodgates of competition. It had turned a meat and potatoes industry like telecom into a porterhouse of profits. The pioneers had been an odd mix of entrepreneurs: guys who used to climb telephone poles, owners of AM radio stations, construction company foremen, used car salesmen, and high school gym teachers. Each wanted to be the Cornelius Vanderbilt of his time. They had formed their companies with a goal: to build the fiber-optic railroad tracks that would allow people to send huge quantities of data over the Internet.
Competition turned into desperation, and a healthy number of these Vanderbilts were now either on their way to jail or just getting out, but the dream of building high-tech railroad tracks was still there. It was still a crowded arena, one that couldn’t help but cannibalize itself. And somewhere in the ugliness, Aaron Cannondale saw opportunity. It wasn’t his normal line of business, but it was one that he had told Hayden on a number of occasions he was determined to enter, given the right circumstance.
“The world deserves unlimited bandwidth. It is our collective destiny. I know that some of you doubt that unlimited bandwidth will truly close the digital divide. ‘More of the same,’ you say. Those who can pay will get the perks. And to a certain degree, you are right, at least in the early stages. But isn’t this a bit of a false dilemma? Artificially curtailing the progress of the ‘haves’ will not save the ‘have-nots.’”
Hayden could see Aaron working up to his close. “Pause for effect, Aaron,” he said to himself. Like clockwork, Aaron paused, putting on his trademark look of sincerity.
“Let me leave you with this: Wanting to hand out a computer to every person on the planet, while noble, will not guarantee a better world. Working together, we can one day make unlimited bandwidth a reality. Working together, we can ensure that the ‘haves’ bring the ‘have-nots’ along with them. Working together — business and government, side-by-side — we may just do some good — Thank you.”
“Wait for it, Aaron. Good,” Hayden whispered. “Applause. Excellent.”
Aaron knew he had a gift, and he wasn’t shy about using it. The key was unbridled confidence, poise, and a knack for theatrics. He didn’t try to do a 100-yard dash to the closing either, as most people did when they gave a speech. Then there was the photographic memory. Hayden could provide him with a speech on the plane and let him disappear for a while to get into the zone. By the time the plane landed, he’d find Aaron somewhere in the back doing a crossword puzzle, the speech entirely in his head.
Aaron shook hands with the UN crowd and made his way to the exit. Hayden did his normal thing of slipping out a side door to let his client bask in the afterglow. It was part of a speechwriter’s shtick: make your guy look like a rock star, and then get lost.
Hayden’s path to speechwriting had been circuitous. He had studied computer science and physics at Cambridge. He was also fluent in Arabic. He had spent time in Morocco and promised himself that he would go back when he could no longer smell the place in his mind — a promise he had long since broken.
Hayden met Aaron at the black town car waiting outside. The New York sun pounded away at the road like an invisible sledgehammer. It was different from the mild sun Hayden had woken up to a day earlier in Salt Lake City, home of Aaron’s company, Lyrical. The light was different in New York — somehow more vibrant, more blue. Light was important to Hayden. It helped define a place, or a face, or an event. To him, if light were a word it would be a modifier that turned a perfectly bland sentence into something memorable. Light was also the great rationalizer. It could make an ugly girl look half-decent. It could turn the facade of a decaying building into a wonderland of images. It could seduce you into seeing something that wasn’t there, or seeing too much in something basic. Everything was wholly dependent on what kind of light you viewed it in.
“Well, my friend, what did you think?”
“You did well, Aaron. Very well.”
“Don’t sugarcoat it, Hayden. I must have fucked something up?”
“Now that you mention it, you could have paused longer at your kicker.”
“And you raced through the first two minutes. ’Gotta slow down.”
“You’re right. Did you see them? No sipping the Kool-Aid today, Hayden. They gulped it down. It was so fresh, Hayden, so original. ‘Mr. Original,’ that’s what you are.”
“You were very, very good, Aaron.”
They climbed into the back of the car for the ride out to Teterboro. Three years after 9/11, the film reel of lower Manhattan on fire continued to quietly play in the minds of the city’s inhabitants — at work, at home, looking out the window of a cross-town bus — but the numbness was gone. In its place was a collective desire to return to good times, times like the great technology wave. It had been a time of dirty Ketel One martinis, black clothing, and new fathers puffing Cohibas as they strolled their infants through Central Park. New Yorkers wanted something like that again. New York was different now, but it would always remember how to make money. It certainly wasn’t going to curl up or go fetal, not if Aaron Cannondale had anything to do with it.
Aaron immediately got on the cell phone.
“Lisa, any messages? Right … uh, huh … okay … fuck him … confirm it … why? … who? … right … I love it … change it to the 14th … can’t do that tonight … right …tell Nichols that I want him to follow up … exactly … turquoise.”
Hayden hated cell phones. To him, they were one of the culprits responsible for the decline of the art of conversation. They encouraged a truncated form of the English language that left him feeling as malnourished as the emptiness that set in after polishing off a bag of Cheetos. He decided to get some reading done while Aaron was on the phone.
Hayden opened a manila folder labeled “Speech Fodder” which contained articles that he regularly clipped from newspapers. They covered random topics: an article on the economics of semiconductors, another on AIDS research in Africa, an obituary of Charles K. Johnson, the founder of the Flat Earth Society; a history of the oyster in New York, a discussion on international tariffs, an interpretation of David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” and some lines from Thomas Hobbes on the concept of common wealth. There was no rhyme or reason to what he collected; he just knew that at some point he’d work it into a speech.
One article from the Wall Street Journal caught his attention. It was about the Global Positioning System — the constellation of 24 satellites that sit in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth beaming radio signals to the U.S. military, shippers, truckers, hikers, and rental cars. The article pointed out that the signal coming from the satellites, which had to travel 11,000 miles, was so weak that by the time it arrived on Earth; a single Christmas tree light was about 1,000 times as bright. The article went on to say that the signal could essentially be altered by anyone possessing a jamming device that they could get off of the Internet for $40.
“A Christmas tree light,” Hayden mumbled to himself in amazement.
“What’s that, my friend?” Aaron said, cupping the receiver of his cell phone.
“Nothing. Just talking to myself, Aaron.”
“Don’t do that.”