The Buttons: Speechless but never at a loss for words

It’s taken me a while to read Speechless, a lovely book about speechwriting by James Button, Walkley Award-winning journalist and author and son of John, a senator and a former minister in the Labor Governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. It’s not only a story about speeches but a father and son relationship, the public service and former prime minister Kevin Rudd. (SMH photo above, Left: James, John and Nick, at Geelong match.)
James Button worked as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd when he was PM in 2009 and later with the Strategy and Delivery Division (SDD), part of the Australian Public Service (APS), where acronyms abound. The reason it took me so long to read Speechless was simple: I enjoyed it so much I wanted to savour every word. (The late Bob Ellis called it “a quiet masterpiece, to be savoured.) It’s also about words and even has a chapter devoted to clear writing in the public service called The Dejargonator, a blog Button’s boss asked him to set up so that people could post examples of “grisly official prose and have a crack at writing clear alternatives.” Button learned from the Great Dejargonator, Don Watson, and his books on jargon “lacerating bad language” that “we are all dejargonators now.” But he also discovered why jargon persists: for the government, it’s about managing risk. He writes: “a vast effort is expended to make sure nothing bad happens, which creates another form of risk: that nothing happens at all.”
As a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, Button realised the PM rarely gave good speeches: “He could or would not find the connection with his audience. Yet, it’s strange, for he gave one great speech. It had people in it.” In his Apology speech in 2008, Rudd described Nungala Fejo, an Aboriginal woman taken from her family by welfare worker who never saw her mother again, as “an elegant, eloquent and wonderful women in her eighties, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life’s journey.” He spoke of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the removal of Indigenous children: “There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages … These stories cry out to be heard. They cry out for an apology.”
But as James Button points out in his Acknowledgements in Speechless, it’s his father’s story as much as his. They had difficulty talking about the death of James’ younger brother, Dave, from a heroin overdose. They came close when James showed his Dad a draft of a long piece he had written about Australia’s future for Time Magazine in 1992. John replied: “It’s very long. It’s pretty bleak. And I don’t think you’ve quite caught the spirit of innovation in the economy.” That, of course, angered James who wrote a letter to John saying he had read the piece as a politician, not as a father. A few days later, John told James after a meal at a restaurant: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” a famous line from the English poet Philip Larkin. The anger disappeared. But ten years later, he helped his father write a Quarterly Essay on the Labor Party, both working hard for a week. His Dad spoke at the launch of the essay, thanking his son only in passing. His anger returned but he never told his father what he felt: “I should have said something to him! … I had robbed him of the chance to explain why he didn’t mention it … And we would have grown closer.” James then writes one of the key paragraphs of the book: “We were two articulate men, friends, who loved words and talking together about words. Yet in these respects, we were speechless.”
James still had questions about his father’s memoir, As It Happened, and his mother pointed him to a profile of his Dad in a book of interviews he did with a Melbourne University political scientist, Alan Davies. The psychological profile of the 26-year-old John Button paints him as “tense, troubled, self-absorbed,” a snapshot James recognises: “He seems to be saying, ‘I am a plain man, there is no bloody nonsense about me.’” Later James reads As It Happened again and goes to the last page where his father is musing on his life in politics: “He has regrets, but no complaints: rather the curiosity of wondering what life would be like if he had done something different. And that thought – what if he had done something different? – makes him think of his father: “From my father, I acquired the instinct of taking what comes in life and learning to cop it without complaining. As a child I learnt this the hard way. In later life I was grateful. I’m sure I helped to keep me sane.” James writes: “There it is, hiding in plain view, like the letter on the mantelpiece in a Sherlock Holmes novel. His father is the last person in his book. He has written the book he had to write. He won’t write another but it doesn’t matter. He has made peace with his father.”

I’m only sad because I didn’t have a chance to go to a footy match with John Button, a lifelong supporter of the Geelong football club. James describes walking beside his father at a Geelong match with his brother Nick: “I would hear a constant hum: ‘That’s John Button’.” In his obituary of his father published in the May 2008 edition of The Monthly, James talked about his Dad’s love of Geelong: “He was seriously, battily, obsessed by football, and by the Geelong Football Club. More than once, in the Geelong changing rooms, I caught Dad staring a little too intently at Gary Ablett’s thighs. Week after week, year on year, he would draw an oval on a sheet of paper and compile his team in his crimped handwriting, which a secretary of his once compared to the scratchings of a chook. Sometimes he would mail them to the coach; always he would mail them to Nick and me. I think football was a great release from politics. More than that, though, it gave him a chance to be with his two sons, and I know that his love of football was also a love of us.”
I was fortunate enough to produce John Button for a cover story he was reporting for the Channel Nine Sunday program (later moved to Business Sunday) in 1993, and wrote about it on my blog in April. He was a gracious, humble man who loved his footy and was loved by all the CEOs he talked to about the future of Australian business. He got along well with the workers as well, this “plain man” with “no bloody nonsense” about him. He even talked the then Prime Minister Paul Keating into doing an interview with him for the program, and it was a privilege for me to sit in Kirribilli House and listen to these two Labor veterans talk intelligently about politics and industry, and produce a few headlines for Channel Nine.
If he were still alive, I’d send him an email or a text, saying may the best team win in tonight’s finals match between Geelong and Sydney. But, of course, my team, the Swans will emerge victorious. I only know James as a fellow journalist, but he has written a wonderful book about the Geelong Football Club called Comeback: The Rise and Fall of Geelong, a profile of the Cats’ three premierships in five seasons from 2007 to 2011.
Author and cricket expert extraordinare, Gideon Haigh, reviewed Button’s book in The Weekend Australian last September, saying Comeback is “notably free of needless grandiosity. There are no special claims, for instance, about the bond of club and city: rather, Geelong is an ‘ordinary club in an ordinary town that has done extraordinary things.’ In what Button says he is never other than thoughtful; in what he excludes, the surfeit of repetitive, rigidly chronological detail that retards so many sports books, he may be even more effective.”
James, your father would be proud of you. May the best team win tonight.
Update: Unfortunately, from a Swans supporter’s point of view, the best team was Geelong, who beat Sydney by 59 points last night in a sudden-death final, and go on to play Adelaide in a preliminary final next weekend. The season is over for the Swans. The Button family will be happy.

2 thoughts on “The Buttons: Speechless but never at a loss for words

    • Hi Lou, A “chook” is colloquial for a chicken. We have chook raffles Down Under. Hence, the scratching of a chook in the post above. Thanks for asking. I’ve been here so long I forget which words might be unknown to an American! Hope you’re well. Cheers, Tom

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