Brian McGuire doesn’t usually talk about himself.
His tweets are locked in a private account. He had trouble tracking down a photo of himself.
He lives and thrives behind the scenes, and he likes it that way.
When the Albany native transitioned from journalism to speechwriting eight years ago, he gave up objectivity for persuasion and traded a byline for words that someone else would take credit for. Last month, the 39-year-old father and husband gave up some of his invisibility for a new, more prominent job with the top Republican in the Senate: chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s personal office.
“I’m humbled that he has asked me to do this,” McGuire said, “but I think it makes sense. He knows me. I think he trusts me. I think he trusts that our views are very much aligned and that I’m somebody who can help advance his interests both in Kentucky and the rest of the country.
McGuire has worked for McConnell since 2007, most recently as chief speechwriter and a senior advisor in his Capitol Leadership Office. In his new role, he’s responsible for advancing the interests of Kentuckians in McConnell’s home state, but will also keep some old responsibilities, like shaping the soon-to-be Senate majority leader’s message and advising on strategy and policy.
And he just had a baby. McGuire’s second, actually (first-born Stella is 2 years old). Max was born three days after his dad’s boss won re-election.
“I have a very generous and indulgent wife who is very good to let me work longer than I should be working,” McGuire said.
Before his life in D.C., McGuire was a kid in Albany who dreamed of being a baseball player. But, as he says, you can either hit the fastball or you can’t, so he decided instead that he’d be an architect. But he couldn’t swing the math and science, so he decided to seek out a well-rounded, liberal arts degree upon graduation from Albany High School.
He had been interested in politics in high school, having come of age during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the final years of the Cold War. But he put politics aside during his time at St. John’s College in Maryland, where he focused instead on reading the classics and getting “a good liberal arts education.”
After college, he took an interest in journalism and wound up going to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. He took a job covering business for The Daily Gazette, where from 2002 to 2005, he said, he got the best professional experience of his political career.
“Writing on deadline for a daily newspaper, you can’t beat it,” he said. “In terms of your ability to learn things you might not necessarily be interested in writing about and then synthesizing that information and conveying it in a compelling way, it served me well in this job. To write very quickly on a variety of topics — and persuasively — has been very useful for me.”
He got his first taste of politics as a reporter when he left the Gazette in 2005 to write for the New York Sun, a politically conservative daily newspaper that now publishes only online. He worked in its Albany bureau, covering state government. Later that year, he covered U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation hearings in Washington.
Around that time, McGuire recalls being attracted to speechwriting. Michael Gerson, Matthew Scully and John McConnell were all big players in the world of speechwriting at the time.
“They were just doing things I thought were really impressive and interesting,” he said. “So I started asking around to see if anybody knew of opportunities in the Bush administration as a speechwriter.”
In January 2006, he accepted a position as a speechwriter for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
“I did it long enough to be a credible applicant for another speechwriting job,” he said.
Nine months later, he learned that McConnell, the newly elected Senate minority leader, needed a speechwriter. He applied, got the job and has been with McConnell ever since.
McConnell, who four years ago famously declared it his goal to make Barack Obama a one-term president, has come to epitomize what the left calls Republican obstructionism. In a November 2013 profile of the now 72-year-old Kentucky senator, Politico described him as both obstruction-minded and the Democrats’ “most productive negotiating partner” — a guy who managed to cut 11th-hour bargains to raise the debt ceiling, reopen the government and avoid default.
Speechwriters write, and write convincingly. That was McGuire’s job. But how important was it for him to agree with McConnell on policy and politics? Not very, he said, even though he does.
“Everybody has to answer this for themselves, but for me, this has been an easy job in large part because there’s nothing that Sen. McConnell is doing in the Senate that I disagree with,” he said. “I’ve never had to be in a position where he and I disagreed about a particular policy. He may want to emphasize certain issues more than I would, but I work for him and am happy to write about things he wants me to write about. It’s just a nice bonus that we happen to be in agreement about things.”
His favorite speech to write was one that made his boss the odd man out in Congress. Last fall, McConnell delivered one of McGuire’s speeches on the Senate floor about his opposition to a resolution that would have authorized U.S. military action against Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was suspected of having used chemical weapons against his own citizens, and three of the four party leaders in Congress agreed to support Obama’s call for military intervention.
U.S. national security was not at risk, McConnell reasoned, and too many unanswered questions remained as to the country’s long-term strategy in Syria.
“Does Assad’s use of chemical weapons pose a threat to the national security interests of the United States? And the answer to that question is fairly obvious: Even the president himself says it doesn’t,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last September.
Syria was a challenging issue, McGuire said, and he needed to write a speech that would explain McConnell’s stance in a clear and compelling way.
“It was a very complicated situation,” he recalled, “and I think in the end we wrote a very thoughtful and serious, convincing speech.”
To reflect on his work doesn’t come naturally for McGuire.
“You rarely have time to sort of sit back and appreciate what you’ve done,” he said. “In eight years, this is the first time I’ve ever talked about myself with a reporter.”
Like most speechwriters, he toiled in intentional obscurity. As chief of staff, that obscurity is fading.
“It’s a professional honor to be asked to do this,” he said. “So I’m doing what it takes to make it work.”