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Once a physicist: Mike Long

Mike Long is a speechwriter and newspaper columnist based in Washington DC, US. He is also director of the White House Writers' Group.

Mike Long

How did you become interested in physics?
As the son of a pastor, I grew up in several tiny towns, one of which had only 500 people. When maths suddenly "clicked" for me at the age of about 16, and a godsend of a teacher portrayed physics as a fun exercise in discovery for smart people, my path was set.

Where did you study physics and how much did you enjoy it?
I received a scholarship to go to Murray State University in Kentucky, where my field of study made me arrogant. I posted Rutherford's quote in my room: "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." (I still believe it.) I consider the effect of a physics education on the mind to be like a team of gifted mechanics rebuilding an old car: they tear it down to nothing then reassemble it with only the best parts into something sleek and powerful. So, I enjoyed my study of physics a lot. I finished at the top of my class, and then went on to graduate study at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. After a year I quit, having got what I wanted from physics: how to think.

How did your career progress from there?
I didn't see much of a career as a physicist without a PhD and I didn't want to be an engineer, so I put my education to work doing mathematical modelling of business systems. I spent 10 years with a tiny company of fun people who were some of the smartest folks I have ever known. I did some travelling, I started a family, I pursued an interest in stand-up comedy and I wrote some columns for a local newspaper. After about seven years I realized that I loved words more than I loved maths and science, and that my physics background made me a better writer than I might have been otherwise because I knew how to understand a problem and explain it.

How did you make the move into political speechwriting?
The writers I admired had, like me, backgrounds wholly unrelated to English or journalism. Many had spent time as political speechwriters, and I contacted them directly. It turns out that political speechwriters don't get much fan mail; they were happy to hear from someone interested in their work and they introduced me to people in Washington. Eventually I found work as a low-lowlow- level writer and moved to DC with my family and enough savings to last a year before I would have to resurrect my maths skills. Fortunately, within two months I was asked to be speechwriter for Republican Senator Fred Thompson (now an actor on the TV show Law and Order).

What does your job as director of the White House Writers' Group involve?
I write speeches, editorials and positioning papers. For some clients, I get to contribute to the making of policy – speechwriters have more say than anyone knows in how public and business policy turns out. I am often called in at the last minute to fix things, so I have long stretches of free time when I hustle for work, write fiction and contribute to magazines and newspapers.

What are some of the highlights of your writing career?
Ben Stein, the former White House speechwriter who is also an economist and an actor, allowed me to write a pilot TV script based on one of his ideas; we worked on that together for some time, which was a treat. I wrote the liner notes for the DVD of the documentary Comedian about Jerry Seinfeld's return to stand-up comedy after leaving his famous TV show. I have written for four presidential candidates, members of the President's cabinet and CEOs of some of the largest multinational corporations. Best of all, I occasionally get to offer candid advice to people who make decisions that affect the world.

How has your physics education helped you in your career?
If I'm working on a technology "gig", my education gives me the inside track. As Physics World readers know, a physics degree tends to impress people – there aren't a lot of speechwriters who can talk about the atom. When people ask me what they should study in college, I say: first, not writing – learn to do something useful and then you'll have something to write about; and second, study physics – you will learn to see through any problem.

This article originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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