Longtime Nantucket summer resident Bernie Swain represents some of the world’s greatest orators.
Bernie Swain might just be the most connected man on Nantucket. His Rolodex is packed with former presidents, prime ministers, Pulitzer Prize winners, sports legends, secretaries of state, news anchors and many other high-profile individuals from all walks of public life. He’s sipped whiskey with Margaret Thatcher in the British Embassy, spoke to General Norman Schwarzkopf from a bunker at the end of the Gulf War and spent the afternoon with George W. Bush on the president’s final day in the White House. So how did this unassuming man from Virginia end up swimming in some of the world’s most elite social circles?
“We never went to the cocktail parties,” Swain says in his home on Nantucket, flanked by his wife Paula of forty-one years. “I always thought that my clients wanted me behind my desk.” Swain is the co-founder of the Washington Speakers Bureau (WSB), which today represents hundreds of the world’s most prestigious speakers, ranging from astronauts to executives. A quick scroll through the WSB’s roster reveals names like Tony Blair, Tom Brokaw, Alan Greenspan, Condoleezza Rice and Terry Bradshaw. But thirty-six years ago, Swain’s WSB was nothing more than three employees cold calling potential clients from a tiny makeshift office that barely had enough money to keep the lights on.
In his mid-thirties, with a wife, a newborn and a mortgage, Swain took a big gamble. After reading an article in Fortune about a speakers’ bureau that was thriving because it was “the only game in town,” he quit his stable career as an athletic director at George Washington University to enter an industry in which he had absolutely no experience. For a year, Swain and his wife and partner languished without landing a single client. Just as the last of their startup money was swirling around the drain, an anchor for Good Morning America named Steve Bell decided to give them a shot. There were no contracts, no clauses. The deal was sealed with a simple handshake. Bernie Swain was committed to winning and keeping his clients by being honest and trustworthy. This straight-shooting style became his trademark for the next thirty-five years.
Countless clients later, Bernie Swain has just released a book titled What Made Me Who I Am, which compiles life lessons from a selection of the speakers he’s represented. With no experience as a writer, Swain tapped friends such as Bob Woodward for tips on how to glean the most information out of the likes of Madeleine Albright, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Colin Powell. “I discovered how Bob Woodward found his passion for investigative journalism while [he was] working as a janitor,” Swain wrote. “That Tony Blair’s journey to Prime Minister was almost completely derailed by Mick Jagger; and that Robert Reich’s childhood friend’s death sparked his lifelong mission to change the world.”
Perhaps equally as captivating as the lessons revealed in his book are the stories found between its lines. Swain has shared intimate moments with some of the most pivotal people in history, providing him a rare glimpse into their lives beyond the limelight. He remembers spending an evening with Margaret Thatcher in the British Embassy. Sipping a tall glass of Scotch, the former prime minister asked Swain if he fancied a fire. “I thought she’d call in a butler or someone to build it,” Swain laughs. “But she went right over and picked up these big logs, walked into the fireplace, threw them down, and started the fire herself.” Swain gawked as the 5’5” woman built a roaring blaze, clearly showing that no task was too small for this world leader.
When Swain got word that he had landed President Ronald Reagan as a client, he didn’t ask any questions. The biggest agencies in the country were vying to represent the president, and Swain thought there must have been some kind of mistake that his fledgling company had won out. Years later, after earning a successful track record with the former president, Swain finally asked why Reagan had chosen him. “You actually came in second,” he was told. “The president chose you because you were starting out in business, you were fairly young and he wanted to give you a chance.” Swain was totally blown away that the president would entrust his reputation to someone who “could screw it up in a week.” “But Reagan believed in the little guy,” Swain says. “He believed in entrepreneurism. It was one of those lessons. Here’s a guy who truly stood by his beliefs. He could have been easily convinced to go with a big agency that he could trust his legacy with, but he didn’t. He chose to trust us.”
Ronald Reagan was the first of three presidents Swain and his agency represented. Both George H.W. and George W. Bush signed on with him. And that’s how Swain ended up in the White House on George W. Bush’s final day as President. After an hour showing him around, the president invited Swain and his wife, Paula, to return with him to the residency where his wife, Laura, and his mother and father were packing up. “We spent four hours talking about everything from bicycles to politics,” Swain remembers. “Here’s a guy who could have anybody over there at his place on the last day of his presidency. But he had us.”
Swain tells his stories with genuine, gee-whiz amazement without a hint of ego. Indeed, What Made Me Who I Am is Swain’s first foray out from behind the curtain to give voice to his own story. “I was determined to succeed,” he says. “The key to success is not finding a talent for doing something. It’s about passion, which is much more important than talent.”