In his forthcoming memoir, “The Speechwriter,” Barton Swaim tells the story of his time working for then-Gov. Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican who revealed his extramarital affair in a rambling and astonishing 2009 news conference. Swaim served as Sanford’s speechwriter for just under four years — enough of a time to understand how politicians communicate, and to develop a theory on why so much political speech sounds vaguely duplicitous:
It’s impossible to attain much success in politics if you’re the sort of person who can’t abide disingenuousness. This isn’t to say politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars than other fields do. Actually one hears very few proper lies in politics. Using vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.
Sometimes, for instance, there would be a matter the governor didn’t want to discuss in public, but we knew he’d be asked about it at his next public appearance, or in any case Aaron [the communications director] would be asked about it. Let’s say the head of a cabinet agency had been accused by a state senator of running a cockfighting ring. His behavior would fall within executive purview, but since he had not been indicted or even legally accused, he couldn’t be fired or forced to resign. Aaron knew the governor would be asked about it at a press conference, so our office would issue a statement to any member of the press who asked about it. “[The senator’s] remarks have raised some troubling questions,” the statement might say, “and we’re looking closely at the situation in an effort to determine whether it merits further investigation by state or local law enforcement. At the same time, we want to avoid rushing to judgment, and we hope all concerned will likewise avoid making accusations in the absence of evidence.” This is the kind of statement Aaron would need: one that said something without saying anything. It would get the governor on record without committing him to any course of action. Hence the rhetorical dead weight: “state or local law enforcement” instead of just “law enforcement”; all that about “rushing to judgment” and “making accusations in the absence of evidence,” as if anybody needed to be told that. If a reporter asked the governor about it, he could avoid talking about it without having to use that self-incriminating phrase “No comment.” “I’d go back to what we’ve already said on this,” he might say, and repeat the gaseous phrases of the statement.
Many people take this as evidence of duplicity or cynicism. But they don’t know what it’s like to be expected to make comments, almost every working day, on things of which they have little or no reliable knowledge or about which they just don’t care. They don’t appreciate the sheer number of things on which a politician is expected to have a position. Issues on which the governor had no strong opinions, events over which he had no control, situations on which it served no useful purpose for him to comment — all required some kind of remark from our office. On a typical day Aaron might be asked to comment on the indictment of a local school board chairman, the ongoing drought in the Upstate, a dispute between a power company and the state’s environmental regulatory agency, and a study concluding that some supposedly crucial state agency had been underfunded for a decade. Then there were the things the governor actually cared about: a Senate committee’s passage of a bill on land use, a decision by the state supreme court on legislation applying to only one county, a public university’s decision to raise tuition by 12 percent. Commenting on that many things is unnatural, and sometimes it was impossible to sound sincere. There was no way around it, though. Journalists would ask our office about anything having remotely to do with the governor’s sphere of authority, and you could only so many minimalist responses before you began to sound disengaged or ignorant or dishonest. And the necessity of having to manufacture so many views on so many subjects, day after day, fosters a sense that you don’t have to believe your own words. You get comfortable with insincerity. It affected all of us, not just the boss. Sometimes I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.
Swaim’s “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics” will be published July 14 by Simon & Schuster. Look for a full review in this space soon.
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