THE SPEECHWRITER: A Brief Education in Politics

By Barton Swaim

Simon & Schuster. 204 pp. $25

You don’t need to be a speechwriter to realize that the phrase “I won’t begin in any particular spot” is a wretched way to start a public address. Yet those were the opening words of one of the more remarkable political spectacles in recent years: Mark Sanford’s rambling and teary news conference of June 24, 2009, in which South Carolina’s then-governor confessed that rather than hiking the Appalachian Trail, he’d been hooking up with his Argentine mistress.

In the crowd that afternoon at the statehouse rotunda in Columbia, S.C., was the man responsible for crafting Sanford’s speeches. People still ask Barton Swaim, “Did you write that speech?” He can’t even answer. “I just chuckle miserably,” he explains.

No, Swaim didn’t write that speech, but now he has authored something just as revealing and unusual: a political memoir that traffics in neither score-settling nor self-importance but that shares, in spare, delightful prose, what the author saw and learned. “The Speechwriter” feels like “Veep” meets “All the King’s Men” — an entertaining and engrossing book not just about the absurdities of working in the press shop of a Southern governor but also about the meaning of words in public life.

“For a long time the job of the speechwriter had sounded romantic to me,” writes Swaim, who came to the position from the academic world. “The speechwriter, I felt, was a person whose job it was to put words in the mouths of the powerful, who understood the import and varieties of political language and guided his master through its perils. . . . A speechwriter has all the gratification of being a writer but had political power too.”

Swaim would soon be unburdened of those misapprehensions. He quickly learned that his job was not to compose soaring rhetoric but to cobble together the kind of speeches the governor would write for himself if he had the time. And this governor couldn’t write. At all.

When Swaim waded through his new boss’s old op-eds, looking for the “voice” and “cadence” Sanford wanted him to capture, he couldn’t find it. “What I heard was more like a cough,” he writes. “Or the humming of a bad melody, with most of the notes sharp. One sentence stands out in my memory: ‘This is important not only because I think it ought to be a first order of business, but because it makes common sense.’ ”

He learned the boss’s tics. Sanford liked to have three points in a speech, never two. Never. “I’m not getting out there to talk about two stupid points,” the governor said when presented with a pair of rebuttals to a bill. “I need three points, first, second, third. Got that?” He loved referring to an amorphous “larger notion” in his remarks. Larger than what? It didn’t matter. “When we drafted a release or a press statement and weren’t sure if he would approve it, someone would say, ‘Stick a “larger notion” in there and it should be fine.’ ” The governor would often deploy an “indeed” when trying to rescue a trite phrase, as in “we’re indeed mortgaging our children’s future.” Also, Sanford always looked for chances to mention Rosa Parks in a speech. He just really wanted to do that.

At the urging of his wife, Swaim gave in and started writing poorly. He assembled a list of Sanford-friendly lines (such as “given the fact that,” “speaks volumes,” “very considerable,” “the way you live your life”). They were awkward and lazy, but the boss liked them.

The term “speechwriter” is misleading. Swaim spent much time crafting news releases, penning thank-you missives, and drafting scathing statements and scathing op-eds about whatever the legislature was pushing. “We did a lot of scathing,” he recalls. He also wrote “surrogate letters,” i.e., letters to the editor ostensibly from supporters but actually written by the governor’s staff. “There was something slightly but definitely dishonest” about them, Swaim admits, but they were also an art form: Start off with some generic sass (“Which constitution is Senator So-and-so reading?”), and then make an argument that doesn’t reflect too much insight, or otherwise editors would see through the ruse.

Swaim consoled himself that such tricks served a good cause, but he has enough self-awareness to know that his incentives were off. “One of the melancholy facts of political life is that your convictions tend to align with your paycheck,” he writes.

[From THE SPEECHWRITER: Why politicians usually sound like they’re lying]

The nature of politics is to subtract meaning from language, Swaim understands, but he develops a relatively benign philosophy about political speech: “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.” And politicians resort to such devices not out of deviousness but simply because every day they must weigh in “on things of which they have little or no reliable knowledge or about which they just don’t care.”

Take that, George Orwell.

“The Speechwriter” will become a classic on political communication because it goes beyond the contortions of public statements to explore how politicians speak to their staffers when no cameras are around. In this case, the governor demeaned and humiliated them at every turn, usually as a way of coping with anxiety or working through ideas. “Being belittled was part of the job,” explains Swaim, who often drove to work nervous to the point of vomiting, bracing for whatever mood might grip the boss. When the governor noticed that a whiteboard hadn’t been updated with his latest goals, he collapsed “into a fit of angry inarticulacy.” And in a petty breach of office etiquette, Sanford sliced off a piece of a subordinate’s birthday cake and took it into his office, before they’d even celebrated. Later, Swaim recalls, staffers sang “Happy Birthday” to their colleague while gathered around a cake with a corner missing.

It wasn’t malice. Worse, it was indifference. “The governor wasn’t trying to hurt you,” Swaim concluded. “For him to try to hurt you would have required him to acknowledge your significance.” His attitude fostered perverse camaraderie among staffers, but also undercut any loyalty. He was the same with state lawmakers. The governor barely remembered their names, and that enraged them. He didn’t care.

And just as Sanford became a national figure in the stimulus battle against the Obama administration, just “when veep speculation was at its not very considerable height,” came the fall. The governor’s conversations with the staff shortly after his infidelity speech were exquisite in their inanity and self-involvement. “I just wanted to say the obvious, which is the obvious,” the boss began. “I mean, the obvious — which is that I caused the storm we’re in now.” He also mentioned reading “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the Auschwitz memoir by Viktor Frankl. “You can find beauty, you can find reasons to keep going, in the most appalling circumstances,” Sanford lectured. “We’re not in a concentration camp. So let’s not stay in the dumps.”

Swaim was tasked with rewriting the governor’s form letters to scrub terms such as “integrity” or “honesty” that would remind recipients of the scandal. The boss also told him to “come up with a few examples from the Bible — or from history, or from whatever — that kind of show, you know, how when you’ve made a mess, you can do the best you can to clean it up, you make it right the best you can, and you keep going.”

Sanford did keep going. Despite impeachment calls, he served out his second term and now represents South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District after winning a 2013 special election. Swaim left the governor’s office in 2010, but not before delivering one last time for his boss.

The governor was about to address an electric-bus company, and he’d rejected every idea for the speech. Suddenly, Swaim found the answer: It was Rosa Parks’s birthday. “Rosa Parks thought about buses in a new way,” he explained to the governor. “What she did on a bus changed the world. What [the company] is doing with an old idea — the bus idea — has the potential to change the world. Both take courage. The one changed society for the better and made us a better nation. The other is improving our quality of life. . . . Something like that.”

The boss approved. “It was absolutely ridiculous,” the speechwriter writes. “But it was perfect.”

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