Inside the Bubble

So a significant buzz has developed around the book The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, a memoir by a highly literate fellow named Barton Swaim, who managed to find himself on SC Gov. Mark Sanford’s communications staff in the months leading up to his boss’s famous “Appalachian Trail Hike” that led to his (temporary) self-immolation as a politician. Swaim got a particularly warm review from Sarah Lyall in the New York Times as being both funny and profound, so I fished in and knocked it out between various chores this weekend.

I came away amused but significantly less informed than a lot of people who are apparently snapping up this book. Maybe that’s because I was a gubernatorial speechwriter myself, in next-door Georgia, albeit in a slightly earlier era, and found Swaim’s account of what it’s like to write for a State Chief Executive extremely idiosyncratic. For one thing, he seems to assume his “Talking Points” format for providing speech material is some sort of universal gold standard (perhaps understandably, since this was his first speechwriting gig); it actually depends a lot on the politician, some of whom want prepared texts, others outlines, still others all sorts of things in-between, usually depending on the context. More jarringly, Swaim spent an inordinate amount of time doing things most speechwriters rarely if ever touch, including correspondence and fake op-eds for key supporters to send in to rural weeklies.

And speaking of rural weeklies, Sanford’s entire communications operation, at least according to Swaim, seems to have been entirely focused on print media, which kinda went out of style in the late 1980s.

So I hope people don’t read this book (or worse yet, assign it in classes) as providing a superior look at what it’s like to be a political speechwriter. There is, however, one aspect of speechwriting that this book not only illustrates but takes to the level of parody and well beyond: the constant demand of some politicians that the frustrated speechwriter capture his or her “voice.” In Mark Sanford’s case, that meant mastering all sorts of bad syntax, odd ponderous phrases, and throat-clearing verbiage, which the pol was aggressively self-righteous about demanding as the best, most interesting and down-to-earth way to speak to people.

This particularly exaggerated vice in Sanford–rooted, reports Swaim convincingly, in his invincible narcissism–supplies a bridge to the topic that I do think this book illustrates admirably, even terrifyingly: the often toxic relationship between politicians and staff that largely flows from the pols’ knowledge and resentment of their dependence on staff. This resentment of speechwriters is often worst for the obvious reason that they are literally putting words in the Great One’s mouth.

Swaim concludes his book with the rather dubious conclusion–you know, based on his experience of three years in a single rather backward state–that all politicians are narcissists who cannot be trusted and thus should be judged by their ideology, especially if it’s the Sanford/Swaim ideology that places absolute limits on the scope of government. Strangely, he does not mention Sanford’s handpicked successor Nikki Haley or even supply a postscript about Sanford’s own 2013 congressional comeback. So there’s only so much this book can teach you. But I bet it spurs a new trend towards getting high-level political staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements, because I can guarantee you there are tales of gubernatorial folly out there more lurid than Sanford’s.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.