Book Review: The Speechwriter, by Barton Swaim

In a book that is in part the machinations of The Good Wife and in part the political farce of Yes Minister, Barton Swaim shares insights he gained into the life of a speechwriter during the second term of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

Mark Sanford The author of The Speechwriter does not dwell on the series of unfortunate events that led to the downfall of the governor of South Carolina. For those who need to validate the details, it’s all in Wikipedia.

In the end, it was all part of the rich tapestry of American political life: a moralizing public figure is betrayed by peccadillos that would not be worthy of comment in many countries. However, the public delights in destroying, if only temporarily, the careers of its leaders. Sanford survives to live out his term, leaving the speechwriter to edit his form letters and remove references to ‘family’, ‘integrity’, ‘honesty’ and, of course, ‘Argentina’.

This speechwriter’s lot was not a happy one. Swaim captures the arc of his career in excruciating detail. From initial enthusiasm and surprise that he was to become the chief wordsmith to a sitting governor where ‘the idea of turning phrases for a living seemed irresistible’, to despair at his lot and envy of the janitorial staff in the government buildings who were happy just checking lightbulbs for a living. He dreaded going into the office and the strain of the job was almost unbearable.

What went wrong?

The Speechwriter After an all-to-brief honeymoon period, Swaim discovered the ‘stark difference’ between the charming public persona of the governor and the realities of dealing with the man in private. His boss has a unique relationship with the English language that deeply offends the writer with the PhD in English. He copes by creating a list of stock phrases that mimic the ‘voice’ of the man he’s writing for. He uses phrases such as ‘in large measure’ and ‘frankly’ to pad speeches, op-eds, letters and other written communications that are an endless demand on his time. As is typical, he’s responsible for much more than speeches. He regularly produces four or five options of each speech for the governor to review, and learns to keep one in reserve for the times all his written drafts are thrown back at him.

The governor berates him with requests to re-do speeches ‘again’ and returns drafts with terse demands that they ‘need work’. Despite his best efforts, he’s often the butt of withering scorn.

However, Swaim has the insight that none of this is meant personally. He highlights the sheer volume of communication a politician must generate, and points out that people

…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.

Cork Bored

The need for the governor to heap abuse on the speechwriter had nothing to do with being hurtful:

For him to try to hurt you would have required him to acknowledge your significance. If you were on his staff, he had no knowledge of your personhood … he was giving vent to his own anxieties, whatever they were. It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouth of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the work because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard. Often I felt like that piece of cork.

That is not what I meant, at all

As a record of the daily life of a speechwriter this account rang all too true. My own experience in corporate America has often mirrored the account Swaim presents of speechwriting in the political arena. The one major difference being that very few corporate leaders have to communicate as frequently as politicians. However, there can be the same demands for endless revisions, fact checking of obscure points and navigation of outsized egos as Swaim describes. The role of speechwriter as alchemist, ploughman, and motley fool has not changed since attendant lords, full of high sentence, advised princes of power in Medieval times.

My one beef with the book is that it lives up to its subtitle as ‘A Brief Education in Politics’ and is too short. Mark Sanford has since gone on to be re-elected to Congress for South Carolina’s 1st District. Just as much of the intrigue of The Good Wife happens after the initial fall, so I can’t help but wonder what sort of a book the current speechwriter to Congressman Sanford might write. A sequel surely awaits.

4 Comments so far
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Succinct, insightful, stimulating as we have come to expect from you – you are a blessing to all of us, my friend!

Thanks Arnold! Since you portray Abraham Lincoln, who, like Winston Churchill, managed to write all his own speeches it’s a compliment that you spend time reading a blog about speechwriting! Of course, if a speechwriter or corporate communications department *had* been involved that Gettysburg Address would have had to have been revised — it’s *far* too brief 🙂

Insightful review by Neil Hrab, Rhetoric Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day ‘It sounds like the premise of a new HBO series’

Candid interview with Barton Swaim by David Murray, Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day ‘I had not developed the capacity to stand up for myself in a respectful way….It was embarrassing to realize the degree to which I had allowed myself to be steamrolled.’



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