For political junkies looking for more than the routine gotcha memoir, or another insider tale of revenge, Barton Swaim’s deliciously wicked The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics is this summer’s must read.
With unsparing precision, Swaim dissects the inner workings and galactic stupidities of political life—the wall of spin, the thirst for glory, and above all the insatiable quest for acclaim and attention.
The hypocrisy and duplicity revealed in the 200-page book read like a chapter from Kafka or an absurdist play.
“It was absurd,” Swaim told The Daily Beast.
In The Speechwriter, Swaim, a former academic and freelance writer, describes the four tortuous and comic years he spent as a flunky, punching bag, and speechwriter whose job it was to provide “voice” and “cadence” for a narcissistic, bullying South Carolina governor who was impossible to please.
“I was not hired to write well, but to write badly,” Swaim says. “I had to learn how, but even then I couldn’t find anything to make him happy.”
Swaim never mentions the governor by name in the book, but readers will quickly surmise that the cantankerous politician is the infamous Mark Sanford, once briefly considered as a Republican presidential candidate before he left his wife, family, and security detail behind to purportedly hike the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2009.
Instead Sanford was caught trysting with his mistress in Buenos Aires.
On his return, the governor headed straight for the press room, without telling anyone, and launched into a tearful, cringe-worthy confession: “I’ve been unfaithful to my wife,” he mumbled, while calling his lover his “soul mate.”
Swaim counts that day, June 24, as his worst on he job: ”When he announced that preposterous affair in such a comical way, I knew there was no way I could continue to admire him. Before that I was of two minds. I admired his persistence and courage but didn’t like him personally.”
No staffer did.
It was also the day Swaim decided to pen this book. “How can I not write about this?” he asked himself.
Trying to write the story as fiction didn’t work, so Swaim decided to simply tell the truth. But he insists that his revelations are not a tell-all, nor are they strictly about Sanford, which is why Swaim obliterated the governor’s name from text.
“I wanted to universalize the story so people could understand. To make it about pols in general to show the pettiness and sheer inanities involved. It was all so strange and awful, and I was pretty unhappy, so I decided to make it fun.”
To illustrate Sanford’s neurotic frugality—one of several unappealing quirks—Swaim zeros in on Sanford’s wardrobe: ”Most of his clothing was in a deplorable state. He would not consent to have it dry-cleaned; his staff and wife would occasionally have his shirts and trousers cleaned without his knowledge. He wore only one coat, a navy blazer with one or two missing buttons, and one pair of trousers charcoal gray. Both had so many stains that had they been of a lighter color they would have been revolting. Once I saw inside the collar of one of his white button shirts; it was solid brown. Another time he wore the same white shirt, an ink stain on the sleeve, for almost two weeks straight.”
The governor was also miserly. To avoid paying for dinner, he often attended receptions, circling the buffet and stuffing shrimp and deviled eggs in his pocket to consume on the way home. (Years earlier South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond famously employed the same technique, but he was well into his dotage at the time.)
Not only did Sanford demean and belittle his staff by publicly disparaging their work, he also engaged in an ongoing disputatious relationship with the South Carolina General Assembly, even though it was dominated by his party for his entire tenure. Once when the S.C. House overrode one of his many budget vetoes, Sanford brought in a herd of pigs who defecated all over the House chamber, to protest against “pork projects.”
Swaim’s happiest moments were his last on the job. He turned in his Blackberry, sealed up boxes of op-eds, speeches, and correspondence and shipped them to the archives.
“It was like burying a hateful relative,” he says.
Sanford hasn’t commented on Swaim’s book, but Swaim says he’s heard that the congressman—yes, in 2013 Sanford was re-elected to his old seat in the U.S. House of Representative in a special election—was pretty prickly on the subject and “all he knew was that it portrays him in a bad light.”
“He’s far more capable of damaging himself that I am,” observes Swaim, 42, who now works for The South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative/libertarian think tank and watchdog NGO in Columbia, S.C.
He hopes The Speechwriter makes clear to readers that there is a vast difference between liking and admiring politicians and truly trusting them. Politicians are endlessly ambitious masters of persuasion out to win your trust, although why they need to do that still puzzles Swaim: “What kind of a trustworthy person tries to persuade someone they are trustworthy in the first place?”