The Man Behind the Soapbox: On Barton Swaim’s ‘The Speechwriter’

August 5, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 1 5 min read

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Talk is cheap; speech is luxe. Speech is sheltered by sacred authorities, like the United States Constitution and Justice John G. Roberts. Speech comes with the sexy modifiers, like “hate” and “free.” You can never have too much of it, since as Louis Brandeis said, the remedy for bad speech “is more speech.” Speech — for lack of a better word — is good.

Speechwriting is more ambivalent: speech filtered through the counterfeit instincts of American politics, through the undignified pressure of the news cycle, through the mind, throat, and ego of another human being. Psychologically, it’s a kind of Munchausen by proxy. Culturally, it’s glamorous and dishonest in the same way art forgery is. And like most things, most of it is neither good nor important. The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim’s new memoir, is a deeply humane study in both the romance and the dissonance.

Swaim worked for a term for Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, the one with the Argentine mistress. Swaim didn’t find out any sooner than anyone else — he didn’t write Sanford’s public apology — but The Speechwriter’s heart is in the way it processes that humiliation. After all, for every politician who falls, a dozen staff fall in microcosm. After Sanford offered his aides a muddled “I’m sorry,” one rants, “If you do say anything, it should be more like, ‘Sorry I flushed all your work down the toilet, people. Sorry I made you all a joke. Sorry about your next job interview, the one where you’re going to be brought in as a curiosity and then laughed at.’” But the book, if a little melancholic and at times a little cruel, isn’t bitter. The Speechwriter is Swaim’s graceful way of resolving what four years of mediocre writing, written for a mediocre man, meant. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin,” his epigraph reads — Proverbs 10:19.

Swaim’s political career started with a very American impulse. Reading one of Sanford’s op-eds, it occurred to him: I can do better than that. He dashed off a cover letter that was “deferential but terse, and said something like ‘I don’t know that much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer.’” Sanford agreed. He was “very interested in this larger idea of a brand,” he said (Sanford, Swaim reports, could never resist referencing a “larger notion”). He wanted the slick stylings he saw in the work of other politicians, since — it’s a truth widely acknowledged — no one writes their own stuff. “Every speech he gives,” the governor muses about another big name, “every op-ed or whatever, sounds the same. Not the same, like boring the same. From the same source, consistent. I like that. It’s about consistency. You always know what you’re getting.”

Sanford, you’ll notice, couldn’t word his way out of a paper bag. Still, the governor’s writings and remarks are the best parts of the book. Swaim has an uncanny instinct for writing poorly on purpose, an indispensable talent for any speechwriter. Reading Sanford’s old op-eds, Swaim says, “It worried me that I didn’t hear much of a voice. What I heard was more like a cough. 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.’”

And no, this isn’t a training montage type of book where Swaim will push the governor to new rhetorical heights. “I wasn’t hired to come up with brilliant phrases,” he realizes. “I was hired to write what the governor would have written if he had had the time.”

For what it’s worth, Swaim is plainly a gifted writer. His professional experience shows in a firm, easy command of language; with disciplined consistency, his sentences do what they’ve been ordered to do. There’s a smooth economy to his prose, which rarely staggers or overheats. If it isn’t always lyrical, it still has a lean charm that more writing should.

Talent lends him credibility while he chips affectionately away at his profession’s ego. Speechwriting is culturally celebrated for both its influence and its secrecy. In an episode of The West Wing, Joshua Malina asks Rob Lowe, “You’ve ghosted for Senators, movie stars, I think the King of Belgium one time. Do you say anything?” Lowe answers, honorably, “Speechwriters don’t do that.” Because of omerta maybe. But here in reality, flattering profiles of speechwriters are a booming genre in political journalism: cf. “State of the Union Speechwriter for Obama Draws on Various Inspirations,” “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice,” “Meet the ghost hunter and horror novelist who writes Sen. Rob Portman’s speeches,” “Meet Matthew Scully, Paul Ryan’s vegan speechwriter.”

Swaim doesn’t deny the sex appeal. After Sanford delivers the first speech he’s written, he fantasizes, “I would soon be indispensable. I would study the questions faced by this great, graceful statesman, and I would suggest to him what he would say.” But the grace notes are mostly smothered by the indignities. “Sometimes he’d forget which products had been drafted for him and which he’d written himself,” Swaim says of the governor. Sanford had a ritual way of shooting down drafts, and “didn’t like to accept a document without first dismissing it as worthless. Provoking a fight with the staffers who’d written it was his way of figuring out whether or not it was what he wanted.” In short, he misused his staff casually, not that Swaim blamed him: “It was as if you were one of those pieces of cork placed in the mouths of wounded soldiers during an amputation. The soldier didn’t chew the cork because he hated it but because it was therapeutic to bite hard.”

But to a gratifying extent, The Speechwriter isn’t interested in settling scores. Swaim clearly feels affection for Sanford and his fellow staff. The book’s care and sympathy, often, cuts deeper than its criticism. He extends the governor every credit, even after his decline and fall: “He was everything a politician should be — a politician in the best sense of that word, if it has a best sense.” In other words, if writing for him was a long, deepening disappointment, that wasn’t Sanford’s personal failure. The book’s indictment is broader. “Why,” Swaim asks, “do we trust the men who make careers of persuading us of their goodness and greatness?” With soft despair, he resolves, “They may be lauded when they’re right and venerated when they’re dead, but they should never be trusted.”

Where does that leave speechwriters? Fundamentally, speechwriters work to short-circuit the great safeguard of American democracy: our aversion to professional politicians. It would be a little ignoble if we didn’t invite exactly this kind of suasion. We want, desperately, to be convinced we’re wrong about our leaders, and it’s our democratic irrationality that we open ourselves up for persuasion every election cycle. Citizens stoke the national appetite for speech, and speechwriters ensure there’s enough to go around.

That makes The Speechwriter urgent reading, for both its literary and civic merits. If you ask to be fooled, it teaches, don’t claim to be shocked, shocked when you invariably are.

lives and works in Washington, DC.

One comment:

  1. Goodness! How could this piece have passed by without comment? An absolutely marvelous book. Something in the style brought to mind Evelyn Waugh’s travel literature. The same bemused and reluctant observer/participant, blessed with brilliant observational and writing skills, standing there in the workplace chaos with a stunned look on his face!

    Maureen Murphy
    Some of this feels quite familiar….unfortunately

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