There are 8,000,000 disingenuousnesses perpetrated in the halls of government each year, none naked, all gaseous. In the ringingly clear words of Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter: “The trick was to use the maximum number of words with the maximum number of interpretations,” be it a piece of legislation or a congratulatory note to a recently affianced couple. Clarity is dangerous, a close cousin to sincerity.
Swaim was scribe, from 2007 to 2010, to Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who crashed and burned when his mishandling of state funds and an extramarital affair became public knowledge. Regardless, he is back today – Sanford, not Swaim – as one of South Carolina’s congressional representatives. From a number of perspectives, including Sanford’s, that might be called “signs and wonders.” But Sanford was never very good with words – Swaim artfully characterizes Sanford’s speechifying and writing as having an “incommodious style” – hence Swaim, penman.
Sanford cut a rectitudinous figure, reserving his ogreish behavior for his staff. Sanford was frugal (frugal to grotty: Swaim “saw inside the collar of one of his white button-up shirts; it was solid brown”), whereas those across the aisle were spendthrifts; Sanford was noble, of aristocratic bearing; they were Gomorrans. He was against pork-barrel projects (he brought pigs into the South Carolina House chamber in protest); he stood against faith-based license plates. He was overzealous on the fiscal austerity front, and he grappled with educational initiatives: he was for vouchers and for taking pruning shears to university departments in an effort to keep tuition increases down. Swaim felt he could work with the governor.
Sanford’s name is never used in the book – he is “the governor” – and his politics are the center of attention only insofar as it is Swaim’s job to somehow express them, or when they throw some special light on Sanford’s personality. Swaim’s story, which has the charm of being fresh, fun, and fussy at once – he is not the brio-and-dash type; rather, the book is built out of crisp lines, like a handsome piece of architecture – is about his fondness for writing and how his attempts at bringing polished candor to the governor’s words were fed into a peppermill and ground to something flabbergastingly stupid or excruciatingly disconcerting.
Why suffer this state of affairs? Well, it took Swaim some time to see things as they were. His first piece of speechwriting was met with open arms, which went straight to his head. “I would soon be indispensable. I would study the questions faced by this great, graceful statesman, and I would suggest to him what he should say.”
In his next attempt, the grammarian – Swaim – met the incommodity: Sanford. The governor was looking to brand himself, project a grandly identifiable voice, capture the audience and the big picture with something “magical.” Now and then, enough to pay the bills at home, Swaim nails the governor’s imagined self; mostly, his work is chopped into meaningless, malodorous hash, as the governor berates Swaim. Maybe he was not the governor’s man, Swaim feared. Rumors swirled that someone new was being sought.
“I don’t claim that my writing was brilliant, but the objections he raised were mystifying to me and sometimes totally unreasonable.” The governor would fulminate over the most harmless phrases; he would be plain rude – “This is stupid.... Stupid.... I don’t get it.... Who cares.... Boring ... what is this?” – and obnoxiously control-freaky.
To be fair, Swaim understood how difficult it was to be governor. Sanford was expected to have something beguiling to say about everything. It was Swaim’s job to provide the talking points – bang, bang, bang – and to provide a hook to capture the audience at once. Too many times to count, the governor would dismiss Swaim’s opening gambit, then claim it as his own. Sanford’s specialty, however, was the hackneyed. Swaim’s wife tendered sage advice: “Laura ... told me several times to start writing badly – badly like him, with clumsy, meandering sentences and openings that seemed calculated to stop reading. But I couldn’t bring myself to try it.” Being a bright young man, Swaim would learn.
Then came a couple of issues that didn’t square with all that honesty, decency, and decorousness. A significant amount of funds raised for a rescheduling of the National Governors Association had found its way into “the account of the Reform Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group [Sanford] had founded a year before.” Sanford returned the money, which looked bad, but the incident blew over.
His extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina did not, nor did the spending of public money in pursuit of that woman. This is where the crux of the book shifts, and what had been near farce, swinging between David Lodge and P. G. Wodehouse, turns to bitterness.
Writing for a politician is the meat-and-potatoes of Swaim’s story: it may start innocently enough, with the best intentions, but the act is almost sure to become twisted, and not just because “one of the melancholy facts of political life is that your convictions tend to align with your paycheck,” as Swaim admits. “Your interpretation of ‘the facts’ will usually follow those of your employer.” That doesn’t read so much melancholy as it does weak. Earlier, when Swaim wrote, “Sometimes I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit,” it sounded like gumption, until you recall that dogs routinely find their vomit of conspicuous interest.
But Swaim has something more bitter, and biting and true, to offer. “Why do we trust men who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will?” Swaim toiled and compromised for a man whom he thought was “one of the right people,” only to find his craving for glory, vulgar authority, and bottomless pit of self-absorption.
“The brutal reality is that politicians gain power by convincing us that they are wise and trustworthy” – sagacious, brave, virtuous – making us admire them, in part, through their use of the talents of Swaim and his colleagues. The fact that even the speechwriter falls under the spell he is hired to cast is perhaps the greatest warning a book like this can offer.