The first president to hire a speechwriter was Warren G. Harding. That means America made it through 29 heads of state before one of them said, “Ya know what, I could use a little help with the words.”
While most of our founding fathers were masterful writers — shout out to my boy T. Jeffs, A+ plus on ye olde Declaration of Independence — it is rather shocking that it took 132 years for speechwriting to become commonplace in the White House, especially when you consider the fact that President Andrew Johnson never attended school. But today, in our 24-hour news-fueled world, every office holder has a communication director on staff. And it was Barton Swaim’s unfortunate duty to hold such a position under South Carolina’s famous fantasy hiker, Mark Sanford. In his new book, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, Swaim reveals the nightmare that was his experience writing for the Luv Guv.
Swaim, today South Carolina Policy Council’s communications director, knew he wanted to write about the governor’s office almost as soon as he arrived. “Politics is so full of vain people and pettiness and people’s inflated sense of importance. It’s just such good material,” he says.
Material like the fact that Sanford found fault with almost all of Swaim’s copy. When asked to write, say, an op-ed, Swaim recalls, “I would spend most of the night rewording phrases for maximum effect, perfecting transitions, scouring my mind for just the right metaphors, making the discussion of policy sound authoritative but not wonkish, and giving the last paragraph that sting that makes an op-ed memorable. And he’d hate it.”
Over and over the governor shot down Swaim’s efforts and not just with a dismissive “try again.” Rather, Sanford chastised all his staff for failure to meet his expectations. Swaim writes, “For weeks at a time I would drive to work in the morning nervous to the point of vomiting.” The writer was so stressed, his wife eventually encouraged him to stop even trying. “She told me, ‘You need to start writing badly like he does,'” Swaim says. And so he did.
Swaim began to keep a notebook of Sanford’s preferred wording; phrases like “Given the fact that,” “over the weeks and months ahead,” “inasmuch,” “underscore,” and Sanford’s favorite, “indeed” which he dropped into hackneyed phrases such as “We’re indeed mortgaging our children’s future.” It didn’t always work. Sanford continued to complain, but ultimately “it’s probably why I didn’t get fired,” Swaim says.
Although the job left the author daydreaming about a less stressful life, Swaim eventually found his situation amusing.
“If the guy you’re writing for never likes anything that you write, but you find yourself still working month after month in the same job, well, I thought that was just hilarious,” he says.
So Swaim mined his workplace hell for humor and sold some satirical vignettes to publications like London’s Times Literary Supplement. They were well received, but Swaim says, there still wasn’t enough source material there to warrant a book. That is until Sanford, “went and did this crazy thing,” says Swaim.
That crazy thing, as most South Carolinians will recall, was that Gov. Sanford vanished. Staffers thought he was hiking the Appalachian Trail — come to find out he was getting some Argentinian tail. That’s when Swaim realized his experience just might be book-worthy.
And he was right. The Speechwriter is a funny book. Grammarians and word nerds will certainly love it. Political junkies too, especially those with an appetite for juicy Statehouse gossip, like Sanford’s incredible cheapness — for Christmas the governor regifted his staff presents from his constituents. One year Swaim was given a T-shirt advertising a local hardware store. But for more than anyone else, The Speechwriter will appeal to other writers.
Throughout the book, Swaim adroitly illustrates the nature of political writing and its complexities — from the hand-wringing work of helping the governor articulate his rejection of stimulus money (Sanford would say “You’re talking about a billion-dollar hole in the budget” — “‘billion-dollar hole’ always sounded weird to me,” Swaim writes) to the mental boredom of churning out reams of thank yous to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who wrote the Guv a note. But, as Swaim explains, those tasks are all part of maintaining a politician’s brand. Which brings us back to Warren G. Harding.
“It’s remarkable to think that there was no concept of hiring someone specifically to come up with drafts of things to say all the time,” says Swaim. “By the time we get to Nixon though, the president is surrounded by this army of communications people whose job it is to deflect criticism and reinterpret everything that’s said to and about the president — spin basically.”
And having lived as a spin staffer, Swaim says the political communication machine now gives him pause. “After a while I thought, should I even be a position?” says Swaim. “I mean, should taxpayers really be paying for what I’m doing?”
That’s for voters to decide. What taxpayers should buy is this book because beyond the funny anecdotes and insider secrets, The Speechwriter‘s most lasting reminder is that “politicians please the masses not by actually doing wise and virtuous things with state power but by making the masses believe that’s what they’re doing.” Thanks, of course, to the help of a speechwriter.