When I was hired to write speeches for a senator some years ago, I happened to know a former speechwriter from the Reagan White House. His one piece of advice: "You're gonna think you were hired for your brilliant way with words. That's not why you're there — it's a management job. You have to keep all the different egos in line." That's definitely good advice for the White House, where a speechwriter has to deal with dozens or hundreds of people who have what the Obama staff refer to as "equities" in any major speech. But it's true also in the more intimate setting of a senator or governor's office.
Barton Swaim, whose short, acid memoir, The Speechwriter, has been riding a wave of adulation from reviewers in the New York Times and the Washington Post, would have benefited from that advice before going to work for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford in 2007. Instead, he had to figure it out along the way, and that chronicle of discovery and disappointment is the narrative arc of the book. But it also makes the book unrewarding and unpleasant, and the gushing reviews surprising.
The book has some virtues. Most speechwriting memoirs, like Peggy Noonan's What I Saw at the Revolution, or Michael Waldman's POTUS Speaks, describe the rarefied, world-shaping air of the White House. The mundane life of writing for a state-level officeholder, even one with national ambitions, is less well-known. For one thing, there are not a lot of big-time speeches — mostly it's writing letters, statements to be read on the governor's behalf at events he won't attend, "talking points," or bill-signing statements, or recycling material from older speeches. (Sanford and his staff seem remarkably obsessed with the outdated practice of placing letters to the editor in small-town newspapers.) And the people whose "equities" need to be respected are not Cabinet secretaries but midlevel hangers-on, some of whom Swaim describes ably, all of them a step down from the supporting cast on Veep.
Where some memoirs, like Noonan's, begin with admiration for the principal and move to higher levels of worship, others begin with admiration and sadly descend to disappointment, as the boss's flaws and failings become more apparent. Swaim tries something almost experimental: He starts with deep contempt for Sanford, and for the job, and then goes from there, to total hostility and beyond. By page 30, he's declared that he has "no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit." (Pro tip: If you start with dog vomit metaphors, you won't have much room to escalate.)
The book had the paradoxical effect of making this reader sympathetic to Sanford, who was distant, sometimes confused, and always looking for something in his speeches and letters that was new or different. But he wasn't one of those political bosses who throws staplers at his staff or chews them out loudly and at length in the atrium of a public building (I've seen that) or crosses personal boundaries. And while I don't share his politics, Sanford was (and is) an interesting conservative who was genuinely willing to cut spending and renounce federal stimulus dollars at a pre–Tea Party moment when most conservatives were still mostly just talk. His political downfall, when it turned out he was not "hiking the Appalachian Trail," but visiting Argentina to see the woman for whom he would leave his wife, came just at the moment when he might have played a larger role in the right-wing backlash of 2009.
Swaim is an unsympathetic guide to this small political world mostly because he is a snob and a pedant — the sort of unhappy assistant professor who acts like teaching at your small, inferior college is far beneath him. Immediately after a paragraph pronouncing Sanford to be "like a drunkard father ... a monster and a lout," the next paragraph begins, "The situation brings to mind Adam Ferguson, the eighteenth-century political philosopher whose works I read at Edinburgh." Ah, at Edinburgh. Ferguson isn't really necessary to the point that follows, which is simply that people have deep partisan and personal loyalties that can't be explained by policy or even by friendship.
Swaim's frustrations are relieved a bit when he comes around to his wife's advice to "write badly," on purpose. He gives up some of his contempt for the language of politics and realizes, in a key sentence, that "sometimes what you want is feeling rather than meaning, warmth rather than content." Yup. That's it exactly. Political language, in the form of speeches and letters, is rarely meant to be eloquent or even persuasive. It's a basic tool of democracy, a way to telling people they've been heard, that they are respected, that their views can be reconciled with others. And there's nothing wrong with that. That one sentence is the most elegant in the book, but it really should never have been such a revelation.