what I’m reading: the speechwriter: a brief education in politics by barton swaim.

the speechwriterFrom 2007 to 2010 Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for then governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. The Speechwriter is a collection of stories about his time spent with the governor and his staff.

While Mark Sanford was the governor of South Carolina and is now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he is perhaps most notorious for telling his staffers he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail when he really was meeting his mistress in Argentina. I vaguely remember when the scandal broke in 2009, but it seemed to disappear fairly quickly. Still, I thought this book would be interesting as it might provide insight into the governor, his way of thinking, and how the whole situation played out.

Unfortunately, this is not a tell-all book as I had hoped. Rather, it is more about the inner workings of the governor’s staff and the day to day issues they faced.

Swaim recounts some entertaining stories of working with the governor, especially how he learned to imitate the governor’s way of speaking. I found it fascinating that the way Swaim learned to write in the governor’s voice was by transcribing letters dictated by the governor and by writing down and learning some of the governor’s favored phrases.

I’m not sure who comes off best in this book. The governor is not portrayed very well. Most of his staffers don’t like him, as well as his colleagues. The governor is portrayed as frugal to the extreme, to the point that he would wear the same shirt for weeks on end and would rather sit and sweat in a car on a hot day than waste gas by running the air conditioner while the car idles. As much as I did not like the governor character, I couldn’t help but be impressed when he stood up for not taking stimulus funds.

Likewise, there are times when Swaim comes off a bit pretentious, as he seems to look down on the governor because he’s not as good a writer as Swaim is. There are times where Swaim seems to think he is better than the governor because he is a better speaker and doesn’t use weird colloquialisms like the governor does. Swaim even writes that he wanted to title this book “How to Write Badly”.

The thing I found most interesting in this book was that Mark Sanford is never referred to by name. Honestly, I kept forgetting what the governor’s name was and I would have to read the back cover to remember. I’m not sure why his name is never mentioned – the Appalachian Trail and Argentinian mistresses are clearly described so there is no doubt who Swaim is referring to, plus it is clearly mentioned in the description of the book.

Swaim is clearly a gifted writer. But perhaps a job as the speechwriter for the governor of South Carolina was not the job for him.


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