The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics



The Pequod Review:

Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter is a memoir of the three years (from 2007 to 2010) that Swaim spent as a speechwriter for former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. In the book's best moments, Swaim brings a down-to-earth reality to his experiences on the job, with specific day-to-day details describing what really happens in political offices. Here he explains how politicians' evasiveness serves a real function:  

It’s impossible to attain much success in politics if you’re the sort of person who can’t abide disingenuousness. This isn’t to say politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars than other fields do. Actually one hears very few proper lies in politics. Using vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing. Sometimes, for instance, there would be a matter the governor didn’t want to discuss in public, but we knew he’d be asked about it at his next public appearance, or in any case Aaron would be asked about it. Let’s say the head of a cabinet agency had been accused by a state senator of running a cockfighting ring. His behavior would fall within executive purview, but since he had not been indicted or even legally accused, he couldn’t be fired or forced to resign. Aaron knew the governor would be asked about it at a press conference, so our office would issue a statement to any member of the press who asked about it. “[ The senator’s] remarks have raised some troubling questions,” the statement might say, “and we’re looking closely at the situation in an effort to determine whether it merits further investigation by state or local law enforcement. At the same time, we want to avoid rushing to judgment, and we hope all concerned will likewise avoid making accusations in the absence of evidence.” This is the kind of statement Aaron would need: one that said something without saying anything. It would get the governor on record without committing him to any course of action. Hence the rhetorical dead weight: “state or local law enforcement” instead of just “law enforcement”; all that about “rushing to judgment” and “making accusations in the absence of evidence,” as if anybody needed to be told that. If a reporter asked the governor about it, he could avoid talking about it without having to use that self-incriminating phrase “No comment.” “I’d go back to what we’ve already said on this,” he might say, and repeat the gaseous phrases of the statement.

Elsewhere he describes how he handled constituent letters, an essential part of the job for any local/state politician:

I didn’t respond to hostile letters; the governor said he didn’t want to get “tangled up” with people who hated him enough to write and mail letters explaining what a moron he was for vetoing a bill or what a villain he was for failing to nominate a certain highly capable public servant. Still, it was difficult not to read them. You got a sense of how those called “likely voters” think about political questions—not deeply, or much at all, but intensely and without distinctions. Most letter writers seemed to have ingested one or two half-understood facts that accorded with their suspicions and then worked a few inane jibes into paragraph form. They believed their own attitudes, and those of the public officials they admired, to be inerrant, and they felt free to interpret contrary views or remarks in the worst possible light. They stressed their points by putting them in dismissive, vaguely archaic phrasing. For some reason they often described the governor as “our esteemed governor”: “Our esteemed governor thinks the way to help the unemployed is to do nothing.” Letter writers liked to use the lawyerly “said” to indicate sarcastic disapproval: “That was before said governor got himself elected.” Common expressions were often embellished by the word “proverbial”: “The governor finds himself between a rock and the proverbial hard place.” The phrases “need I add” and “each and every” were favorites: “Need I add that our esteemed governor has vetoed each and every bill to raise the cigarette tax?” And “so much for”: “The governor says he’s concerned for the disadvantaged. Yet he vetoed a bill that would have extended Medicaid to the children of low income families. So much for his credibility.” 


The trick [in responding to constituents] was to use the maximum number of words with the maximum number of legitimate interpretations. Put that way, it sounds terrible, but there’s no other way to do it. If a constituent writes to ask the governor the best way to get into politics, and you (in the governor’s voice) write back using words like “I think you should run” or “Go for it,” you may soon hear about some nitwit running for county council claiming he’s been endorsed by the governor. Or take the “Won’t you please run for president?” letters, of which there were many around this time. In case the letter was made public, you couldn’t have the governor responding in a way that could be construed as an admission of an intent to run or of an interest in running, or as an admission of anything. At the same time, though, you wouldn’t want to deny an intention to run for president because that would have been obviously dishonest and, as I thought, soon disprovable. In both these cases you’d want to give the letter writers at least two full paragraphs in response; otherwise it looked cold and dismissive. So you would elongate every sentence with superfluous phrases. “I believe” would become “I have every reason to believe,” and platitudinous observations would be prefaced by “What I’d say—and I am absolutely certain about this—is that . . .” The phrase “going forward” was very useful, as was “from where I stand.”

But his job also took him into more ethically dubious territory, as when he wrote surrogate letters to the editor to various newspapers supporting Sanford:

To get [a surrogate letter] placed, you had to sound like the real thing, but not so much that you discredited your own position or insulted the intelligence of the supporter whose name you were hoping to attach to it. You had to start the letter off with some sassy stock phrase or rhetorical question: “Representative So-and-so just doesn’t get it” or “Which constitution is Senator So-and-so reading?” Then you’d make your case without sounding like you knew too much about the topic. That’s where surrogate letters sometimes went wrong. They would refer to specific revenue numbers or to the names of subcommittees or explain the difference between house and senate versions of bills. Average people didn’t know these things, and if a surrogate letter used them, it sounded like what it was, and editors wouldn’t run them. I spent a day writing these wretched things. It wasn’t worth it unless you produced ten or fifteen; newspapers likely wouldn’t print a letter taking a certain view if they got only one, but if they got a handful they’d feel bound to run one or two. It was a mind-numbing exercise: each one had to sound clumsy but not stupid; each had to approach the question from a different angle; and none could use the same vocabulary. We sent them out to the ostensible authors, and over the next two weeks or so I would see my little creations pop up in a variety of newspapers. Sometimes a few words had been changed by the surrogates, but by and large they slapped their names on the letters and forwarded them to their hometown newspapers. I felt the whole exercise was pointless, but perhaps the letters did contribute in a small way to the sense that Knotts’s allegations had been grossly unfair and that the governor had acted properly. Had he? I thought so at the time, but enough time has passed that I can admit I don’t know. One of the melancholy facts of political life is that your convictions tend to align with your paycheck.

The overall book is marred somewhat by Swaim's naive and disingenuous commentary on his growing disillusionment with the job, as he realizes the role of a speechwriter doesn't fulfill his idealistic ambitions. But overall this is a very good picture of what state politics is all about.