Can the Ghostwriter Speak?

Review: Barton Swaim, ‘The Speechwriter’

Mark Sanford / AP
• September 7, 2015 5:00 am


What makes politicians tick? Barton Swaim has an answer. He had a front-row seat to the career of one of the more infamous examples of the species in recent years: Mark Sanford. As a speechwriter for the South Carolina governor, Swaim watched Sanford transform from a conservative rising star—a prospective vice-presidential or even presidential candidate—into a political pariah, and learned that ambition cannot exist without vanity.

Swaim’s memoir, The Speechwriter, is an enjoyable look at his four years in Sanford’s communications shop. A graduate of the University of South Carolina and the University of Edinburgh, Swaim stumbled on the job after reading one of the governor’s op-eds in a local newspaper. It was awful. He immediately submitted his résumé to the Sanford’s office, writing "I don’t know much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer." Less than a month later, he showed up to work at the statehouse.

Thus started what Swaim thought would be a straightforward and satisfying job. The honeymoon didn’t last long. His first speech for the governor was about a military unit’s deployment to Afghanistan. Sanford called it "fantastic," but it’s unclear whether Swaim ever heard that word directed at him again.

The next project was an op-ed on the conclusion of South Carolina’s legislative season. "The governor," as he is called throughout, hated Swaim’s first draft and rewrote it entirely. This became a pattern over the following months: Swaim would write a speech, op-ed, or even just a simple constituent letter only for the governor to discard it and start over himself.

Swaim was learning one of the most important lessons of ghost writing—a lesson the hordes of wannabe writers in Washington and state capitols would do well to learn. We come to this field thinking our prose is brilliant, that we can turn a mediocre or even a great communicator into the second coming of Cicero. Instead, we find out we’re not that good, or if we are, that our style and voice may be nothing like that of the person signing our work.

Swaim found that out the hard way. Mark Sanford’s voice was, to put it mildly, ugly. He loved meandering sentences, mixed metaphors, and a shopworn collection of words and phrases that kept his writing consistently stale. Swaim kept a record of them—"this larger notion," "speaks volumes," "the obvious is the obvious," and more. He initially refused to debase his work by writing as Sanford wanted. But after several months of harsh words and torn-up drafts, the governor made moves to hire a different writer who could better meet his wishes.

That’s when Swaim realized what his wife and his coworkers had been telling him for months: Write for the person signing your paycheck, not for yourself. Swaim switched his style to match Sanford’s. It worked on the whole, although the governor was still an immensely unpleasant man to work for. Part of that discomfort was lessened by Sanford’s rise in the Republican Party between 2007 and 2009. His principled libertarian positions and his combative style suited him well in the dawn of the Obama era. Perhaps Sanford’s most famous moment was his refusal to accept any funds for South Carolina from the federal stimulus legislation. Sanford’s confrontation with his own state legislature and President Obama quickly vaulted him into the national limelight—and onto many 2012 shortlists.

But the governor’s rise wasn’t to last. How could it, after he got caught "hiking the Appalachian Trail"? In the summer of 2009, America learned that Sanford was carrying on an extramarital affair with an Argentine femme fatale. Compounding this was the governor’s penchant for saying—and doing—bizarre things. In interviews and press conferences, he made pitiful attempts to rationalize his behavior. Perhaps most memorable was when he lamented the difficulty of making a long-distance affair work.

Which leads us back to vanity. Swaim, who had little interest in politics prior to becoming Sanford’s speechwriter, was initially surprised: "Hadn’t I noticed that politicians are prone to vanity, and that vanity frequently unmakes them?" After reflecting on just how widespread this phenomenon is, Swaim calls it "the peculiar and deadly flaw of modern democratic politics." It empowers politicians who can "make us think well of them without our realizing that that’s what they’re doing." They "know how to make us admire and trust them," only for us to discover that they are driven by a "thirst for glory" that hides their profound character flaws.

Then again, Swaim admits he knew this all along, even if only in the back of his mind. Everyone else in America knows it, too. But Sanford is still the best proof of this: in 2013, two years after quietly leaving the governor’s office, he ran for the congressional seat he vacated in 2001—and won.

Published under: Book reviews