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The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

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An intimate and hilarious look inside the spin room of the modern politician: a place where ideals are crushed, English is mangled, people are humiliated, and the opportunity for humor is everywhere. Everyone knows this kind of politician: a charismatic maverick who goes up against the system and its ways, but thinks he doesn’t have to live by the rules. Through his own An intimate and hilarious look inside the spin room of the modern politician: a place where ideals are crushed, English is mangled, people are humiliated, and the opportunity for humor is everywhere. Everyone knows this kind of politician: a charismatic maverick who goes up against the system and its ways, but thinks he doesn’t have to live by the rules. Through his own experience as the speechwriter for a controversial governor, Barton Swaim tells the story of a band of believers who attach themselves to this sort of ambitious narcissist—and what happens when it all comes crashing down. The Speechwriter is a funny and candid introduction to the world of politics, where press statements are purposefully nonsensical, grammatical errors are intentional, and better copy means more words. Swaim paints a portrait of a man so principled he’d rather sweat than use state money to pay for air conditioning, so oblivious he’d wear the same stained shirt for two weeks, so egotistical he’d belittle his staffers to make himself feel better, and so self-absorbed he never once apologized to his staff for making his administration the laughing stock of the country. On the surface, this is the story of one politician’s rise and fall. But in the end, it’s a story about us—the very real people who want to believe in our leaders and must learn to survive with broken hearts.


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An intimate and hilarious look inside the spin room of the modern politician: a place where ideals are crushed, English is mangled, people are humiliated, and the opportunity for humor is everywhere. Everyone knows this kind of politician: a charismatic maverick who goes up against the system and its ways, but thinks he doesn’t have to live by the rules. Through his own An intimate and hilarious look inside the spin room of the modern politician: a place where ideals are crushed, English is mangled, people are humiliated, and the opportunity for humor is everywhere. Everyone knows this kind of politician: a charismatic maverick who goes up against the system and its ways, but thinks he doesn’t have to live by the rules. Through his own experience as the speechwriter for a controversial governor, Barton Swaim tells the story of a band of believers who attach themselves to this sort of ambitious narcissist—and what happens when it all comes crashing down. The Speechwriter is a funny and candid introduction to the world of politics, where press statements are purposefully nonsensical, grammatical errors are intentional, and better copy means more words. Swaim paints a portrait of a man so principled he’d rather sweat than use state money to pay for air conditioning, so oblivious he’d wear the same stained shirt for two weeks, so egotistical he’d belittle his staffers to make himself feel better, and so self-absorbed he never once apologized to his staff for making his administration the laughing stock of the country. On the surface, this is the story of one politician’s rise and fall. But in the end, it’s a story about us—the very real people who want to believe in our leaders and must learn to survive with broken hearts.

30 review for The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

  1. 4 out of 5

    Esil

    The Speechwriter is about the author's short lived career as a speechwriter for then governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Swaim recounts a few good anecdotes and provides some insight into the Governor's personality, inner political machinery and demise as a governor. He explains that being his speechwriter was about bowing to an unreasonable and pedantic egotist, and unlearning how to be a concise clear writer and learning instead how to write unclear and ambiguous lengthy cluttered prose. The Speechwriter is about the author's short lived career as a speechwriter for then governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Swaim recounts a few good anecdotes and provides some insight into the Governor's personality, inner political machinery and demise as a governor. He explains that being his speechwriter was about bowing to an unreasonable and pedantic egotist, and unlearning how to be a concise clear writer and learning instead how to write unclear and ambiguous lengthy cluttered prose. In his last chapter, Swaim dwells on the question of whether it is possible for any modern politician to be anything more than a vain egotist driven more by his own appetite for fame and power than a desire to do good. After dwelling at length on the proclivities and behaviour of one politician, it seems like a quick and cynical attempt to wrap the whole book together -- to give purpose to what seems in large part a cathartic exercise for Swaim. While the book is interesting, I tend to agree with the suggestion from another GR review that this could have been an article rather than a full book -- a bit more concise and to the point, perhaps. Or alternately it could have dug deeper -- going beyond anecdotes and descriptions and provided a more comprehensive analysis of his concluding theory. It was worth the read, but Swaim could have been more engaged with the topic and done so much more -- which I suppose is a bit ironic given his own criticism of the speeches he was required to write. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Trish

    This book was on the “Best Of 2015” list of Daniel Pink. Pink reported that it was the best book on politics that he’d ever read. After reading it, I began to wonder if Pink was trying to support Swaim’s career by this recommendation. Though there was some attempt at big ideas at the end of Swaim’s narrative, the whole did not rise above the level of mediocrity. I’d say most of us have come to Swaim’s conclusions by being a member of the electorate, even if we haven’t put it into words. This book was on the “Best Of 2015” list of Daniel Pink. Pink reported that it was the best book on politics that he’d ever read. After reading it, I began to wonder if Pink was trying to support Swaim’s career by this recommendation. Though there was some attempt at big ideas at the end of Swaim’s narrative, the whole did not rise above the level of mediocrity. I’d say most of us have come to Swaim’s conclusions by being a member of the electorate, even if we haven’t put it into words. Conversely, I could see something intriguing about the governor—a Republican no less and therefore not my favorite breed of politician. Barton Swain was a speech writer for three years for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Sanford is a Republican whose cri de cœur is federal debt reduction. He made a name for himself by opposing the notion of federal IDs proposed by the Bureau of Homeland Security. In 2009 Sanford disappeared for five days, to Argentina it turns out, and returned to admit to an affair with María Belén Chapur. Sanford did not resign from the governorship after the admission, and was subsequently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013. Swain does not take pot-shots at Sanford nor does he go into great detail about the governor's love life, but he does show us how the sausages are made when it comes to the battle of ideas. Swaim says that against his editor’s advice he wanted to call the book “How to Write Badly,” a reference to the fact that politicians often speak in broken syntax, and like all of us, tend to overuse phrases until they become associated with an individual’s style-- until “it sounds like me.” Sanford was a brilliant public speaker, loose and relaxed, and mostly coherent. He hired Swaim to write speeches for the endless array of public speaking events he did on a regular basis. “The governor had no gift for articulating complex arguments,” says Swaim. That may be the case, but it appears the governor was always reaching for ways to elevate his conversation with the public, and to put ordinary human experience in the context of larger ideas. Swaim is best when he is describing what the staff room looks and feels like: how hectic and busy it can be when the governor is tightly scheduled, and how he may suddenly appear, in disarray and dishevelment, frantic about what he ought to say in one of the endless series of speaking engagements to interest groups that needed attention. Swaim became disillusioned with politics during his tenure with Sanford and points out that he really wasn’t a speechwriter. He was mostly a letter-writer, responding by letter to those who made public their support for the governor, or whom wrote him letters or sent him gifts. Swaim chooses to make a comment about all politicians based on his experience with the governor. He is probably generally right, but my guess is that he is not right in every circumstance, and that is what we the public are always seeking: the one politician that breaks the mold. I’d be interested to see what more asute readers than I have to say about this memoir. Who comes off looking better, the speechwriter or the governor? How much of the speechwriter’s failure to thrive was the result of what many of us experience in our lifetimes, simply poor job placement or perhaps being in the right job with the wrong folks, nothing more sinister nor grand than that. Here Swaim gives a book talk on C-Span.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    ARC for review. Dear Lord in Heaven, how in the world did I not know that Mark Sanford had been elected to the U.S. Congress in 2013?! I only found out JUST NOW when I looked up his Wikipedia entry to see during what years the events in the book took place (I remember the scandal, but couldn't remember the year and Swaim doesn't include any years on the book.) Some days I hate America. Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for then-Governor Mark Sanford from 2007 until Sanford left office in 2010, ARC for review. Dear Lord in Heaven, how in the world did I not know that Mark Sanford had been elected to the U.S. Congress in 2013?! I only found out JUST NOW when I looked up his Wikipedia entry to see during what years the events in the book took place (I remember the scandal, but couldn't remember the year and Swaim doesn't include any years on the book.) Some days I hate America. Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for then-Governor Mark Sanford from 2007 until Sanford left office in 2010, (he was never impeached, and never resigned) so he had a front row seat for Sanford's brief, and small, rise in the national spotlight (he famously refused federal stimulus funds and his arguments against accepting these were remarkably sound, even to this dyed-in-the-wool liberal) and his ignominious fall from grace. I'm a former Governor's appointee in a small, Southern state, so I know a bit about the type of politics of which Swaim speaks, and I think he generally does a good job of describing the overall atmosphere - lots of people who have very little power thinking they are making momentous decisions, but actually doing very little. That isn't necessarily true of a governor, of course, and Sanford was quite an interesting character, even outside the scandal - to say "he didn't play well with others" was a massive understatement. The legislature seemed to hate him (despite the fact he was a Republican and South Carolina is a bright red state), and most of his staffers appeared to feel the same way - some were openly hostile to the Governor's face and no one that Swaim describes held him in any type of esteem (I found this a bit disingenuous. Anyone in Sanford's position would have brought some toadies along.). However, by any estimation Sanford was a difficult boss and a hard-ass, with an emphasis on the "ass". Therefore it appears that no one was particularly upset when he disappeared, nor did anyone feel very sorry for him when his secret (the Argentinian mistress) was revealed, except to the extent it impacted their own jobs. Sanford was also unapologetic to the public and to his staff (the book suggests, but doesn't say, that he treated his wife and sons the with the same indifference). Overall, this likely would have made a better two-part article for a magazine versus a whole book. Swaim spends most of the last chapter arguing that politicians, by their very natures are searching first and foremost for their own glory and can, therefore, never be trusted. He's correct, but I don't know that Sanford's story is the best one to illustrate this truth. It is a quick read, and anyone who has served in state government will laugh at some of Swaim's co-workers (or recognize them). Nicely done.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Woodbury

    This book won't fit neatly into a category. Any time I thought I had it figured out, it changed on me. Which is good and bad, after all, the parts that I thought didn't work would inevitably end as the book morphed into something slightly different. While I can't give it a full rave, I can say that it is ridiculously interesting. I could talk about it for an hour. It's not clear that Swaim is actually much good as a speechwriter (he is constantly berated to be more folksy and accessible but from This book won't fit neatly into a category. Any time I thought I had it figured out, it changed on me. Which is good and bad, after all, the parts that I thought didn't work would inevitably end as the book morphed into something slightly different. While I can't give it a full rave, I can say that it is ridiculously interesting. I could talk about it for an hour. It's not clear that Swaim is actually much good as a speechwriter (he is constantly berated to be more folksy and accessible but from the glimpses we see of his speechwriting, he doesn't seem to ever succeed) so don't go to this book as a guide. It's also not an expose on Mark Sanford, nor is it an intimate portrait from a close friend or confidant. It's a look during a specific period of time from someone who doesn't necessarily have much contact outside of a work relationship. And that's probably why the book can't find its legs. Swaim doesn't know enough about Sanford to pick him apart, much of it is guesswork. The most interesting part of the book is the way Swaim picks apart Sanford's speech patterns. It's also the part where I felt most uncomfortable. I can't say Swaim outright judged Sanford, but I felt a tone of condescension that I couldn't shake and it irked me. While the title makes it sound like this book is about Swaim, it's really not. We get virtually none of his own personal life or his work. It's more of a series of vignettes that all take place within a set period of time and in a specific setting. If you're a politics junkie, it's still a worthwhile read. If you remember Sanford's Appalachian trail antics and how bizarre his speeches were, you'll realize that there's way more weirdness than you realized back then.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    Honestly, it was stressful to read a book about a guy who hated his job so much and stuck to it for so long. The book, at 204 pages, managed to drag, and I skimmed a lot of the last quarter. There was some cutesy conceit about never mentioning the name of the governor in question, but the author’s bio in the back says straight-out that he worked for Mark Sanford, so I don’t understand the obscurantism. (It’s also hard to be vague about exactly which governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” in Honestly, it was stressful to read a book about a guy who hated his job so much and stuck to it for so long. The book, at 204 pages, managed to drag, and I skimmed a lot of the last quarter. There was some cutesy conceit about never mentioning the name of the governor in question, but the author’s bio in the back says straight-out that he worked for Mark Sanford, so I don’t understand the obscurantism. (It’s also hard to be vague about exactly which governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” in Argentina.) I’m not at all sure what the author learned from his time there (aside from the obvious disillusionment with politicians, which at this point seems like the status quo no matter your party affiliation), and less sure what I was supposed to take away from it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mac

    The Speechwriter is entertaining but ultimately disappointing because it could be so much more. The book jacket says, "...this is the story of one politician's rise and fall." More specifically, it's about Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who famously was visiting his mistress in Argentina when all reports claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Sanford, with his strange behaviors and even stranger press conference apologies, became the laughingstock of the nation. Barton Swaim, The Speechwriter is entertaining but ultimately disappointing because it could be so much more. The book jacket says, "...this is the story of one politician's rise and fall." More specifically, it's about Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who famously was visiting his mistress in Argentina when all reports claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Sanford, with his strange behaviors and even stranger press conference apologies, became the laughingstock of the nation. Barton Swaim, as the governor's communication officer and speechwriter, has a lot to work with here. He portrays Sanford as one strange dude and a totally inept manager of people. The governor's public speaking idiosyncrasies, flubs, misunderstandings about language, and bizarre characteristics are chronicled in revealing and humorous detail; his inability to give feedback and guidance to his staff is described, and his unwillingness to spend any money, even on laundry, is laughable. So The Speechwriter is good fun, but Swaim's attempt to tell a larger story is awkwardly handled. The book is not really about Sanford's rise and fall; it's mostly about speechwriting and an idiosyncratic, and very irritating, management style. Swaim does try to expand the book's scope in the concluding chapter, "A Larger Notion," but the ideas seem added on, not something integral to the memoir. Though Swaim's concluding generalizations are probably accurate, they are presented as a huge leap from Sanford to all politicians as a whole. What's more, some of the author's writing flaws are just like the flaws he mocks in the governor. Sometimes he seems to have caught the governor's linguistic disease, for instance: --A filler sentence adding no meaning in the middle of a page-long paragraph: "Let me explain what I mean, briefly." --An explanatory reference, a huge stretch that seems to come from nowhere: "...just as the Sophists did in the fourth and fifth centuries BC." --A sentence that becomes tangled in its own underwear: "Jones II--the prolific adulator of the governor who'd wanted him to attend some kind of philosophical gabfest--claimed he had heard the Argentine ambassador to the United States say the governor told him that he wasn't interested in expanding trade relations with Argentina, thus indicating that the Argentine leg of an economic development trip to South America must have been added for no other reason than to facilitate the governor's affair." So I enjoyed The Speechwriter, but I wish it had accomplished more. I was puzzled and an uneasy reader from the first page when Swaim says, "This memoir is based on the three years and ten months I spent working for the governor of a southern state. I have taken some liberties with chronology, many of the names are changed, as are some identifying and other details, and some of the dialogue is imperfectly remembered I'm sure." It turns out Swaim never mentions Mark Sanford by name so the book has a vague anonymous feel. And, with the opening disclaimer, I don't know what to believe. Swaim could have told a more open, comprehensive story; he could have integrated his "larger notion" more fully into the memoir; and he could have eliminated some of his own writing tics that he mocks in Sanford. I feel the author just stuck his nose under the speechwriting tent when he should have dived completely into the political pool. How's that for a comparison, Governor?

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bookworm

    This was only interesting for the boss of the author. Otherwise, this wouldn't hold a lot of attention of other people. Former South Carolina Governor and current Congressman Mark Sanford will forever be linked to hiking on the Appalachian Trail among other things. This is the story of the speechwriter who worked for the then-Governor to the end of Sanford's tenure (including his bizarre disappearance and his scramble by his staff to figure out what the heck was going on). It's a mix of both This was only interesting for the boss of the author. Otherwise, this wouldn't hold a lot of attention of other people. Former South Carolina Governor and current Congressman Mark Sanford will forever be linked to hiking on the Appalachian Trail among other things. This is the story of the speechwriter who worked for the then-Governor to the end of Sanford's tenure (including his bizarre disappearance and his scramble by his staff to figure out what the heck was going on).   It's a mix of both Swain's work with Sanford, including trying to find Sanford's "voice" in speeches Swain wrote and a bit about Sanford's tenure as Governor. But make no mistake, while I'm not sure Sanford's name is ever actually put into the text (the author notes he changed some names and details), the hiking on the Appalachian gives it away, plus the author's bio on the cover flap.   None of this will likely come as a shock to anyone who followed the scandal and learned about Sanford during that time. He wasn't well-liked by the legislature and his colleagues (despite it being South Carolina and dominated by Republicans). There might be a bit of interest on the gossip side of things (outside of Sanford's adultery) in terms of his working style, him a person, etc. But I thought the writing just wasn't very good overall.   He may have been Sanford's speechwriter, but he could not make the story compelling. It does read a bit like an article on Sanford that got needlessly stretched out into a book. Sometimes it's quite repetitive in reading how Sanford didn't like X and wanted staffer A to do X again, etc. There's a review on Goodreads that says the Governor's writing style may have rubbed off on Swain, and I agree. I'm a political junkie and thought this would have been a great read but it's very clunky with interesting anecdotes here and there, but not enough to keep my attention. There's little insight as to (for example) how Sanford managed to escape being impeached (timing plays into it, Sen. Ted Kennedy died over the course of the investigation, the revelation of the identify of Sanford's mistress broke the same day Michael Jackson died, etc.)   The best part is probably at the end of the book, where Swain talks about why we elect the officials we do and wonders if he was too naive to realize the kind of person Sanford was. But unfortunately that section is too long and Swain talks a bit too much. Overall the book could have used a stronger editor OR should have been tucked into a long-read in say 'The Washington Post' or something.   It will likely be of interest to political junkies, but I'd recommend library before deciding if you really want or need to own this.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    The Speechwriter is a witty and creative memoir of life as a speechwriter in South Carolina's Governor's office, during the last few years of Mark Sanford's administration. Refreshingly, this is not a tell all book, but at its heart, an examination of the absurd and often strange ways that language and communication are used by very fallible people, to say veiled and odd things. Barton Swaim, a South Carolina writer, does a fine job of what he set out to do, which was to try to universalize this The Speechwriter is a witty and creative memoir of life as a speechwriter in South Carolina's Governor's office, during the last few years of Mark Sanford's administration. Refreshingly, this is not a tell all book, but at its heart, an examination of the absurd and often strange ways that language and communication are used by very fallible people, to say veiled and odd things. Barton Swaim, a South Carolina writer, does a fine job of what he set out to do, which was to try to universalize this story beyond intricacies of the Sanford administration, because honestly very few people would care to read about public communication designed to move opinion with the Budget and Control Board. Instead, you have a fresh, young academic writer, highly skilled with a newly minted Ph.D in literature who learns quickly that his job is not to say the best thing possible, but to say things as often as possible in his boss' stilted, strange and deeply confusing voice. Or as a coworker told him when he realized what his job actually was, "welcome to hell". So while his boss wanted to communicate clearly with the "mechanic in Greenwood", he confused many and lost valuable opportunities. So this relatively short book follows anecdotes of speeches, letter writing sessions and being berated by his boss, who claims to know more of grammatical rules than his speechwriter; while avoiding score settling. And settling scores is understandable, because the Governor's treatment of his staff, as people who were seen as dispensable, with callous disregard, is legendary. The actual stories here are funny. They do leave the reader shaking his head at the absurdity of much of public communication, particularly within this Governor's office. Perhaps the narrative could be expanded by exploring the ways communication fails so often to cross the divide between hapless people in authority and confused people who depend or at least should want clear news. But Swain closing reflections on why public communication fails so often in a mass media, open democracy age is worth reflecting on. Stories are not shared for the sake of raw cynicism, but really to show the 'hollowness' of so much of modern life. For that reason, this work, in the midst of its strange, awkward stories about life in the Governor's office, should cause people to think about how and why they interact with government, the economy and other ways that information is disseminated to large groups.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Bursey

    For over two decades I worked in a field that overlapped with the kind of work Barton Swaim undertook as a speechwriter for an erratic, ill-tempered, occasionally upright, defensive, hostile former governor of south carolina. More precisely, I listened to politicians' speeches, the majority of them extemporaneous, and made them sound closer to what people would normally say, and this was done for publication in a document that anyone could access for free. We had to arrive at a happy balance For over two decades I worked in a field that overlapped with the kind of work Barton Swaim undertook as a speechwriter for an erratic, ill-tempered, occasionally upright, defensive, hostile former governor of south carolina. More precisely, I listened to politicians' speeches, the majority of them extemporaneous, and made them sound closer to what people would normally say, and this was done for publication in a document that anyone could access for free. We had to arrive at a happy balance between the written and the spoken. Reading Swaim, I noted many passages with sad recognition, such as this one: "Everybody complains that politics separates words from their meanings, and this is part of the reason why. Words are useful, but often their meanings are not. Sometimes what you want is feeling rather than meaning, warmth rather than content" (111-112). How often had meaning been left behind in what I heard? It didn't help that some politicians - mostly men - treated speaking off the cuff as a test of virility and ridiculed those (other men) who used notes. This passage, too, reminded me of something: "The next morning [the governor] swung open the great mahogany door of the press office, paper in hand. 'Again,' he began, clearly dissatisfied. The governor would begin sentences with the word 'again' not as a way of calling your attention to something he had said before but as a way of expressing unhappiness" (17). Why would that stand out? For some years I had to listen to a leader of a political party start her first statement of the day with "And again, I want" when, clearly, nothing was being repeated or resumed. This clumsiness enraged me. After 24 hours, or two days, or several months between speeches, this repetition, devoid of content, is the best she could think of for her first words? It's worse than "Well..." I had to correct all that verbiage (one of Swaim's favourite words), deleting the extraneous, the mistakes, the incorrect subject-verb (dis)agreement, and so on. So I felt for Swaim when he related how the governor mangled this or that expression, or when he and other staff were the targets of abuse and an irascible temper. ("He wasn't trying to demean me, but when he was anxious, he needed somebody to berate, and if you were nearby and a staffer, you were that somebody. Being belittled was part of the job." [51]) Every legislature contains power-fear dynamics, from the head of the government down through the staff, as Swaim also makes clear in his pictures of his colleagues and of the other politicians whose main purpose is to derail the governor's plans. However, most of this book deals with language - the special language of the governor, which Swaim manages to capture, for the most part, by listening to his dictation of letters - but it also talks, briefly and with discretion, about the difficulties caused in his own marriage by the stress felt doing this often thankless job. He would often want to vomit before going to work. These occasional views off-stage - for every legislature is its own theatre, with its superstitions, props, clannish rituals, characters (with far more fools than leading actors/actresses), and so on - highlight the disconnect that can occur: you want to find the right words for an address to a Rotary Club for your boss, but you may not be able to talk with your partner. How sadly ironic is that? "The governor became to us like a drunkard father. He was a monster and a lout, but he was our governor; we could ridicule him, but outsiders couldn't."(185) This says much for the relationship built amongst the staff and their tyrant boss. It's as self-revealing as anything else about why Barton Swaim stayed on. I recommend this book for those who want to see something of how language is brought into service under the lash of political necessity.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Peter Thurley

    While the book was interesting and at times funny, it lacks that something that would make it a great book about politics in America. To be honest, the author described many experiences that most of us have with bad bosses, it's just that these experiences happened in the office of a Southern governor brought down by scandal.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Anna Bukowski

    Oh, lord. If you've ever worked in politics - in government, in a separately elected official's office. Read this and you won't regret it. It's humor, it's therapy, it's things you've endured and things you've been spared. Either way, just read it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sameer Vasta

    Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter reads like a novel, a piece of fiction spun from the brain of a gifted storyteller with an astute sense of the American political system. That Mr. Swaim's book is not a novel but instead a memoir is its greatest strength, and is the greatest indictment of political communications that has been published in years. The current state of politics in America is troubling—heck, politics all over the world, including in our own country, is a mess—and much of that Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter reads like a novel, a piece of fiction spun from the brain of a gifted storyteller with an astute sense of the American political system. That Mr. Swaim's book is not a novel but instead a memoir is its greatest strength, and is the greatest indictment of political communications that has been published in years. The current state of politics in America is troubling—heck, politics all over the world, including in our own country, is a mess—and much of that handwringing about the political system is focused on how leaders, and aspiring leaders, speak of their policies and tell narratives to guide that work. Most of us know that the words we hear and read from a politician are meticulously-considered and expertly-written by a team of professionals, but we don't always remind ourselves of that when we engage in the political sphere. The 2016 American election is particularly interesting because of the conflict between carefully-crafted messages and the raw, often ridiculous statements that can be published and circulated, unfiltered, in digital spaces. (Donald Trump's twitter account is a poignant example of how giving a voice to the candidate, rather than the candidate's staff, can be both entertaining and horrifying.) If President Obama's rise to presidency was built on the convening power of digital tools, whoever wins the upcoming election will be dependent on those tools less to convene, but instead to convince. Mr. Swaim, who spent four years working in the communications staff of Governor Mark Sanford (yes, that South Carolina governor, who enjoyed "hiking the Appalachian trail"), provides an incisive look at how political messages are considered, crafted, and delivered in an era where what you say is often more important than what you do. His memoir is engaging, entertaining; it lulls you into thinking that the story is fiction because it is so wrought with conflict and beautifully told. The narrative is engrossing and sometimes salacious, but not without its insights on the nature of political communication: "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." In an election season when we are quick to make fun of a candidate for sounding too rehearsed while also gasping in disbelief at the gruff, off-the-cuff remarks of someone from whom we expect more polish, The Speechwriter is an illumination on how those decisions—what to say, when to say it, and how to be heard—are made, and how those same decisions can become much more important that the act of governing itself. (originally published on inthemargins.ca)

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Crafting a speech or letter for another person to deliver is never easy. There is always ego involved, both on the side of the writer and the recipient. The early pages of this book intrigued me because they documented a young man's first impressions of a new boss, and a very irrational, demanding boss at that. I was prepared to be sympathetic because I'd also served in a similar capacity (corporate, not political) and was expected to write, re-write, polish and perfect all kinds of documents. Crafting a speech or letter for another person to deliver is never easy. There is always ego involved, both on the side of the writer and the recipient. The early pages of this book intrigued me because they documented a young man's first impressions of a new boss, and a very irrational, demanding boss at that. I was prepared to be sympathetic because I'd also served in a similar capacity (corporate, not political) and was expected to write, re-write, polish and perfect all kinds of documents. Perhaps, most notably buck slips for my boss to send to the Chairman of the Board of our (Fortune Five) corporation. Instead of "per your request" or "enclosed is the report we discussed at this morning's meeting" I was expected to worry over the language of the two sentence attachment to said report. You get it; it didn't make sense. I had real work to do and this wasn't it, but we struggled until the buck slip met satisfaction. Sooooooo, I had a genuine interest in this young writer's perceptions, his struggles, and (I thought) his story. Unfortunately, it barely merited a story. Other than the fact that Swaim's boss self-immolated as the result of a personal scandal, there wasn't enough substance in his recollections to carry the book. And, the author was either very naïve, or very ingenuous. He complained that he drafted and sent letters to constituents that the governor hadn't even read. Please! Did every kind church lady who sent a fruitcake at Christmas think that her thank you note was personally written (and re-written) by the governor? I loved the idea of an inside peek into a political office during a crisis time. Unfortunately, I think the writer either didn't have enough distance, maturity, or substance, to make the book really interesting. Perhaps at a different point in his career it could have been a different book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Locke

    This book rubbed me the wrong way; it felt disingenuous. If you hate your job that much, why not leave? Why write a book about it? Clearly, the author had more emotionally at stake being Mark Sanford's speechwriter than he lets on, but he never bothers to tell us what that is, other than the need to provide for his family. (And he admits the salary was pathetic, so that's not really good enough.) Also, what's with the veiled references to "the governor" and "the stimulus package;" with history This book rubbed me the wrong way; it felt disingenuous. If you hate your job that much, why not leave? Why write a book about it? Clearly, the author had more emotionally at stake being Mark Sanford's speechwriter than he lets on, but he never bothers to tell us what that is, other than the need to provide for his family. (And he admits the salary was pathetic, so that's not really good enough.) Also, what's with the veiled references to "the governor" and "the stimulus package;" with history this recent, why the need for obscurity? Rather than make this political tale feel timeless, the vagueness was just confusing. If you're going to write a memoir, *really* write a memoir, rather than slap a story around a few anecdotes. I've read one too many lazy memoirs lately. Example: "We already knew about one senator's wanton use of his campaign account; after a little digging and asking around, we also discovered that he'd used that account for a variety of lavish indulgences that I shouldn't mention." Well, why not?? Or: "A couple of bills the governor had pushed for passed the legislature; the Employment and Workforce Commission got overhauled, and one or two other things." "One or two other things" . . . Okay. Whatever. I noticed Swaim didn't thank any of his former colleagues, which leads me to believe he relied solely on his own memory in reconstructing his old workplace. That's okay if you're telling a story to friends over beers, but not if you're writing a book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tanya

    First, don’t buy this book, unless you want to put money into the hands of a member of the tea party who seems to have no political center, no loyalty, no goodness or respect for himself or others. Second, if your boyfriend hands it to you and wants to have a large discussion about its implications for revamping the US political system, still don’t read it. Or if you do read it, realize that your boyfriend is right and our political system is a mess, but ask yourself, isn’t that most of all First, don’t buy this book, unless you want to put money into the hands of a member of the tea party who seems to have no political center, no loyalty, no goodness or respect for himself or others. Second, if your boyfriend hands it to you and wants to have a large discussion about its implications for revamping the US political system, still don’t read it. Or if you do read it, realize that your boyfriend is right and our political system is a mess, but ask yourself, isn’t that most of all because of people like the author of this book? People who think its better to take a job for a good paycheck than to work as a librarian? People who think, “well, the tea party is fun and exciting, and it will be good to shake things up for a change?" (Reader, ask yourself, "Why? For what purpose? Because teachers are boring? That’s great, let’s build a political party because we find people who work in institutions for the good of others in a role of stewardship and care boring.”). People who are willing to write speeches for people they think are idiots, to write the idiot text these people will present as their own, and then turn around and throw the idiots under the bus and make fun of them, for the very same speeches that they (the authors of such books) wrote? Finally, don’t keep this book. And don't give it to anyone else… maybe you can use it prop up the leg of a broken piece of furniture.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Anton

    Graceful and witty account of an endlessly fascinating subject: famed Appalachian-Trail hiker and former governor Mark Sanford. As absurd and illuminating as Swaim's insider tales of political office dynamics are, I actually found his reflections on prose style and political discourse even more engaging--a kind of updating and Americanizing of Orwell's indispensable insights in "Politics and the English Language." Swaim's story illustrates the continuing, essential importance of written Graceful and witty account of an endlessly fascinating subject: famed Appalachian-Trail hiker and former governor Mark Sanford. As absurd and illuminating as Swaim's insider tales of political office dynamics are, I actually found his reflections on prose style and political discourse even more engaging--a kind of updating and Americanizing of Orwell's indispensable insights in "Politics and the English Language." Swaim's story illustrates the continuing, essential importance of written expression for politics in the age of soundbite and image, and instructs readers--or confirms what we already suspect--about the myriad ways political language is used to intentionally fuzz rather than clarify meaning.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    I was interested in this book because I vividly remember the scandal over Mark Sanford's affair, and the reviews of the book were hilarious. It's well-paced and well-written, with a spare style to the prose but plenty of good images and narration. The anecdotes themselves are often funny, and the book is told with restrained humor. Overall, probably the best book I've ready this year.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mike Eckhardt

    Luckily I never had the misfortune to work for a jackass like Mark Sanford during my time at the Statehouse. I couldn't care less about his personal life, but he should have been impeached for how he treated his staff; sadly not an uncommon trait in politics.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Miles Smith

    Swaim's short but very good memoir of his time as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford will interest those interested in modern electoral politics and the the history of South Carolina. What makes Swain's memoir so charming is that he emerges as someone who was struggling with his own understanding of the intersection between virtue, loyalty, and honor in electoral politics in the early 21st Century United States.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    Every time I try to write this review, I get worked up over Mark Sanford all over again, and that's not really fair to this book. Suffice it to say that if you want to hear more about the crazy that has happened since the events described, ask me and I'll fill you in. He was re-elected as the representative for my Congressional district, and I have opinions on that. On one hand, Barton Swaim's book is incredibly enlightening, especially to better understand Mark Sanford's character and the Every time I try to write this review, I get worked up over Mark Sanford all over again, and that's not really fair to this book. Suffice it to say that if you want to hear more about the crazy that has happened since the events described, ask me and I'll fill you in. He was re-elected as the representative for my Congressional district, and I have opinions on that. On one hand, Barton Swaim's book is incredibly enlightening, especially to better understand Mark Sanford's character and the bizarre verbal choices he makes in his public statements, but this is an unfortunate case when all of the very compelling parts are greater than the whole. Other reviewers have commented that this would have made a better long article than a short book, or maybe the author needed to add more. More analysis of his personal disillusionment with a narcissist whose staunch principles he had sort of come to admire, more details of the aftermath of the scandal, more on how his personal life was affected by his work. All of these things are touched on, but are left unexplored.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alex Etheridge

    I don't know if I've ever wanted to be a politician, but nevertheless, I've never wanted to be a politician less. This behind the scenes look from a speechwriter for the South Carolina governor in the early 2000's was full of wit, honesty, and grammar policing; the political perspective was perhaps most refreshing coming from a nonpartisan vantage point.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Lynn Spencer

    3.5 stars The author, Mark Sanford's former speechwriter, has all kinds of interesting stories to tell in this book. His insights into life on the governor's staff in the days leading up to that infamous hike on the Appalachian Trail definitely caught my interest. In some ways, the book is very revealing as Swaim pulls back the curtain and gives readers glimpses into what often sounds like a seriously dysfunctional governor's office. The "fly on the wall" feeling of this book, along with the 3.5 stars The author, Mark Sanford's former speechwriter, has all kinds of interesting stories to tell in this book. His insights into life on the governor's staff in the days leading up to that infamous hike on the Appalachian Trail definitely caught my interest. In some ways, the book is very revealing as Swaim pulls back the curtain and gives readers glimpses into what often sounds like a seriously dysfunctional governor's office. The "fly on the wall" feeling of this book, along with the author's own sense of humor, makes for entertaining reading. However, I couldn't escape the conclusion that this book could have been so much more. Swaim tells us several times, for example, that the job took a real toll on him, his family, his marriage, etc... This all gets glossed over in the book, though. Likewise, I found the anecdotes about trying to decipher the governor's writing voice and the quirks of the job very interesting, but the overall analysis tying Swaim's experiences to modern political life as a whole felt a touch weak. Still intriguing reading, but I could have used a bit more.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Allison Hiltz

    You know that saying that seeing something repeatedly will make you want to buy it? That’s what happened to me with The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. Every time I logged into Audible.com,there it was. I finally decided to give it a go because it looked interesting, was relatively short, and had a great narrator in the sample. It’s author was a speechwriter for former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, which bodes well for interesting content. In case you forgot, You know that saying that seeing something repeatedly will make you want to buy it? That’s what happened to me with The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. Every time I logged into Audible.com, there it was. I finally decided to give it a go because it looked interesting, was relatively short, and had a great narrator in the sample. It’s author was a speechwriter for former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, which bodes well for interesting content. In case you forgot, Sanford fell from grace after he was caught having an affair and faced impeachment charges. It all worked out for him in the end, however, as he is currently serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. I was looking forward to The Speechwriter because the description made it sound like an insightful and funny behind-the-scenes look at Sanford himself. While the book is about Sanford, I had a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, the last quarter of the book was great. It offered an insightful examination of Sanford and his fall from grace and gave the reader a glimpse into the good and bad qualities he possesses. More importantly, it was objective, which is what I had been expecting from the start because Swaim specifically points out early on that this is not a lurid tell-all meant to get anyone back.  If you ask me, Swaim either learned how to sell BS while working for the governor or doesn’t understand what a tell-all is. The middle half of the book read so much like a gossip column that I was wondering when the Kardashians were going to make an appearance. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell if Swaim was whining or boasting about Sanford’s annoying and questionable actions. When I got to the point where he actually said the following, I knew I was done because it had absolutely no relevance (and maybe she couldn’t be fired because she was good at her job): “Somehow, though, she couldn’t be fired. This wasn’t because she was young and chirpy and beautiful, as the schedulers were. Stella was sufficiently attractive, but not eye candy like them. Yet there was something about her that made the thought of treating her roughly, even when she deserved it, unthinkable.” For the full review, visit The Book Wheel.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kim

    I received a copy of this pre-publication from NetGalley in exchange for an review. I always thought that the job of a speechwriter was hard, but glamorous. I’ve seen “The West Wing”, and I guess I was dazzled by Rob Lowe running in at the last second with just the right word at the eleventh hour before the State of the Union address. So when I saw this book, I couldn’t help but be excited. Barton Swaim worked for the Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, from 2007-2010. Given the recent I received a copy of this pre-publication from NetGalley in exchange for an review. I always thought that the job of a speechwriter was hard, but glamorous. I’ve seen “The West Wing”, and I guess I was dazzled by Rob Lowe running in at the last second with just the right word at the eleventh hour before the State of the Union address. So when I saw this book, I couldn’t help but be excited. Barton Swaim worked for the Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, from 2007-2010. Given the recent political media storm surrounding that state, both the topic and the timing are perfect. He’s very intelligent and has an expansive vocabulary. He’s tailor made for this job, and should excel. So why is he (and everyone else in the press office) so upset? The problem with writing for someone else is that you need to sound like someone else. Unfortunately, in this case, the “someone else” isn’t nearly as bright. I’ve worked in an office where I was the resident grammarian. At first it’s nice, then boring. Then exasperating. The book reinforced my opinions on several matters. There’s a conception in America that instead of rising up we must pander down. That’s shown repeatedly in this book. The writers have to match audiences, of course, but why not throw in an infrequently used word? Because then you might sound elitist. And you certainly can’t have that in an elected official. That’s just sad. At its core, though, this is about a man who had a job that wasn’t what he expected it to be. Who can’t relate to that? And therein lies the rub. The book is well written but it’s not really original. Life isn’t what we see on TV, and real life can be monotonous. We’ve all had jobs that are frustrating; where our bosses take the credit for our work or throw hours or days of hard work back in our face. When the writers have their minor victories, you can’t help but cheer. But the overwhelming emotion pervading this book is desperation. In conclusion, I wish Barton the best of luck in all his future endeavors. I most certainly hope he finds a position that is worthy of him in the future (because he is a great writer) – just not in politics.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Peggy

    I mostly agree with what the New York Times review says about this book (I put the review below), but I think the NYT liked the book way more than I did. I didn't think the book was marvelous but some parts were pretty funny. I liked the part where the Governor is in trouble for flying first class but making all of the staffers fly coach, and one of the staffers sings, "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play, today". I also liked when the Governor stormed in to yell at the author about a piece, and I mostly agree with what the New York Times review says about this book (I put the review below), but I think the NYT liked the book way more than I did. I didn't think the book was marvelous but some parts were pretty funny. I liked the part where the Governor is in trouble for flying first class but making all of the staffers fly coach, and one of the staffers sings, "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play, today". I also liked when the Governor stormed in to yell at the author about a piece, and the author says, "I didn't write that. You did." Or when the author reads the leaked emails between the Governor and his mistress and had the weird feeling of recognition as if he [the author] wrote them. I think the stories in this book are even more funny and outrageous because they're true. You just can't make up that kind of stuff. Barton used to keep a list of words and phrases that the Governor liked to use. I like the author's use of language in telling this story and even started a list of my own of some of the words he used. "[Swaim's] book is not a tell-all or an effort to settle scores. Instead, it’s a wryly funny, beautifully written, sometimes bewildered, always astute dissection of what it is like to perform a thankless job for an unreasonable person in a dysfunctional office during a period of unusual turmoil. . . . Swaim is so talented a writer, and has such an eye for a telling detail, that you suspect you could put him in any workplace—chicken-processing plant, airport sunglass emporium, stoner skate park—and he would make it come alive in the best possible way. . . . He may have been unsuccessful as a platitudinous speechwriter, but he has produced a marvelously entertaining book." (The New York Times)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    Swaim makes a number of insightful points about the place that words play in politics, for instance on pages 111-112. "Everybody complains that politics separates words from their meanings, and this [the extrapolation of an anodyne sentiment with extraneous words] is part of the reason why. Words are useful, but often their meanings are not. Sometimes what you want is feeling rather than meaning, warmth rather than content." Swaim notes that this problem is severely exacerbated by the enormous Swaim makes a number of insightful points about the place that words play in politics, for instance on pages 111-112. "Everybody complains that politics separates words from their meanings, and this [the extrapolation of an anodyne sentiment with extraneous words] is part of the reason why. Words are useful, but often their meanings are not. Sometimes what you want is feeling rather than meaning, warmth rather than content." Swaim notes that this problem is severely exacerbated by the enormous amount of speaking and letter-writing that political officials are expected to perform (p. 85). But I'm not convinced that Swaim's perspective on political culture is as original or as incisive as he seems to believe (and his condescension toward ordinary voters is pretty thick). Where I think the book is strongest, in fact, has little to do with politics, but everything to do with the everyday aggravations of working for a terrible employer. Swaim captures the micro-struggles between employer and employee with exceptional clarity. His portrait of an office really doesn't have to be specific to politics, and his observations of the way "the governor" wields his power pettily and messily could apply to more people in authority than elected officials.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    Normally I shy away from political books of any kind due to their dogmatic tendencies; the authors are all too eager to preach to the choir and dismiss opposing viewpoints with wafer-thin, just-so hand-waving (which describes my personal writing style to a T, but I digress). I took exception with The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim for a chance to pull back the curtain and get a glimpse of how life and work really operate on Capital Hill. Enter your stereotypical Normally I shy away from political books of any kind due to their dogmatic tendencies; the authors are all too eager to preach to the choir and dismiss opposing viewpoints with wafer-thin, just-so hand-waving (which describes my personal writing style to a T, but I digress). I took exception with The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim for a chance to pull back the curtain and get a glimpse of how life and work really operate on Capital Hill. Enter your stereotypical civil-servant office-space, complete with a bevy of under-performing, under-compensated misfits: the blow-hard, the loud-mouth, the naive-ideologist and of course the most precious snowflake of all, Barton Swaim, the newly minted English PhD slowly coming to terms with just how employable his degree truly is. Cringe as the author's polished grammar, perfect punctuation and crisp sentences are routinely debased by the temperamental, impulsive and narcissistic governor. The book is full of office humor, heart-felt emotion and genuine introspection, particularly near the end when the governor's tenure comes to an abrupt end and the author thoughtfully examines what it really means to be a politician in America.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Linda Harkins

    This humorous little memoir restores my faith in the next generation. Barton Swaim gets it. "Rhetoricians, in other words--politicians--please the masses not by actually doing wise and virtuous things with state power but by making the masses believe that that's what they are doing, or that that's what they want to do, or that that's what they would do if more power were given to them" (pp. 202-203). Swaim had to learn the hard way as communications officer and speechwriter from 2007 to 2010 for This humorous little memoir restores my faith in the next generation. Barton Swaim gets it. "Rhetoricians, in other words--politicians--please the masses not by actually doing wise and virtuous things with state power but by making the masses believe that that's what they are doing, or that that's what they want to do, or that that's what they would do if more power were given to them" (pp. 202-203). Swaim had to learn the hard way as communications officer and speechwriter from 2007 to 2010 for South Carolina's governor at the time, Mark Sanford. You remember Mark Sanford, don't you? Governor Sanford left for five days--dereliction of duty-- without telling his staff or his wife where he was going. Certainly you remember when "hiking on the Appalachian Trail" became the euphemism for infidelity. If you've retired in South Carolina and have the slightest interest in politics, read it. If you're a native of this small state, read it. If you want to learn how smart South Carolina senators think and talk, read it. It's only 204 pages and can be read in a single sitting. Excellent read!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Zell

    Swaim returns to the states from graduate studies abroad and needs a job in order to support his wife and children. He lands a job as speech writer for Governor Mark Sanford and works in that office from 2007 - 2010. He lived through Sanford's rise and his fall due to his disappearance for 5 days in Argentina with his mistress. Swain learned a lot about politics and politicians and he tells some great stories here. One of the sad stories is the disconnect between calm demeanor of public Gov and Swaim returns to the states from graduate studies abroad and needs a job in order to support his wife and children. He lands a job as speech writer for Governor Mark Sanford and works in that office from 2007 - 2010. He lived through Sanford's rise and his fall due to his disappearance for 5 days in Argentina with his mistress. Swain learned a lot about politics and politicians and he tells some great stories here. One of the sad stories is the disconnect between calm demeanor of public Gov and the ranting private Gov to his staff. The book becomes a valuable reflection on our current style of democracy beginning on page 198 when he asks the question that leads to other questions and then a reflection on the three basic ways of doing democracy. Swain asks "Why do we trust men who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will?" Yes, why do we? Why are we stunned or saddened or angered when self-absorbed politician shows his true colors in public or his private scandal is made public? With the kind of democracy that we have, aren't we getting what our system needs to function? Engaging read. I hope we have more books from Mr. Swaim.

  30. 4 out of 5

    B

    This is just short enough to work as it is. Given what the author gives us, this review is probably sufficient: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/bo... Shorter Speechwriter: Mark Sanford is really angry all the time at his staff. He thinks he is special. The author found that Mark Sanford liked a series of terrible and useless phrases. The author also thinks he is special. As a book about language it could have been much shorter. As a book about politics, it's very oblique. The author is not This is just short enough to work as it is. Given what the author gives us, this review is probably sufficient: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/bo... Shorter Speechwriter: Mark Sanford is really angry all the time at his staff. He thinks he is special. The author found that Mark Sanford liked a series of terrible and useless phrases. The author also thinks he is special. As a book about language it could have been much shorter. As a book about politics, it's very oblique. The author is not overtly a member of Team R and it seems like he opposed the stimulus because of consistency rather than the misleading economic shibboleths he recites. Then he tries to turn the book from small slice-of-life to larger message by claiming that Sanford's hubris stands in for the failure of all government everywhere. It's not a reasonable message. (After all, Sanford is one of the drown-the-government-in-a-bathtub crow.d) But it's a nice try.

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