Con­fes­sions of Mark San­ford’s for­mer speech­writer.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Never. Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Washington Post.

You don’t need to be a speech­writer to re­al­ize that the phrase “I won’t be­gin in any par­tic­u­lar spot” is a wretched way to start a public ad­dress. Yet those were the open­ing words of one of the more re­mark­able po­lit­i­cal spec­ta­cles in re­cent years: Mark San­ford’s ram­bling and teary news con­fer­ence of June 24, 2009, in which South Carolina’s then-gover­nor con­fessed that rather than hik­ing the Ap­palachian Trail, he’d been hook­ing up with his Ar­gen­tine mistress.

In the crowd that af­ter­noon at the state­house ro­tunda in Columbia, S.C., was the man re­spon­si­ble for craft­ing San­ford’s speeches. Peo­ple still ask Bar­ton Swaim, “Did you write that speech?” He can’t even an­swer. “I just chuckle mis­er­ably,” he ex­plains.

No, Swaim didn’t write that speech, but now he has au­thored some­thing just as re­veal­ing and un­usual: a po­lit­i­cal memoir that traf­fics in nei­ther score-set­tling nor self­im­por­tance but that shares, in spare, de­light­ful prose, what the au­thor saw and learned. “The Speech­writer” feels like “Veep” meets “All the King’s Men” — an en­ter­tain­ing and en­gross­ing book not just about the ab­sur­di­ties of work­ing in the press shop of a South­ern gover­nor but also about the mean­ing of words in public life.

“For a long time the job of the speech­writer had sounded ro­man­tic to me,” writes Swaim, who came to the po­si­tion from the aca­demic world. “The speech­writer, I felt, was a per­son whose job it was to put words in the mouths of the pow­er­ful, who un­der­stood the im­port and va­ri­eties of po­lit­i­cal lan­guage and guided his master through its per­ils. . . . A speech­writer has all the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of be­ing a writer but had po­lit­i­cal power too.”

Swaim would soon be un­bur­dened of those mis­ap­pre­hen­sions. He quickly learned that his job was not to com­pose soar­ing rhetoric but to cob­ble to­gether the kind of speeches the gover­nor would write for him­self if he had the time. And this gover­nor couldn’t write. At all.

When Swaim waded through his new boss’s old op-eds, look­ing for the “voice” and “ca­dence” San­ford wanted him to cap­ture, he couldn’t find it. “What I heard was more like a cough,” he writes. “Or the hum­ming of a bad melody, with most of the notes sharp. One sen­tence stands out inmy mem­ory: ‘ This is im­por­tant not only be­cause I think it ought to be a first or­der of busi­ness, but be­cause it makes com­mon sense.’ ”

He learned the boss’s tics. San­ford liked to have three points in a speech, never two.

“I’mnot get­ting out there to talk about two stupid points,” the gover­nor said when pre­sented with a pair of re­but­tals to a bill. “I need three points, first, sec­ond, third. Got that?” He loved re­fer­ring to an amor­phous “larger no­tion” in his re­marks. Larger than what? It didn’t mat­ter. “When we drafted a re­lease or a press state­ment and weren’t sure if he would ap­prove it, some­one would say, ‘Stick a “larger no­tion” in there and it should be fine.’ ” The gover­nor would of­ten de­ploy an “in­deed” when try­ing to res­cue a trite phrase, as in “we’re in­deed mort­gag­ing our chil­dren’s fu­ture.” Also, San­ford al­ways looked for chances to men­tion Rosa Parks in a speech. He just re­ally wanted to do that.

At the urg­ing of his wife, Swaim gave in and started writ­ing poorly. He as­sem­bled a list of San­ford-friendly lines (such as “given the fact that,” “speaks vol­umes,” “very con­sid­er­able,” “the way you live your life”). They were awk­ward and lazy, but the boss liked them.

The term “speech­writer” is mis­lead­ing. Swaim spent much time craft­ing news re­leases, pen­ning thank-you mis­sives and draft­ing scathing state­ments and scathing op-eds about what­ever the leg­is­la­ture was push­ing. “We did a lot of scathing,” he re­calls. He also wrote “sur­ro­gate letters,” i.e., letters to the editor os­ten­si­bly from sup­port­ers but ac­tu­ally writ­ten by the gover­nor’s staff. “There was some­thing slightly but def­i­nitely dis­hon­est” about them, Swaim ad­mits, but they were also an art form: Start off with some generic sass (“Which con­sti­tu­tion is Sen­a­tor So-and-so read­ing?”), and then make an ar­gu­ment that doesn’t re­flect too much in­sight, or oth­er­wise ed­i­tors would see through the ruse.

Swaim con­soled him­self that such tricks served a good cause, but he has enough self­aware­ness to know that his in­cen­tives were off. “One of the melan­choly facts of po­lit­i­cal life is that your con­vic­tions tend to align with your pay­check,” he writes.

The na­ture of pol­i­tics is to sub­tract mean­ing from lan­guage, Swaim un­der­stands, but he de­vel­ops a rel­a­tively be­nign phi­los­o­phy about po­lit­i­cal speech: “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.” And politi­cians re­sort to such de­vices not out of de­vi­ous­ness but sim­ply be­cause ev­ery day they must weigh in “on things of which they have lit­tle or no re­li­able knowl­edge or about which they just don’t care.” Take that, Ge­orge Or­well. “The Speech­writer” will be­come a clas­sic on po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­cause it goes be­yond the con­tor­tions of public state­ments to ex­plore how politi­cians speak to their staffers when no cam­eras are around. In this case, the gover­nor de­meaned and hu­mil­i­ated them at ev­ery turn, usu­ally as a way of cop­ing with anx­i­ety or work­ing through ideas. “Be­ing be­lit­tled was part of the job,” ex­plains Swaim, who of­ten drove to work ner­vous to the point of vom­it­ing, brac­ing for what­ever mood might grip the boss. When the gover­nor no­ticed that a white­board hadn’t been up­dated with his latest goals, he col­lapsed “into a fit of an­gry inar­tic­u­lacy.” And in a petty breach of of­fice eti­quette, San­ford sliced off a piece of a sub­or­di­nate’s birth­day cake and took it into his of­fice, be­fore they’d even cel­e­brated. Later, Swaim re­calls, staffers sang “Happy Birth­day” to their col­league while gath­ered around a cake with a cor­ner miss­ing.

It wasn’t mal­ice. Worse, it was in­dif­fer­ence. “The gover­nor wasn’t try­ing to hurt you,” Swaim con­cluded. “For him to try to hurt you would have re­quired him to ac­knowl­edge your sig­nif­i­cance.” His at­ti­tude fos­tered per­verse ca­ma­raderie among staffers, but also un­der­cut any loy­alty. He was the same with state law­mak­ers. The gover­nor barely re­mem­bered their names, and that en­raged them. He didn’t care.

And just as San­ford be­came a na­tional fig­ure in the stim­u­lus bat­tle against the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, just “when veep spec­u­la­tion was at its not very con­sid­er­able height,” came the fall. The gover­nor’s con­ver­sa­tions with the staff shortly af­ter his in­fi­delity speech were ex­quis­ite in their inanity and self-in­volve­ment. “I just wanted to say the ob­vi­ous, which is the ob­vi­ous,” the boss be­gan. “I mean, the ob­vi­ous — which is that I caused the storm we’re in now.” He also men­tioned read­ing “Man’s Search for Mean­ing,” the Auschwitz memoir by Vik­tor Frankl. “You can find beauty, you can find rea­sons to keep go­ing, in the most ap­palling cir­cum­stances,” San­ford lec­tured. “We’re not in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. So let’s not stay in the dumps.”

Swaim was tasked with rewrit­ing the gover­nor’s form letters to scrub terms such as “in­tegrity” or “hon­esty” that would re­mind re­cip­i­ents of the scan­dal. The boss also told him to “come up with a few ex­am­ples from the Bi­ble — or from history, or from what­ever — that kind of show, you know, how when you’ve made a mess, you can do the best you can to clean it up, you make it right the best you can, and you keep go­ing.”

San­ford did keep go­ing. De­spite im­peach­ment calls, he served out his sec­ond term and now rep­re­sents South Carolina’s 1st Con­gres­sional Dis­trict af­ter win­ning a 2013 spe­cial elec­tion. Swaim left the gover­nor’s of­fice in 2010, but not be­fore de­liv­er­ing one last time for his boss.

The gover­nor was about to ad­dress an elec­tric-bus com­pany, and he’d re­jected ev­ery idea for the speech. Sud­denly, Swaim found the an­swer: It was Rosa Parks’s birth­day. “Rosa Parks thought about buses in a new way,” he ex­plained to the gover­nor. “What she did on a bus changed the world. What [the com­pany] is do­ing with an old idea — the bus idea — has the po­ten­tial to change the world. Both take courage. The one changed so­ci­ety for the bet­ter and made us a bet­ter na­tion. The other is im­prov­ing our qual­ity of life. . . . Some­thing like that.”

The boss ap­proved. “It was ab­so­lutely ridicu­lous,” the speech­writer writes. “But it was per­fect.”


AfterMark San­ford ad­mit­ted an af­fair at a 2009 news con­fer­ence, his speech­writer, Bar­ton Swaim, had to delete terms like “hon­esty” from the gover­nor’s form letters.

THE SPEECH­WRITER A Brief Ed­u­ca­tion in Pol­i­tics By Bar­ton Swaim Si­mon & Schuster. 204 pp. $25

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