Monday, July 13, 2015

The Speechwriter, by Bartom Swaim

Sometimes real life is more entertaining than fiction.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics must be a novel.  But it is, in fact, Swaim's account of his experiences as speechwriter for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.  With a freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Swaim was looking for a place to put his education to work.  He read an op-ed by Sanford, and thought, "This guy needs a writer."

A letter and resume, a perfunctory interview, and before he knows it he's got a job at the state house.  Quickly he learned that his job was not to write great prose and insightful commentary, but to write Sanford's ideas in Sanford's voice, however poorly it might sound to Swaim's ears.  Eventually it got to the point that, at times, neither Swaim nor Sanford could remember who wrote what.

Sanford himself, in Swaim's description, is so much the stereotype of an egotistical, power-dealing, erratic politician that he seems like he could only be the product of an active imagination.  As you may recall, he got caught up in a minor scandal (misuse of funds designated for a National Governor's Association meeting) and a major scandal.  The major scandal came to light in the midst of Sanford's rise on the national radar, when he was being talked about as a potential V.P. candidate on the next presidential ticket.  Sanford was at the top of his game, and he took off to South America for a tryst with his mistress.  The national press got wind of his trip, and his prospects with the national party were through.

Swaim, the everyman guiding the reader through the world of modern politics, doesn't pull punches.  In spite of his cynicism, he holds a grudging admiration for Sanford and his political acumen.  His account is funny, but of course he has a great deal of source material, from his clown of a boss.  As a bit of history, Sanford's administration may not end up as much more than a footnote (or punchline).  Swaim's story may not be about a crucial epoch in American political history, but as an archetypal account of political life, The Speechwriter is an entertaining, enlightening read.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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