- - Wednesday, July 1, 2015


By Barton Swaim

Simon & Schuster, $25, 240 pages

From 2007 to 2010, Barton Swaim worked as a writer for Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who set out to hike the Appalachian Trail, ended up in Argentina where he found romance, and in the process gave the media the kind of story they’re best at.

A native South Carolinian who attended the University of South Carolina and the University of Edinburgh, Mr. Swaim returned home in 2003 “with a PhD in English almost in hand” and a wife and two children. “I had lots of specialized knowledge, high expectations and very little money.”

“What could I do? I could write.”

While working in a library, he did just that, with pieces accepted by several prestigious publications. But while you can’t make a living by writing essays and reviews, “you could turn out copy for somebody else.” He read a cleverly worded op-ed signed by the governor, sent him a resume and cover letter, and was hired as a speechwriter.

His tenure was an eventful one, capped by the Appalachian Trail hike, the detour to Buenos Aires, the dark-eyed divorcee and the public statements from the governor, sounding much like a love-struck mooncalf, so naive they evoked as much pity as political outrage. There were charges of using state funds to finance a clandestine romance, and for that he was censured by the legislature.

But there were connections between the travel and legitimate state business. And the governor himself was a frugal man, wearing the same stained shirt for extended periods along with a jacket with a missing button, refusing to have his offices air-conditioned because of cost, eating at his desk. (During his first term as a U.S. representative he slept in his Washington office.)

As governor, he’d made national headlines by refusing federal stimulus funds, a stand Mr. Swaim applauds (The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that he had to accept them.) And for a time, because of his strong conservative economic principles, he was considered a vice presidential possibility.

Nor did the Appalachian interlude destroy him politically. He served out his term, then won a special election for the U.S. House, serving his old district.

Mr. Swaim’s account of his three years is semi-fictionalized, something between a memoir and a novel, with echoes of Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim” and Joel Klein’s “Primary Colors.” As with Mr. Klein’s Bill Clinton, Gov. Sanford is never named.

The story of personal disillusion unfolds against the backdrop of the governor’s considerable idiosyncrasies — among them his enraged bursts into the press room, waving sheets of paper and garbling unintelligibly, much like Kingsley Amis’ Professor Welch, along with his increasing dislike for anything Mr. Swaim wrote.

Toward the last days of Mr. Swaim’s tenure, the governor wandered into his office and took a seat. “Beyond the occasional greeting and an awkward chat at one of the mansion parties, he and I had never spoken to each other about anything unrelated to work,” writes Mr. Swaim, in a somewhat surprising revelation.

They talked for the first time about the problems involved in writing his speeches. The governor told him, “I’m always looking for language that’s more than words. It’s conceptual. It’s real. I always find myself trying to communicate something — larger . I know that sounds weird . It’s just — I feel there’s something bigger than what I’m able to communicate in words. That’s what I’m after.”

And in the end, it’s the speechwriter’s job to provide those words.

In “Speechwright,” one of the few good books about speechwriting, Bill Gavin wrote that it’s the job of the speechwriter to know how and what the person he’s writing for thinks. If you don’t understand what that person is reaching for, you can’t give him the words he needs.

Mr. Gavin, an old friend and colleague who passed away this spring, did just that for a variety of notable political figures over the years, among them Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, James Buckley and Bob Michel. He also understood that not all writers can do both — some of the best can’t write speeches, and some of the best speechwriters can’t write for publication.

Bill himself did both brilliantly as a master speechwriter, author of two well-received novels, numerous articles and reviews (many of them appearing in The Washington Times), and a memoir, “Street Corner Conservative,” recommended by Ronald Reagan.

If he were to offer an opinion of “The Speechwriter,” I suspect he’d say that it’s probably just as well Mr. Swaim didn’t make it as a speechwriter. He has a fine eye, a gift for satire, and a clean, clear style. If he’d written memorable speeches, we wouldn’t have this highly readable and entertaining book.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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