In The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim offers a delightful and sometimes wincingly humorous remembrance of his life as a writer for South Carolina’s Governor Mark Sanford, who gave “hiking the Appalachian Trail” as his cover during an assignation with his lover. The book reads quickly. We meet Sanford long before the Appalachian Trail chapter of his gubernatorial term. Swaim introduces readers to Sanford who is a somewhat nonconformist politician, a maverick who fights for minor causes, a millionaire who does not wash the shirt he wears. Beyond Sanford’s personal quirks and his interactions with other politicians, Swaim’s memoir shows us one portion of the backside of political work—the need to write speeches and opinion columns and letters to editors along with personal correspondence for the governor.
Swaim moves beyond humor to offer a perspective much needed in a time when US voters tend to choose leaders less on their policy positions and more on whether or not they would enjoy a beer with the candidate or whether the candidate sounds honest, though politically incorrect. In our time we hear that Candidate X or Candidate Y is more trustworthy than Candidate L or Candidate M. Swaim asks, ”Why do we trust men [and women] who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will?” (p. 198) Why indeed?
…the axiom on which I had unconsciously based my thinking for years—that what we needed was to elect the right people, good people, smart and wise and principled people—had been a delusion. That’s probably putting it too strongly. We should want to elect wise and principled people, but once you think of them as wise and principled, you trust them, and at about the time you trust them, they undermine your trust and you’ve got to find someone else. So I realized that the men in whom I had placed my hopes could at any moment fall victim to vain impulses and self-addiction and so make clowns of themselves and ruin the causes for which they claimed to fight. (p. 209)
Having supported politicians who soared high and then fell, I resonate with Swaim’s cautionary conclusion. He reminds me here of the image the apostle Paul uses in 2 Corinthians–“treasure in jars of clay” (4:7) Jars of clay crack easily, and our politicians falter and fall. Perhaps we voters can demand more from politicians than the bonhomie of the neighborhood bar and focus anew on issues and policy statements and examples of past leadership.
The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. Barton Swaim. 2015. Published by Simon & Schuster.