Confessions upon confessions
August 19, 2015
In an exclusive interview with Vital Speeches, tell-all author Barton Swaim reveals how profoundly his speechwriting job hurt him.
Barton Swaim was speechwriter to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford from 2007 to 2010. It was a miserable experience, which he converted into a barely fictionalized memoir titled, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. We removed the thin veil, and I asked him how he got into this professional mess, how he got out, and the toll he paid for the long, strange trip. —DM
You say in the book that before you went to work for the governor, speechwriting had "sounded romantic" to you, that it seemed to you "a speechwriter has all the gratification of being a writer but had political power too." Tell me, one writer to another: What is "all the gratification of being a writer"?
I guess what I meant was “being a writer who makes his living by being a writer.” That’s the constant problem, isn’t it: how to do what you love—string words together to say things that nobody else could say as well—and get paid for it.
A hard-bitten speechwriter friend says the client's command to the speechwriter is, "Write down my ideas as if I had them." Mark Sanford does seem to have been one of those types of clients. But it sounded like you sensed this early on. Why didn't you pull the rip cord sooner?!
The short answer is, I didn’t have an alternative. I tried to get out but couldn’t. In any case, though, my boss was one of those guys who need help, who know they need help, but who can’t accept it when it comes. Like all art, I guess—and maybe like all significant human endeavors—writing is something that begins one way in your head but looks very different when it comes out. Sometimes you don’t even know what it is you want to write until you actually try to write it—writing is the same as thinking sometimes. The governor never could allow someone else to bring thought to expression. The result was constant failure and frustration. If you’re the guy who hires the speechwriter, you can give direction on the front end, sure, but you can’t be there for the whole process—you have to be willing to wait and examine the result, the draft, as a product created independently of you. The governor just couldn’t stand the idea of something with his name on it being created independently of his own effort.
Your book has Dilbert-cartoon moments, when you send up Sanford for always trying to quote Rosa Parks, often referring to a "larger notion" that never seemed to exist and leaning on the word "indeed" like a drunk to a lamppost. This isn't a question. It's a thank-you note. But here's a question: At what point during your years with Sanford did you begin taking notes for this book?
A month or two into the job, I knew I had to write about it eventually. My notes go all the way back to the spring of 2007. Part of it was politics—politics is just so full of the things that make good books: pettiness, betrayals, stupidity, self-importance, occasionally courage. Partly, too, the people I worked around were so bright and funny. Not always kind and generous, but funny—if you’d just sit and listen, it sounded like a sit-com.
What really made me think I had to write about it, though, was just the intrinsic weirdness of being paid to write for a guy who hated everything you wrote. I hated the job, but it seemed hilarious when I’d think about it as if it were happening to someone else.
You write, "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." Yes, pusillanimous prevaricating doesn't hurt a politician. But didn't you worry, while you wrote this shit 60 hours a week, that it might rot you as a writer?
I didn’t mind the vague and meaningless stuff. That was kind of a game. For some products, I’d try to see how many lines I could write that sounded meaningful and said very little. What really scared me, though, was the constant effort to write everything in the governor’s angular style. I got so good at it that people would come to me and ask, “Can you Sanfordize this?” That was the word: Sanfordize. I was scared it would stick. Or maybe it has already. Somebody accused me the other day of using the word “indeed” for no reason. Uh-oh.
It sounds like this job really got to you emotionally, that you felt intense anxiety around Sanford and his changing moods. Did the psychological toll sneak up on you quietly?
Yes, it did. I had not developed the capacity to stand up for myself in a respectful way. I would just sit and take it, and occasionally blow up in a really nasty way—to a friend, to my wife, and once or twice to the governor himself. Once I left the job, I could look back and see that, emotionally, the effort of trying to please this man was consuming me. Wives of staffers were sometimes called “Sanford widows.” I thought it was a joke, and maybe it was, but it wasn’t only a joke. It’s very sad, and I don’t mean to sound like a self-help guru, but a lot of my colleagues went through divorces during or right after their time in that office. It just occupied all your consciousness, to the detriment of everything else.
How long did it take to regain your self-confidence after you were out of the job?
About six months or a year. It was embarrassing to realize the degree to which I had allowed myself to be steamrolled. But there it was.
You're now communications director for the South Carolina Policy Council. Do you write speeches in this capacity?
I write everything but speeches—op-eds, web copy, analysis of legislation. Once, though, I did try to write a speech for a friend. She didn’t like it, though!
How has your attitude about speechwriting and speechwriters affected your view of politics and politicians?
On one hand, it’s given me a far deeper appreciation for what politicians have to do. We—I mean, the public—we expect our politicians to speak all the time, and about everything. And we expect them to sound like they know exactly what they’re talking about, in the general sense and in detail. But a normal person can’t do that without a lot of help. I don’t care how capable you are—or how capable some pre-speechwriter politician from the nineteenth century was—you can’t speak all the time, to scores of audiences, about a vast array of topics, without some help.
On the other hand, though, it’s hard to take the words of politicians seriously anymore. Or at any rate it’s hard to interpret their words as genuine reflections of what they actually believe. Even if the president, say, is really telling you what he believes, I can’t help thinking of his words as what they probably are—the product of a team of speechwriter and communications aides and political advisers. Maybe the president’s convictions are in there somewhere, but who really knows? It’s as if there’s a wall around the modern politician, and you can’t ever really feel you’re seeing and hearing the real person.
I've been around speechwriters for more than two decades. My observation is that the truly happy ones are either emotional Muhammad Ali's who know how to dance around their clients and the world, always at the right emotional distance … or they're people who have managed to find clients who they truly respect and like. You are not Muhammad Ali. Do you think that maybe one day you could find someone truly worth ghostwriting for?
I’m sure I could—if it weren’t for this book. Who would hire me now?