The Speechwriter, A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim: Book Review

By Angela Hart

The Speechwriter is a memoir recounting Barton Swaim’s time as a speechwriter for the governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. The book is particularly interesting due to the nature of the narrative. The book is told from Swaim’s perspective. Being a new speechwriter, he is not necessarily at the forefront of the decision making going on within the department. In fact, a co-worker says, “Welcome to hell.” It is not long before Swaim realizes, “I wasn’t hired to come up with brilliant phrases. I was hired to write what the governor would have written if he had had the time.”

For a long time the job of speechwriter had sounded romantic to me. 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. The speechwriter was a clandestine character; until recently, anyway, you didn’t hear much about presidential speechwriters until after the president left office, and even then not so much. An air of mystery hangs about the word itself: “Speechwriter” or “speech writer”? One word or two? A speechwriter has all the gratification of being a writer but has political power, too, or at least a veneer of it, which was good enough for me.

Swaim makes note of an important difference between past and present speechwriters. Back when Nixon was campaigning, he only made a handful of public speeches. Now, politicians are required to make speeches on a regular basis thus their speechwriters need to produce much more work than ever before. A governor with whom Swaim worked would either prepare his speeches far in advance or look down at his note cards a mere five minutes before he went on (Swaim 99).

The one time the governor added a sentence to his speech, he made an egregious error. The governor compared himself to David, from the Bible. After pointing out the fact that a significant number of people in the audience would not have understood the story of David, aside from the fact he once killed a giant, Nat explained the reason for the David reference being a horrible choice. “He didn’t just commit adultery,” Nat said, “he had the woman’s husband murdered.” The governor then instructed his staff to come up with biblical references whom he could compare himself to in the future, asking them to complete the task for him. This incident occurs near the end of the book, but, as a reader, I considered it a pivotal characterization of the governor. He relied on his staff to make him appear intelligent, not being able to function properly without them.

Throughout the piece, Swaim bears witness to the day-to-day operations more so than the governor himself and, eventually, Swaim and other workers realize that they are more knowledgeable than the person they are working for. In the book, Swaim is very honest. He knew he was going into this particular field that he had not considered too much before hand. Swaim had an English background and was not necessarily a speechwriter, yet felt as if he could do a good job in this role.

Eventually, he became invested in the outcome of this politician’s career hoping to contribute to the general political realm by writing speeches that matter and craft a speech that encompasses all the rhetoric that he has studied over the years. The governor, however, does not adhere to the same literary goals. As someone invested in rhetoric, it pains me to see people blatantly ignore grammar or use words with the intention of manipulating. Swaim was hired to write simple speeches and letters to the editor stating how wonderful the Governor was. The position of speechwriter was a glorious role, but one the governor overlooked quite often. The governor “understood the fact that his staff were potentially just bureaucrats” as Swaim phrases it because he would barge into their offices and demand certain assignments or command them to repeat instructions. He did not treat them with a great deal of respect yet understood their value to his political gain.

In general, the governor is unlikeable. He will take shrimp and eggs from buffets and shove them into his pockets, refuse to use dry cleaners, and would rather sweat profusely than turn the air conditioning on. Swaim paints a picture of a stingy miser who lacks depth. However, one of the most interesting attributes that the governor possesses is his ability to appear warm and personable to constituents. Swaim cites the governor’s ability to move gracefully, appear relaxed, and engaged with whomever he is speaking with. In actuality, the governor tends to be more standoffish with his staff and yell at them on various occasions. Yet, the public sees the persona of a man whom they would respect in his political role. The book begins with the governor apologizing for an illicit affair he had while in office. The governor apologizes to his mistress first then to his family second. The campaign workers make note of this fact in their dialogue, further demonstrating the governor’s despicable nature.

At one point in the book, a character asks, “You want to kill him, don’t you?” To which he responds, “I’ve wanted to kill him many times … he’s a terrible person.” At the beginning of the story, the governor is depicted as someone with authority and prestige, yet the people who know him the best and work for him despise everything about him. After the affair was made public, Swaim thought that the local government had “been looking for an excuse to bury him for seven years and this would give them their chance” (Swaim 156). The staff continually work for him hoping that he will do well in office to ensure their own livelihood working for him. They are not necessarily there due to their political allegiances, but motivated to maintain an income.

I really enjoyed The Speechwriter. The scandalous nature of adultery paired with the public’s interest in entertainment makes it difficult for someone to fully repair their persona in politics after they are involved in a story of this magnitude. The Speechwriter shines a light on this reoccurring moment in politics in which the staff witnesses their candidate and their employer not only falter personally but professionally.

The people in the governor’s office have invested copious amounts of time and energy into his success. The staff ensured the governor’s laws were put into action and his speeches were the best they possibly could have been, yet he unravels all of their hard work by doing something outside of his office that directly affects them. When a candidate or political figure gives their apology address, they note their family and the many people whom they have hurt. The Speechwriter notes the perspectives of the aides and people around him, which is vastly different than previous pieces. With the governor’s impeachment, all of his workers were then affected by his personal decision.

The memoir is well written with an interesting perspective and many noteworthy pieces of dialogue between characters. Swaim is able to identify key individuals and their perceptions of the governor as well as their reasoning for working in politics. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the behind-the-scenes elements of a politician’s world. As I mentioned before, as a person invested in rhetoric, it was interesting to see how it was utilized in politics and, at times, dismissed. The governor may have been the person whom the staff worked for, but they interacted with each other on a regular basis and their comments about the governor are reflective of a bigger issue at hand in the political realm. The character insights as well as Swaim’s notations offer a unique look into the back room of a politician’s office. 

Amazon link:

Hardcover: 224 pages, Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (July 14, 2015), ISBN-10: 1476769923, & ISBN-13: 978-147676992


Angela Hart

Angela Hart is currently earning her master’s degree at Georgetown University in Communication, Culture, and Technology. Originally from Massachusetts, she graduated from Bentley University with a bachelor’s degree in Communications with minors in English and Law. She is involved with film studies, new media and politics, journalistic practices, and satires.