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Book Review: A Stranger in a Strange Land

It sounds like the premise of a new HBO series:

A man with a PhD in English reads a poorly-written oped published under the name of his home state’s governor. He sends a resume to the governor, accompanied by a cover letter stating: “I don’t know that much about state politics, but I know how to write, and you need a writer.” The letter leads to an interview, and the man joins the governor’s office as a speechwriter, turning out letters, opeds, speeches and talking points.

There’s just a little hitch—the governor has strong ideas about how he should come across in his speeches. So strong, in fact, that he is quick to harshly berate his staff when he believes that they have not accurately captured his “voice.”

So begins the real-life political education of Barton Swaim, whose book, “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics” (2015; Simon & Schuster) draws on the years (2007-2010) he worked as a writer for Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC). Swaim’s book never mentions Sanford’s name directly, except on the single page biography of the author that appears at the end. The parallels between the unnamed governor portrayed in the book and Swaim’s former boss are hard to miss, including the secret foreign girlfriend.

This is an enjoyable, well-written volume. As he chronicles key events during his time in the governor’s office, Swaim demonstrates that he has an ear for dialogue, an eye for detail and a gift for pithy statements (as you’d expect from a speechwriter). Whether he’s describing the governor’s opponents in the legislature, or recreating conversations between himself, the governor and other staff members, Swaim displays an inspired literary hand.

And anyone who has worked for an elected official will recognize that Swaim has faithfully captured the shifting tempo of a political office, as the team staggers from crisis to crisis. He also accurately depicts how humor helps sustain staff morale.

The book ends with Swaim sharing the essence of the “brief education in politics” he gained thanks to his speechwriting. He anchors it in Socrates’ criticism of the ancient rhetoricians, and writes that politicians “please the masses not by actually doing wise and virtuous things with state power but by making the masses believe that that’s what they are doing.”

And Swaim comes to the conclusion that “acclaim and attention were [the governor’s] highest aim—just as they are every determined politician’s highest aim: the praise, the fawning, the seriousness with which people take their remarks, the gaze of audiences, the way a crowded room falls silent when they enter.”

That’s one view of what elected officials have in mind when they hire speechwriters to help them keep up with the constant pressure they face to, as Swaim puts it, “say something interesting” many times a day, to many different groups.

But without intending any slight to Swaim, not everyone who ventures into a political setting faces the same predicament sketched out in “The Speechwriter.”

Many speechwriters have positive experiences, whether working locally, or for a state governor or at the federal level. They work collaboratively with elected officials set on accomplishing serious goals to benefit the people they represent; and these officials closely and enthusiastically engage with staff to fine-tune drafts and maximize their speeches’ persuasive power with their intended audiences. Vital Speeches has profiled a few examples via the “Speechwriter’s Life” series.

It’s a shame that Swaim’s former boss did not better appreciate his talents and resourcefulness. The strength of the writing that one finds in “The Speechwriter” should secure Swaim another shot at speechwriting—if he wants it.

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