Many will remember the name of Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina. Sanford’s adulterous relationship overseas was big news a few years back. Sanford currently serves as US Congressmen for the first district of South Carolina.
What is it like to be a political speechwriter? What is it like to be a speechwriter when a major crisis hits?
Barton Swaim writes about all this and more in Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.
David George Moore conducted this interview. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: Why in the world would a guy with a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh become a speechwriter?
Swaim: What a lot of people working on their English PhDs don’t realize – what I didn’t realize – is that in any given year, there are about twice the number of new doctorates as available jobs. I spent almost three years looking for a sufficiently remunerative job in English, and I came up with nothing. I had to get creative, and that’s when I inquired about writing for the governor. I read his stuff – op-ed and whatnot – and it was just awful. He needed a writer; I offered to be that writer; and off we went.
Moore: You write about the difficulty of crafting speeches that conveyed Sanford’s unique voice. How difficult was that to do?
Swaim: Writing to sound like someone else is always a tricky thing to do, but in his case it was all but impossible because – and this is where the fun comes in – his way of running an office was to hate everything anybody did. That very much included written products. So I would give him something I thought was near what he was looking for, he would say it was junk – and sometimes say so in very strident terms – and the whole thing would end badly. That’s how almost every major piece went. It was a kind of destructive never-ending cycle. Not fun at all to live, but a lot of fun to write about.
Moore: What in graduate school prepared you best for your job as a speechwriter?
Swaim: Probably nothing I learned in school, exactly. What prepared me best was that I had been writing for a long time. People sometimes ask how do you get published? I never know how to answer, but if I had to tell the truth, it would go something like this: Start reading and writing all the time; don’t think about anything else all your waking hours; write and write some more, and read it aloud to see if it’s any good. Do that for about ten years straight, and by the end of it you should be a pretty decent writer. That’s what I did. That’s not the full story, of course, but in some ways, formal schooling was just an addition.
Swaim: It is. It all depends on who you work for. People used to talk about “Sanford widows” – the wives of guys who worked for him. He was just one of those people whose total myopic view of the world, whose bottomless self-regard, demanded all your time and all your attention – and then you still couldn’t please him. Sadly, a lot of people have emailed or called me since the book came out to say they work for a boss just like that.
On the other hand, I used to hear about other politicians who were a joy to work for. Tellingly, I guess, there were never any jobs available in those offices.
Moore: One of my takeaways from your book, and I hope I am wrong, is this: There are incompetent, but likeable people in politics. And there are competent, but not particularly likeable people. It is rare to find competent and likeable people. Am I cynical or is there some truth to this?
Swaim: I think that’s close to the truth, only instead of likeable I’d say “good.” In politics – and in many other areas, but it seems especially pronounced in politics – the most effective leaders are not what you would readily describe as good people. They’re just not. The good ones – the truly honest, the ones whose humility is genuine and not of the ersatz variety – just don’t win. It’s something I think many of us need to get used to. We want to like certain politicians because we think they’re essentially honest and true. Well, it’s in their interest as politicians to persuade you that they’re honest and true; but they might not be. You may well be fooled. The lesson, for me, was to stop looking for good people in politics.
Moore: Speaking of cynicism, how did you keep from becoming a cynic?
Swaim: Maybe I didn’t keep from becoming a cynic. I don’t know. I think what I learned, though, was to take politics less seriously. Politics is always going to be dominated by self-aggrandizing and essentially dishonest personalities. Once you come to terms with that fact, you can begin to enjoy politics more. When you believe that politicians used to be good and now they’re bad – and when you believe that what we need is to get good people back in office – it’s enormously taxing on your emotions. Because it’s false. Sure, some things have declined – I do believe that. But people in power have always been prone to abuse their power, politicians have always survived on their vanity, and people in authority have always done stupid things with that authority. Yes, the government is vastly larger than it used to be, and the debts are greater and the stakes are higher; but that just means we’re closer to a decline and fall that’s always been inevitable. Is that cynical? Maybe, but in my view it’s truer.
Moore: Would you ever consider being a speechwriter again?
Swaim: No. But even if I would consider it, who would hire me?