With the upcoming Student Government elections, "The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics" by Barton Swaim is a timely read for those intrigued by politics, power and the rise and fall of leaders in office, all told from the perspective of a cog in the machine.
Swaim penned "The Speechwriter" after working in the South Carolina governor’s office during the Mark Sanford administration. Swaim details his brief three years and 10 months working in politics as a writer for Mark Sanford, the politician that rose up as a man of the people, but whose reputation came crashing down after a trip "hiking the Appalachian Trail" — a well-known euphemism for his extramarital affair. Swaim was there for all of it.
At the onset of the book, Swaim relays the tale of the average worker tasked with menial labor for a seemingly unfit boss. As a young speechwriter, he expects some excitement and some contribution to the greater good. What he gets instead are assignments for templates of mass mailed letters, responses to constituents’ complaints and speeches for low-profile events. We do eventually see Swaim’s responsibilities grow into much more interesting speeches and assignments that carry their own unique challenges, however Swaim does begin as little more than a customer service associate.
But in the dullness of Swaim’s day-to-day life, we get the snapshot of Sanford we want. It satiates the reader’s desire for the expected gossip the book promises while painting a rare, honest portrait of one of the most powerful men in the state. He is someone familiar: the incompetent boss, but one that has moments ripe for empathy. Sanford’s character further develops, and despite a firm stance on Sanford’s inability to either comprehend or appreciate Swaim’s work, both Swaim and the reader start to develop some sympathy for the man in the office and under the spotlight.
Swaim details the firestorm of events surrounding Sanford’s infidelity scandal with a secret mistress in Argentina that is the reason readers, if they’re honest, picked up the book in the first place. Despite the scandal, we’re shown by way of Swaim’s perspective who Sanford could’ve been. That leader is a strong one, and the fact that he never became that strong leader is the central tragedy of both the book and Sanford’s career.
"The Speechwriter" evokes Robert Penn Warren’s critically acclaimed "All The King’s Men" in the characters we see, but their arcs are almost reversed. Warren’s novel, also based on true events, is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a political aide to Southern backwoods politician Willie Stark. Burden began working with Stark while he was a no one. He saw a spark in the politician that believed in his ideals and his people, and that loyalty didn’t waver until the very end of Stark's corrupted administration.
In "The Speechwriter" we begin with Swaim viewing Sanford as a simpleton, maybe one with good ideas, but too unrefined to truly enact change. But unlike Warren’s Jack Burden, Swaim seems to gain rather than lose respect, however marginally, as he works with Sanford. He reserves some respect for Sanford when merited, and his brief glimpses of perhaps not admiration, but of due acknowledgement that peeks through, add a satisfying complexity to the text and to Sanford’s character.