A former speechwriter for an ex–South Carolina governor offers a glimpse into what it really meant to be a “fashioner of words” for a self-obsessed politician who fell from grace.
When Swaim went to work as Mark Sanford’s speechwriter, he was a naïve English doctorate with romantic notions of what his job would entail. He believed that his position would not only provide him with all the “gratification of being a writer,” but also give him “political power, or at least a veneer of it.” Within just a few weeks, though, the author went from feeling that he was indispensable to realizing that he was working for a hypercontrolling narcissist with a tin ear for language. Swaim transcribed Sanford’s often inarticulate letters to learn the governor’s syntax and the “ungainly phrases” that characterized it. In between Sanford’s half-comic, half-terrifying “bouts of rage,” Swaim also learned that in the political world, what mattered more than clarity and grammatical precision was the ability to sound “consequential” to both constituents and the media. The author soon became just another bureaucrat with no special investment in either the success of Sanford’s administration or in his political ambitions, which at one point included the presidency. Only when the governor admitted to both an affair with an Argentine woman and to using state funds to visit her did Swaim realize just how much he had invested in his job. With melancholy bitterness, he writes, “everything we’d worked for was discredited.” The author briefly and incompletely sketches out the story of the colorful Sanford and his political fall. The narrative is strongest in its quiet reflection of the end of Swaim’s political innocence. As he came to realize, democracy—with its promise of liberty and justice for all—is ultimately based on rhetorical manipulation of the masses.
Candid but not especially compelling.