Gods and Monsters: Reading for an Election Year

The SpeechwriterIn 2007, Barton Swaim joined the staff of Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina, as a speechwriter and communications officer. Yes – the same governor whose six-day disappearance in June of 2009 inspired the delightful addition of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” to the lexicon of sexual scandals of our elected officials.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  In 2007, Barton Swaim had a PhD in English, a wife and two children, and a strong desire to quit his minimum-wage day job and begin earning a living by writing.  Governor Sanford was a rising star in the Republican party, gaining the attention of influential commentators and talked about as a potential presidential candidate.   The Speechwriter, A Brief Education in Politics is Swaim’s memoir of the three years and ten months he spent “working for the governor of a southern state.”

Before he took the job, Swaim thought that the Governor was “everything a politician should be – a politician in the best sense of the word, if it has a best sense.  He did what he said he was going to do, he took his duties seriously, he behaved himself in public with charm and decorum, he did not fear criticism, and he had realistic views of what government could accomplish.”  But within a few weeks, the Governor revealed a very different persona.  With his staff, the Governor was a mercurial, tyrannical, and abusive master.  Striving to please, Swaim studied samples of the Governor’s lackluster writing, trying to find a “voice” that he could build upon.  As I read Swaim’s account of his frustration in trying to understand why the Governor was never satisfied with his work, and was unable (or unwilling) to articulate why, I was reminded of Dogberry, Shakespeare’s tiresome constable of stupefying rhetoric in Much Ado About Nothing:

Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths;
secondarily, they are slanderers;
sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady;
thirdly, they have verified unjust things;
and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Swaim’s wife advised him to start writing badly – “badly, like him [the Governor], with clumsy, meandering sentences and openings that seemed calculated to make you stop reading.” A senior staffer also advised Swain to do just that. He explained that Swaim’s job was “not to please the Governor with superior work, because that would never happen. The goal was to take away any reason he might have to bitch at you.”

It was then too that Nat explained that my job wasn’t to write well; it was to write like the Governor. I wasn’t hired to come up up with brilliant phrases, I was hired to write what the Governor would have written if he had had the time. ‘Um, yeah,’ Nat said. ‘Welcome to hell.’

But I couldn’t bring myself to try it.  I don’t claim that my writing was brilliant, but the objections he raised were mystifying to me and sometimes totally unreasonable.  He would quibble with a harmless phrase and, instead of saying simply that he didn’t like it and having me change it or changing it himself, he would fulminate about it and rewrite the entire piece in a fit of irritation.  It was almost as if he was afraid that if somebody started writing precisely what he wanted, he’d have no control over what was written.  Expressing constant dissatisfaction was perhaps his way of maintaining control.  Once, he stormed into the press office, paper in hand, incensed that I had written the words “towns of Lee County.”  He thought it should have been “towns in Lee County.”  He walked around to various offices – legislative, policy, law – asking staffers if they though it sounded right to say “towns of” or “towns in” Lee County.

Swaim finally got it. The Governor wanted verbiage, a lot of it, but without too much meaning or content.  If you say something meaningless often enough in different ways, it begins to take on a kind of axiomatic weight.  In the process of trying to make peace with his writer’s soul, Swaim puts up a reasonable defense for the political speak (BS) that drives us all crazy:

It’s impossible to attain much success in politics if you’re the sort of person who can’t abide disingenuousness.  This isn’t to say politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars that other fields do.  Actually one hears very few proper lies in politics.  Using vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying; it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.

You find yourself thinking, OK, maybe he has a point, as you read and laugh out loud at real life situations in the press room trenches that border on the Kafkaesque.  The Speechwriter is an entertaining look at politics from the inside, funny as hell, a wicked farce – until you remind yourself that it is reality and it’s no laughing matter.

But what is to be done?  We can’t have a democracy without politics and politicians.  And as Adlai Stevenson observed, if one does what he must do to win election, then he is not fit to hold the office.  Swaim gives us not an answer, but a caution: we must never trust our politicians, any of them.  Is he simply disillusioned by his “brief education in politics”?  Perhaps, but Swaim’s final chapter, Chapter 14: A Larger Notion, is a thought-provoking, poignant reflection on modern politics and our strange impulse to hand over our collective future to celebrities and demagogues.

Hadn’t I noticed that politicians are prone to vanity, and that vanity frequently unmakes them?  Yes, I had noticed.  But I had thought of it mainly as a joke.  Now I realized it wasn’t a joke.  It was the most important thing.  Self-regard isn’t a foible to which some politicians are vulnerable.  It is the peculiar and deadly flaw of modern democratic politics. . . When we revere a politician and give him our vote, we do so because we believe his most fervent desire is to contribute to the nation’s well-being or to make the right decisions with public money. That may be a desire, but it is not what drives him.  What drives him is the thirst for glory;  the public good, as he understands it, is a means to that end.  So when a great statesman accomplishes a laudable goal by sagacity and bravery, we’re right to give him the praise he craves.  But when we’re surprised and disgusted because the man we lauded has humiliated himself and disgraced his office, we haven’t just misjudged a man – we’ve misjudged the nature of modern politics.

5 thoughts on “Gods and Monsters: Reading for an Election Year”

  1. A very thorough review, Linda. Also depressing. I wonder why you read the book; there’s so many others to select? The discrepancy between the public and private personality is not confined to politics. What I want in a politician is a sense that the public and private person is pretty much the same. And I do find a few where they are the same. You write, “But what is to be done.” It may be true that you can’t have a democracy without politicians, but at the very least, we can elect those who appear authentic. And that requires an overall of the educational system in this once great nation.


    1. Thank you, Richard. Yes, it was depressing in a way, but the book had a mordant humor that I liked – I think it was the author’s way of expressing his sadness at the way he used his craft. I never would have read the book but for a spot on PBS Newshour on “overlooked books.” It piqued my curiosity and I was able to check out the free Kindle version from my library. You are absolutely right about our educational system being the key. Swaim discusses this in his book and I actually wrote some thoughts on it in the blog post, but decided to delete it as the post was getting lengthy. He notes that we are left with the 3rd form of constitutional government: giving authority to men and women chosen by simple majorities (the other two being constitutional monarchy and some form of meritocracy, such as Cromwell’s protectorate during the British interregnum). A democracy fails if its voters cannot think critically and elects politicians to office based on sound bites and twitter feeds. Maybe the appearance of authenticity is the best we can do. But my god, Richard – who knows what Bernie does behind closed doors!


      1. I think Bernie has a pretty consistent personality. No doubt he gets angry sometimes (who doesn’t?). But I don’t think he would be continually elected by the people in Vermont, if they had any doubts about his authenticity.


  2. I agree, and I feel the same way about Obama and maybe 2 or 3 other politicians, but that’s about all I can come up with, sadly.

    Thank you for your comments, Richard.


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