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The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

In This Review

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
By Barton Swaim
Simon & Schuster, 2015
224 pp. $25.00

In an elegiac tone that recalls Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men, Swain’s memoir relates his experiences as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who, in 2009, told aides that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually visiting his mistress in Argentina. Like many politicians, Sanford was no hero to the staffers who knew him best; as Swaim tells it, the governor was self-absorbed to the point of dementia and by turns abusive and dismissive. As a neophyte speechwriter, Swaim struggled to capture and reproduce the vapid grandiosity and unctuous piety of his employer’s natural style. But that was what the public seemed to want, and this memoir is less an account of a politician’s fall than an inquest into mass democracy. American politicians, Swaim suggests, are expected to gush forth industrial quantities of platitudinous, staff-written “language”: letters to constituents, op-eds, speeches at forgettable functions for small-bore interest groups, and so on. What kind of society, Swaim wants readers to ask, insists on these debased effusions of hollow words? His speechwriting days may be over, but Swaim seems to have found his true voice. 

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