At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Speechwriter

One of several things that sets us apart from the animals is that we can use--and love--words, and we'd like to trust our fellow humans with their own. It is this underlying pulse that moves through the recently published The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. Although presently working as the Communications Manager of the South Carolina Policy Council, Swaim spent several years as a speechwriter for former Governor Mark Sanford. Although Swaim never mentions the disgraced gubernatorial giant by name in his book, those of us who can sniff out recent history like my mechanic can notice bad wheel bearings know of whom he speaks. He tells this candid remembrance of labor, not to smear Sanford, but to provide insight into how flawed people use language, how we desire people to be better, and how we must make terms with disappointment when others let us down.

Swaim's style engages the reader, neither bogging down nor quickening the pace beyond proper bounds. The book goes a little more than two hundred pages, so no one will look at it and think, "Good heavens, there goes the next four weeks of my life." (I finished it in four days) He expertly shows both the colorful greatness and the deepest flaws of those in the halls of power in the Palmetto State, but he does so to display authentic humanity. There are no character assassinations or forays into the no-man's land of ad hominem attacks. In a culture of kiss-and-tell unauthorized biographies, this is a welcome move.

As Governor Sanford is the central human character of focus, Swaim paints a portrait of the man that slaloms effortlessly between the appreciation for Sanford's tenacity and work ethic on one hand and the harsh, unsavory attitude and moral failings on the other. After performing well on the first speech he wrote for Sanford, Swaim shows genuine vulnerability as he recalls the governor's dismissal of his later writing attempts. He depicts Sanford as a man of determination to see policies through to the end, a soldier devoted to first principles that reflect the vision of limited government. Yet the same focus on seeing desires through takes the governor to pursue other, darker passions that ruin his marriage and bring the phrase "hiking the Appalachian trail" forever into the American vernacular.

Through it all, Swaim restrains from painting politics with a broad brush. He even says we can't automatically declare "politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars than other fields do...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." He looks upon this time, as the book's subtitle reveals, as a classic "brief education."

It is a tribute to Swaim that he took this education seriously. He has a passion for using words correctly, but he shows a willingness to make them work. He relates his struggles with capturing Sanford's voice for his speeches, finding varied degrees of success until he transcribes many of the governor's letters and noting consistently emphasized common words. He learned how to stretch words and phrases to bulk up paragraphs so that a ten-line note could become a full-page letter that would make its recipient feel like a million bucks. Swaim shows that writing for others is not just limited to knowing one's audience, but also the vision of the communicator.

With consistent genuineness, Swaim shows the admirable depths of humanity. Sanford is easily the flawed soul most often on display, often at the mercy of (or just as often demanding to be limited to) a series of talking points. But he also could speak with candor about what America couldn't do alongside it's potential. Swaim says "the governor's heroism...consisted in his brutal honesty about the limits of what could be done", whether on spending programs or whatever. But Swaim is fair enough to show just how much the job could chip away at his own reserves. He opens up about having to deal with Sanford's acerbic responses to his best writing attempts, the times he'd go to work and feel like vomiting, and the seasons of difficulty his labors would cause for he and his wife Laura. As one who experienced a stretch of wedded choppiness during fifteen months of pastoral ministry, I can appreciate what Swaim shares about swimming those marital seas.

But through the entire book, Swaim's main character is the beauty of language. We have an inborn desire to tell stories, to project an image and ideals we want others to believe. And we want to tell those stories well. There are rules we believe about the way we write and speak, and those rules get bent. Throughout his time serving Governor Sanford, Swaim doggedly tries to discover how to live in that latitude, while believing dearly in a vision for how to tell a story. And he brings his own story to a crescendo with a question: How to we use words for others to communicate a vision for life when those "others" let us down and damage our trust? Swaim leaves us with a thirst to use our own words honestly, but he wisely cautions us against overshooting our landing field and trusting those who "glory in receiving glory."

Here is no potboiler or political epic or world-shattering events. The simple delight and enchantment of this tome comes from the interplay of hope and confession. Swaim confesses that there will always be disappointment of some variety as we deal with those in power and--to degrees--our own selves. But we do have the hope that we can weave our words into a tapestry that acknowledges the beauty and flaws of what Francis Schaeffer called "the mannishness of man." In a real sense, this is a love story about language and the hope that we can still trust the spoken and written word. And at its core, along with the human drama within the covers, that is what makes this story a must-read.

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