Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: 'The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics' by Barton Swaim

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
By Barton Swaim

Review by David Wineberg

The Speechwriter reads like a sitcom. Our hero is a sensible, rational being, in the midst of mad caricatures of people, with ways of doing things that are hilarious if you don’t work in that office. Running rings around everyone is The Governor, badly dressed, totally self-absorbed and uncaring, who some have learned to ignore, some have learned to accept, and our hero, to cope with. There are inane bits of dialog, where characters pick up a wrong word and repeat it back and forth for endless laughs (from a TV audience). Repetition stands in for non-comprehension. The trials of working for an inconsistent, unsatisfiable boss make for a number of cute episodes, as long as you can pretend it wasn’t all true.

Mark Sanford self-destructed as governor by lying that he was hiking in Appalachia when he was instead humping in Argentina. That he has come back, running unopposed, to a seat in Congress is sad, not so much because he was shamed, but because of the shameful way he ran his people and the state.

Barton Swaim was his speechwriter. He is hypersensitive to words and speech. He chooses them carefully, notes all their potential nuances warily, and reels at the failings of ordinary conversation and speech. It makes for a different sort of tell-all memoir. He has a fascinating take on letters to the editor. He divides them by category, cliché and purpose. He explains the basis for their printing and their complete pointlessness. He waxes eloquently on the art of saying nothing in sufficient words to make a letter, usually a thank you letter, unhelpful but impressive. His own writing is of course clear and concise, and his story is heartfelt and sensitive. You feel badly that he must ignore all his own knowledge and talent, and write trash for delivery to audiences the governor considers ignorant. The overall impression is of a mad governor surrounding himself with a bunch of mid twenties, unsavvy young men and women whose guidance and advice explain the awful state of government.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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