A Conversation with Speechwriter and Author Barton Swaim
Barton Swaim's debut book, The Speechwriter – A Brief Education in Politics, is making waves. Set during his years working as the Communications Officer and Speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Governor who famously "disappeared" to be with his mistress in Argentina, Swaim tells what it was like to be inside the spin room during a time of political upheaval, and his candid, often humorous, behind-the-scenes look at the world of high-stakes politics presents a cautionary tale for idealistic young men and women drawn to the flame of democracy in action. Stay Thirsty Magazine had a very cool time visiting with Barton Swaim at his home in Columbia, South Carolina for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: In your debut memoir, The Speechwriter, you chronicle your time working for the highly controversial Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. What motivated you to tell this story? How do you think now-Congressman Sanford will react?
BARTON SWAIM: Almost as soon as I went to work in that office, I knew I wanted to write about it. I didn't know what sort of book it would be or what I'd say in it—I thought, wrongly, that it would probably be a novel—but it was such a crazy place, and the boss himself was such a weird and fascinating guy, I thought: Start taking notes, man. That was two years before he "disappeared" to Argentina. After that, I thought: Well there's your narrative arch. It's all downhill from here.
How will he take it? I don't think it will do him any political damage. He's far more capable of doing damage to himself than I ever will be. He and his allies have said a few prickly things to the media about it, but they can relax. It's a comedy. I mean, sure—he does come across in the book as a self-absorbed and extremely difficult person, but who didn't know that about him already? The book is meant to be funny—I hope it's funny—not to hurt him or anybody else.
STAY THIRSTY: Politics attracts young and talented people, often filled with idealism and a willingness to believe in a candidate or an elected official. Did you drink that Kool-Aid and when did it start to wear off?
BARTON SWAIM: Absolutely I drank it. Politics appeals to people for different reasons, obviously. Some like the power—the close proximity you have to changes that will affect millions of people. Some like the "game" of it—defeating the other side gives you a kind of rush. Some like the prestige: being seen as important, significant, talented. And I guess some actually want to change things for the better. For most people in politics, it's probably a combination of all these things. That was true of me. I was vain and interested in being well thought of, but I did want to contribute in some way, too.
When you're young, though, and maybe when you're not so young anymore, too, you overestimate what politics and government policies can accomplish. And once you're invested in a politician—once your success in life is tied to his—you start to confuse what's good for your boss (and by extension what's good for you) with what's good for the state or the nation. You can't help it. You just become so involved with your work—promoting the boss's agenda, making him look good, trying to refute his critics—that before long what you're really doing is promoting someone's political career. And that's not really what you started out to do.
STAY THIRSTY: As you look back at your time crafting speeches for then-Governor Sanford, how were you able to "square the circle" with your conscience as the circumstances began to spin out of control?
BARTON SWAIM: It helped that I didn't have anywhere else to go. The scandal happened in June of 2009, the economy was terrible, and job prospects just weren't good for someone in my position. I didn't have a choice, but even so it was pretty difficult. I thought he should resign. I suspect other staffers did, too, but we never talked about it openly. He'd made a joke of the state; he'd embarrassed everyone—his family, his staff, his supporters, everyone. He should have gone. But it wasn't my call, and he didn't go. And once he made that decision, a weird dynamic took hold in the office. Most of the legislature was out to get him—always had been—and this was their chance to do him in. Well, most of the legislature consisted (still consists actually) of a lot of unprincipled buffoons and corrupt hucksters. And we just weren't prepared to let them do that to him. It became a little like defending your drunken father—he might be a good-for-nothing jackass, but he's our good-for-nothing jackass, and we weren't going to let those slimeballs do it to him. So we all without meaning to, I think, threw ourselves into defending the boss, and this strange camaraderie took hold that had never been there before. That sort of took care of the conscience issue, I guess.
STAY THIRSTY: You ask the question in your book, "Why do we trust men who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will?" Why do we?
BARTON SWAIM: Because they seem so trustworthy! Sure, we deny it, we're taken in by it. "I don't trust politicians," we tell ourselves and each other. And yet we do trust them; some of them anyhow. We trust the ones we like for one reason or another—the ones we agree with, the few we happen to think are honest and principled. And anyway there is empirical evidence that we trust them: we keep giving them more and more power. State and local governments hold vastly more power than they did, say, thirty or forty years ago—which means we've been content to let elected officials handle things that weren't handled by them before. But who can blame us? As I say, they seem trustworthy. That's what they're good at—that's what got them to where they are.
STAY THIRSTY: After your experience working for a man you trusted and whose conduct proved you wrong, are you hopeful for the American political system or cynical and bitter?
BARTON SWAIM: I'm not especially hopeful, but not I hope cynical either. Maybe—and I hope this doesn't sound like self-flattery—maybe just wiser. Or more realistic about the people charged with running our government.
STAY THIRSTY: In America, can we truly elect "the right people" or is the system so flawed that only the tainted and injured can succeed to power?
BARTON SWAIM: I don't think we can elect "the right people." Even if there were right people to elect, they would cease to be right the minute they took office. Everybody knows Lord Acton's dictum—at least I think it's Lord Acton's—"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." But I suspect we mainly think about the latter half of his line. Nobody in America has absolute power, so we're okay, right? Well, no, just plain ol' power corrupts, too. On the other hand, though, I don't think I'd say our system is "flawed." I mean it is flawed, but that's because people are flawed, and there's no fixing that. It's just the nature of a system like ours—we're governed by people who can convince large numbers of people that they should be allowed to govern—that our politicians are going to be mainly self-serving, self-absorbed people whose goal is not to serve but to be served, whatever they may say. To some extent that's always been true of America's democracy, but it's certainly true now and it's not going to change. We should just do a better job of coming to terms with it.
STAY THIRSTY: What advice do you have for other young, energetic, talented men and women setting their sights on working in the American political system? Is yours a cautionary tale or merely one of: sometimes, bad things happen to good people?
BARTON SWAIM: I hate to say "Don't do it," because our political system does benefit from honest and diligent people working in it. Still, don't do it. If you must do it, though, just assume—even if your head and heart tell you otherwise—just go ahead and assume that the politician you work for, even if he or she is right about a lot of things, is also capable of lying, of arrogance, and of using you and your work to further a political career. I think you can work for a person like that in good conscience; you just can't let yourself be fooled into thinking that your guy is the exception—that your guy is good and righteous and honest and true. If he were those things, he wouldn't have been elected in the first place. And he certainly wouldn't be reelected.
STAY THIRSTY: As you look back on your service to a Governor, do you believe your time was valuably spent? What did you learn about your career goals and yourself?
BARTON SWAIM: I wouldn't trade that experience for anything, and not just because I wrote a book about it. It was a tough time for me, and I admit I had some humility to learn myself. I had already gone through some disappointment before I was hired by Sanford—I had tried, and failed, to get a decent academic job—and so I thought being hired as a speechwriter by a governor was the end of the disappointment. It was only the preface!
I do think that, if you took away the Argentinian debacle, Mark Sanford was basically a good governor. He was the first to bring to light some very serious problems in our state's government—it was and still is largely run by a corrupt cabal in the legislature, and he said so and tried to do something about it—and I'm proud of whatever I did to help in that. Despite everything, he did accomplish—to use a phrase I learned from Samuel Johnson—some collateral good.
STAY THIRSTY: Do you want to run for office and if so, do you expect people to trust you?
BARTON SWAIM: Absolutely not. I would be a terrible politician. You have to be willing to please people you don't like or admire, and you have to be able to anger the right people on the right issues. That's a hard thing to pull off with any credibility, which is why so few aspiring politicians, even the ones who win once or twice, don't go very far.
Oh, and if by some fluke I should ever find myself the winner of an election of any kind, I want to put it on record right now that I'm not to be trusted.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next on your agenda?
BARTON SWAIM: I want to write another book and have lots of ideas, but figuring out which one will actually interest people and earn income is the important thing. At some point I do want to write about the rise of spin. The whole idea that a politician should have a team of "communications" staffers whose job is to make him look good, to ensure that all of his actions and all of his pronouncements—that's a twentieth century phenomenon, I think. Coolidge was the first president ever to use a paid speechwriter. Why and how did we go from politicians maybe having one spokesman to politicians being surrounded by teams of communications professionals tasked with managing and curating their every utterance? Now even lowly government agencies have to have entire departments dedicated to communications—i.e. spinning the news in their defense. A book on the rise of spin sounds fun.