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The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

3.52  ·  Rating details ·  1,918 ratings  ·  279 reviews
An intimate and hilarious look inside the spin room of the modern politician: a place where ideals are crushed, English is mangled, people are humiliated, and the opportunity for humor is everywhere.

Everyone knows this kind of politician: a charismatic maverick who goes up against the system and its ways, but thinks he doesn’t have to live by the rules. Through his own exp
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published July 14th 2015 by Simon Schuster
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Mar 26, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley
The Speechwriter is about the author's short lived career as a speechwriter for then governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Swaim recounts a few good anecdotes and provides some insight into the Governor's personality, inner political machinery and demise as a governor. He explains that being his speechwriter was about bowing to an unreasonable and pedantic egotist, and unlearning how to be a concise clear writer and learning instead how to write unclear and ambiguous lengthy cluttered prose. ...more
Jan 02, 2016 rated it it was ok
This book was on the “Best Of 2015” list of Daniel Pink. Pink reported that it was the best book on politics that he’d ever read. After reading it, I began to wonder if Pink was trying to support Swaim’s career by this recommendation. Though there was some attempt at big ideas at the end of Swaim’s narrative, the whole did not rise above the level of mediocrity. I’d say most of us have come to Swaim’s conclusions by being a member of the electorate, even if we haven’t put it into words. Converse ...more
Mar 26, 2015 rated it liked it
ARC for review.

Dear Lord in Heaven, how in the world did I not know that Mark Sanford had been elected to the U.S. Congress in 2013?! I only found out JUST NOW when I looked up his Wikipedia entry to see during what years the events in the book took place (I remember the scandal, but couldn't remember the year and Swaim doesn't include any years on the book.)

Some days I hate America.

Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for then-Governor Mark Sanford from 2007 until Sanford left office in 2010,
Jessica Woodbury
This book won't fit neatly into a category. Any time I thought I had it figured out, it changed on me. Which is good and bad, after all, the parts that I thought didn't work would inevitably end as the book morphed into something slightly different.

While I can't give it a full rave, I can say that it is ridiculously interesting. I could talk about it for an hour. It's not clear that Swaim is actually much good as a speechwriter (he is constantly berated to be more folksy and accessible but from
Jan 28, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoir
Honestly, it was stressful to read a book about a guy who hated his job so much and stuck to it for so long. The book, at 204 pages, managed to drag, and I skimmed a lot of the last quarter. There was some cutesy conceit about never mentioning the name of the governor in question, but the author’s bio in the back says straight-out that he worked for Mark Sanford, so I don’t understand the obscurantism. (It’s also hard to be vague about exactly which governor was “hiking the Appalachian Trail” in ...more
Aug 09, 2015 rated it liked it
The Speechwriter is entertaining but ultimately disappointing because it could be so much more. The book jacket says, "...this is the story of one politician's rise and fall." More specifically, it's about Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who famously was visiting his mistress in Argentina when all reports claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. Sanford, with his strange behaviors and even stranger press conference apologies, became the laughingstock of the nation.

Barton Swaim,
Jul 18, 2015 rated it did not like it
This was only interesting for the boss of the author. Otherwise, this wouldn't hold a lot of attention of other people. Former South Carolina Governor and current Congressman Mark Sanford will forever be linked to hiking on the Appalachian Trail among other things. This is the story of the speechwriter who worked for the then-Governor to the end of Sanford's tenure (including his bizarre disappearance and his scramble by his staff to figure out what the heck was going on).
It's a mix of both Swa
Jul 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
The Speechwriter is a witty and creative memoir of life as a speechwriter in South Carolina's Governor's office, during the last few years of Mark Sanford's administration. Refreshingly, this is not a tell all book, but at its heart, an examination of the absurd and often strange ways that language and communication are used by very fallible people, to say veiled and odd things.

Barton Swaim, a South Carolina writer, does a fine job of what he set out to do, which was to try to universalize this
Anna Bukowski
Aug 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Oh, lord. If you've ever worked in politics - in government, in a separately elected official's office. Read this and you won't regret it. It's humor, it's therapy, it's things you've endured and things you've been spared. Either way, just read it. ...more
Jeff Bursey
For over two decades I worked in a field that overlapped with the kind of work Barton Swaim undertook as a speechwriter for an erratic, ill-tempered, occasionally upright, defensive, hostile former governor of south carolina. More precisely, I listened to politicians' speeches, the majority of them extemporaneous, and made them sound closer to what people would normally say, and this was done for publication in a document that anyone could access for free. We had to arrive at a happy balance bet ...more
Peter Thurley
Sep 12, 2015 rated it liked it
While the book was interesting and at times funny, it lacks that something that would make it a great book about politics in America. To be honest, the author described many experiences that most of us have with bad bosses, it's just that these experiences happened in the office of a Southern governor brought down by scandal. ...more
Sameer Vasta
Jun 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter reads like a novel, a piece of fiction spun from the brain of a gifted storyteller with an astute sense of the American political system. That Mr. Swaim's book is not a novel but instead a memoir is its greatest strength, and is the greatest indictment of political communications that has been published in years.

The current state of politics in America is troubling—heck, politics all over the world, including in our own country, is a mess—and much of that handwrin
Mar 29, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: netgalley
Crafting a speech or letter for another person to deliver is never easy. There is always ego involved, both on the side of the writer and the recipient.

The early pages of this book intrigued me because they documented a young man's first impressions of a new boss, and a very irrational, demanding boss at that. I was prepared to be sympathetic because I'd also served in a similar capacity (corporate, not political) and was expected to write, re-write, polish and perfect all kinds of documents. Pe
Oct 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
First, don’t buy this book, unless you want to put money into the hands of a member of the tea party who seems to have no political center, no loyalty, no goodness or respect for himself or others. Second, if your boyfriend hands it to you and wants to have a large discussion about its implications for revamping the US political system, still don’t read it. Or if you do read it, realize that your boyfriend is right and our political system is a mess, but ask yourself, isn’t that most of all beca ...more
Jennifer Locke
Dec 24, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoir
This book rubbed me the wrong way; it felt disingenuous. If you hate your job that much, why not leave? Why write a book about it? Clearly, the author had more emotionally at stake being Mark Sanford's speechwriter than he lets on, but he never bothers to tell us what that is, other than the need to provide for his family. (And he admits the salary was pathetic, so that's not really good enough.) Also, what's with the veiled references to "the governor" and "the stimulus package;" with history t ...more
Sep 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Graceful and witty account of an endlessly fascinating subject: famed Appalachian-Trail hiker and former governor Mark Sanford. As absurd and illuminating as Swaim's insider tales of political office dynamics are, I actually found his reflections on prose style and political discourse even more engaging--a kind of updating and Americanizing of Orwell's indispensable insights in "Politics and the English Language." Swaim's story illustrates the continuing, essential importance of written expressi ...more
Miles Smith
Swaim's short but very good memoir of his time as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford will interest those interested in modern electoral politics and the the history of South Carolina. What makes Swain's memoir so charming is that he emerges as someone who was struggling with his own understanding of the intersection between virtue, loyalty, and honor in electoral politics in the early 21st Century United States. ...more
Jul 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I was interested in this book because I vividly remember the scandal over Mark Sanford's affair, and the reviews of the book were hilarious. It's well-paced and well-written, with a spare style to the prose but plenty of good images and narration. The anecdotes themselves are often funny, and the book is told with restrained humor. Overall, probably the best book I've ready this year. ...more
Every time I try to write this review, I get worked up over Mark Sanford all over again, and that's not really fair to this book. Suffice it to say that if you want to hear more about the crazy that has happened since the events described, ask me and I'll fill you in. He was re-elected as the representative for my Congressional district, and I have opinions on that.

On one hand, Barton Swaim's book is incredibly enlightening, especially to better understand Mark Sanford's character and the bizarr
Alex Etheridge
Oct 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2019
I don't know if I've ever wanted to be a politician, but nevertheless, I've never wanted to be a politician less. This behind the scenes look from a speechwriter for the South Carolina governor in the early 2000's was full of wit, honesty, and grammar policing; the political perspective was perhaps most refreshing coming from a nonpartisan vantage point. ...more
You know that saying that seeing something repeatedly will make you want to buy it? That’s what happened to me with The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. Every time I logged into, there it was. I finally decided to give it a go because it looked interesting, was relatively short, and had a great narrator in the sample. It’s author was a speechwriter for former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, which bodes well for interesting content. In case you forgot ...more
Jul 23, 2015 rated it liked it
I received a copy of this pre-publication from NetGalley in exchange for an review.

I always thought that the job of a speechwriter was hard, but glamorous. I’ve seen “The West Wing”, and I guess I was dazzled by Rob Lowe running in at the last second with just the right word at the eleventh hour before the State of the Union address. So when I saw this book, I couldn’t help but be excited.

Barton Swaim worked for the Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, from 2007-2010. Given the recent poli
Apr 09, 2016 rated it it was ok
I mostly agree with what the New York Times review says about this book (I put the review below), but I think the NYT liked the book way more than I did.

I didn't think the book was marvelous but some parts were pretty funny. I liked the part where the Governor is in trouble for flying first class but making all of the staffers fly coach, and one of the staffers sings, "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play, today". I also liked when the Governor stormed in to yell at the author about a piece, and
Jul 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Normally I shy away from political books of any kind due to their dogmatic tendencies; the authors are all too eager to preach to the choir and dismiss opposing viewpoints with wafer-thin, just-so hand-waving (which describes my personal writing style to a T, but I digress). I took exception with The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim for a chance to pull back the curtain and get a glimpse of how life and work really operate on Capital Hill. Enter your stereotypical civi ...more
May 29, 2016 rated it liked it
Swaim makes a number of insightful points about the place that words play in politics, for instance on pages 111-112. "Everybody complains that politics separates words from their meanings, and this [the extrapolation of an anodyne sentiment with extraneous words] is part of the reason why. Words are useful, but often their meanings are not. Sometimes what you want is feeling rather than meaning, warmth rather than content." Swaim notes that this problem is severely exacerbated by the enormous a ...more
Jeff Zell
Aug 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
Swaim returns to the states from graduate studies abroad and needs a job in order to support his wife and children. He lands a job as speech writer for Governor Mark Sanford and works in that office from 2007 - 2010. He lived through Sanford's rise and his fall due to his disappearance for 5 days in Argentina with his mistress. Swain learned a lot about politics and politicians and he tells some great stories here. One of the sad stories is the disconnect between calm demeanor of public Gov and ...more
Linda Harkins
May 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This humorous little memoir restores my faith in the next generation. Barton Swaim gets it. "Rhetoricians, in other words--politicians--please the masses not by actually doing wise and virtuous things with state power but by making the masses believe that that's what they are doing, or that that's what they want to do, or that that's what they would do if more power were given to them" (pp. 202-203). Swaim had to learn the hard way as communications officer and speechwriter from 2007 to 2010 for ...more
Jul 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: borrowed, westend
This is just short enough to work as it is.

Given what the author gives us, this review is probably sufficient:

Shorter Speechwriter: Mark Sanford is really angry all the time at his staff. He thinks he is special.

The author found that Mark Sanford liked a series of terrible and useless phrases. The author also thinks he is special.

As a book about language it could have been much shorter. As a book about politics, it's very oblique. The author is not ove
Feb 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What's a man to do after zoning out on his first three year job putting labels on library books while getting a PhD in English? Writing speeches for his home state governor in South Carolina.

Now he's written a book about it after the end of the Governor's term, punctuated by a scandal with a mistress while he was reportedly "hiking in the appalachians". As a speech writer, Swaim has to forget his own writing style, and stick to his client's hackneyed phrases to preserve his "voice", like: “I wo
Sep 01, 2015 rated it liked it
I picked this up after a podcast where I heard the author talk about this book. Since I remembered the Mark Sanford scandal vividly I decided to pick it up. Also because the book gave an impression that it was more about speechwriting. But really it's more about what this mercurial governor is like and how all his staff hated working for him. The book is definitely written well and reads more like a novel than a non fiction. However it for the most part really just is a bunch of employees compla ...more
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“The people involved in each of these events would have made the understandable but often mistaken assumption that the governor had a clear idea of who they were and what it was they were doing. That’s why high-level politicians need speechwriters: not because they’re so dense they need someone to tell them what to say but because no normal person can be expected to say something interesting that many times a day, on that many subjects, to that many separate groups. Talking points explain what the event is, who will be present, the event’s agenda if there is one, some relevant background, and what we—the speechwriters—believe will be appropriate or interesting for the governor to say. For the unimportant events or the ones he didn’t care much about, he would wait until three or four minutes before the event began to look at the talking points. If the event was in the office or if you were with him on the road, he preferred that you tell him what the event was and what he should say.” 3 likes
“Why do we trust men who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will? When a work colleague makes a habit of insisting on his own competence and virtue, we may tolerate him, we may even admire his work, but his vanity is not an inducement to trust him. Why, then, do we trust the men who make careers of persuading us of their goodness and greatness, and who compete for our votes? Catherine Zuckert makes this point powerfully in an essay on Tom Sawyer. Tom, remember, is brave and clever and has a firm sense of the right thing to do, but he is animated mainly by a hunger for glory. He is, in short, the essence of an able politician. “People like Tom Sawyer serve others not for the sake of the others,” writes Zuckert. “They serve because they glory in receiving glory. . . . We should reward such people with the fame they so desire—if and when they perform real public services. But we should not trust them.”II I feel the force of that last sentence now: we go badly wrong when we trust them. Indeed much of the hand-wringing commentary about the loss of trust in government resulting from Vietnam and Watergate is simply, I now think, a failure to appreciate the simple truth that politicians should never have been trusted in the first place. They may be lauded when they’re right and venerated when they’re dead, but they should never be trusted.” 2 likes
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