Funny, Insightful and Sad: Barton Swaim’s The Speechwriter

A Brief Education in Politics

To appreciate this book you must first understand what it is and what it isn’t. It is not a book about speechwriting. That is, you will learn some things about the challenges of being a speechwriter, but it is not a book designed to teach speech writing.

The author got his Ph.D. in English and wanted to write, or maybe plug in at an academic institution somewhere, but the first real door to open was as a speechwriter for the governor’s office of a Southern state. It was not an ideal fit, other than it gave him an inside look at a very different world, which this book shares in detail.

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Public domain.

I read the audiobook version of this volume. The narrator did an excellent job of capturing the feel of the writing, I felt.

Reviews for the book varied though, with many absolutely hating it. I myself enjoyed the excursion, having done some speech writing. I also worked closely with a co-worker who wrote many speeches for the CEO. I know the turf.

An reviewer described the book as an “amusing if slightly horrifying read.” That, I think would be a fair assessment. I myself found it amusing enough to read it twice this past year.

On one level the book has very little real action till late in the story. Some readers complained about this, but I found the real story being the interplay of personalities amongst the writing staff and their various ways of coping with the governor’s idiosyncrasies.

On another level it’s about a king with no clothes on, who is out of his league but doesn’t know it. Sadly, the guy is back in the game today as a congressman, after his very public shaming, a bizarre extra-marital affair, the loss of his re-election as gov, and his wife.

Most of us probably remember the story of a politician who went missing for a week about ten years ago. That was Governor Mark Sanford. The author of this book does not name names, but in our hyper-connected world it takes two minutes to resurrect the story. (Actually less.)

The reason I enjoyed the book, though, had to do with the writing. It was lively, revealing, insightful, and came across as a labor of love. As another reviewer states, “The writing carries with it a dual sense of what it’s like to be shackled to the approval of politicians and constituencies and what’s it’s like to now sprint unfettered into the arms of a far more literate electorate — we the readers.”

The author’s note at the beginning of his printed version of the books states, “I didn’t write the book to pay anybody back or to reveal lurid secrets and inside scoops. I wrote it because I had to. I wrote it because I am a writer, and a writer can’t witness the kinds of things I did without writing them down for someone else to enjoy.”

Reading that makes me realize that I still have some of my own experiences to record and share. May Day 1971 was one experience that had been needling me for decades, though even there the story is not yet complete. Other stories request my attention as well. We’ll see what happens.

As for The Speechwriter, I found it to be an entertaining read. Ambrose Bierce once described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” If you’re take is similarly curmudgeonly, I recommend the book. It will make you laugh and cry at the same time.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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