Thanks to his ex-boss’ recklessness, Barton Swain never got the chance to put words in a U.S. president’s mouth. From 2007 to 2010, he served as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who torpedoed his White House hopes when he absconded to Argentina for a tryst with his mistress.
But the scandal occupies only the last fifth of Swain’s memoir, a cautionary tale for young idealists who spend their finite allotment of time catering to the whims of undeserving authority figures.
Despite the disclaimer in his author’s note (“I didn’t write this book to pay anybody back”), a rush of satisfaction must have spread through Swain as he tossed dart after dart at Sanford’s thickly inflated ego. We have all had to endure petty overlords, but the governor fostered a comically unpleasant work environment reminiscent of The Office and Veep.
Sanford once helped himself to a staffer’s birthday cake before the candles were even lit, without so much as a glance in her direction. This wasn’t unusual. Empathy was alien to him. But if you did fall within his ken, watch out. While the governor was pathologically stingy (this multimillionaire’s idea of Christmas presents: shoe polish and regifted T-shirts), he was quite profligate with belittling comments. When he returned from Argentina, and an apology to his dispirited troops became unavoidable, he resorted to a meaningless tautology: “I just wanted to say the obvious, which is the obvious.”
Such rhetorical ineptness is what made writing for Sanford so difficult. A Ph.D. in English who shared the governor’s conservative philosophy, Swain thought he could improve his style after reading his op-ed pieces: “It worried me that I didn’t hear much of a voice. What I heard was more like a cough.” Actually, it was more like emphysema. And poor Swain soon discovered the awful truth: He’d been hired to contract the disease himself, not to cure it.
He had to churn out bland, cliché-ridden prose to please Sanford, a master of verbiage and mixed metaphor. The funniest moments in Swain’s book are when the governor goes rogue with language. He insists on using “alleve” instead of “alleviate.” He compares his extramarital affair to King David’s ordeals. He is unashamed to utter the following barbarism in public: “The biggest self of self is indeed self.”
Swain admits to losing perspective; the job put a strain on his marriage and distanced him from his kids. But he learned never to idolize someone with a title. As for Sanford, he has a new title: congressman. Next time you’re in Washington, stop by his office and say a prayer for his staff.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.