Matthew Walther

Saying nothing, very well

In The Speechwriter, Barton Swaim recounts his struggles to write badly enough to satisfy Governor Mark Sanford

In June 2009, the good people of South Carolina lost Mark Sanford, their governor. Per his instructions, his staff told the press that he was ‘hiking the Appalachian trail’. When he turned up six days later at an airport in Atlanta, Georgia, he said that he had scratched the hike in favour of something more ‘exotic’.

When it became clear that ‘exotic’ meant visiting his 43-year-old polyglot divorcée mistress in Argentina, things got bad. ‘I will be able to die knowing that I found my soulmate,’ he told the Associated Press, sobbing.

Barton Swaim has written a memoir of his three years working as a speechwriter for Sanford, who is now a congressman. The ‘governor’, as he is referred to throughout, is boorish, arrogant and penny-pinching. He stuffs boiled shrimp and boiled eggs in his jacket at parties and gives old T-shirts and ‘jars of shoe polish wrapped in cellophane’ as Christmas gifts. He insists that ‘Aleve’ — as in the pain reliever — is a verb when spelled with two ls. He repeats words (‘again’) and even noises (‘aahh’, ‘wwwww’) whenever he thinks someone else is about to speak. After the news about his infidelity has come out, Sanford compares his plight to Viktor Frankl’s in Auschwitz: ‘It’s incredible to me how you can find beauty, how you can find reasons to keep going, in the most appalling circumstances.’ Among those present, one woman thinks of responding; instead she weeps.

Swaim, a regular on the TLS’s ‘Freelance’ column and the author of a fine book about the history of Scottish periodicals, writes here in a breezy, elliptical manner, letting his material work for him.

There is a lot of it. Nearly every page of this book is wet with the tears of a pedant.

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