June 22, 2016

The Speechwriter

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 handwringing about the political system is focused on how leaders, and aspiring leaders, speak of their policies and tell narratives to guide that work.  Most of us know that the words we hear and read from a politician are meticulously-considered and expertly-written by a team of professionals, but we don’t always remind ourselves of that when we engage in the political sphere.

The 2016 American election is particularly interesting because of the conflict between carefully-crafted messages and the raw, often ridiculous statements that can be published and circulated, unfiltered, in digital spaces. (Donald Trump’s twitter account is a poignant example of how giving a voice to the candidate, rather than the candidate’s staff, can be both entertaining and horrifying.) If President Obama’s rise to presidency was built on the convening power of digital tools, whoever wins the upcoming election will be dependent on those tools less to convene, but instead to convince.

Mr. Swaim, who spent four years working in the communications staff of Governor Mark Sanford (yes, that South Carolina governor, who enjoyed hiking the Appalachian trail”), provides an incisive look at how political messages are considered, crafted, and delivered in an era where what you say is often more important than what you do. His memoir is engaging, entertaining; it lulls you into thinking that the story is fiction because it is so wrought with conflict and beautifully told. The narrative is engrossing and sometimes salacious, but not without its insights on the nature of political communication: Using vague, slippery or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.”

In an election season when we are quick to make fun of a candidate for sounding too rehearsed while also gasping in disbelief at the gruff, off-the-cuff remarks of someone from whom we expect more polish, The Speechwriter is an illumination on how those decisions—what to say, when to say it, and how to be heard—are made, and how those same decisions can become much more important that the act of governing itself.

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