Monday, September 7, 2015

Speaking for Sanford

Nobody knows why Barton Swaim does not name Mark Sanford as his boss in the non-fiction The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.  After all, not only does he name names of SC legislators, but in the book bio it states that he was Governor Sanford's speechwriter from 2007 to 2010.  Whatever.  This is a quick read.  There is no biographical information about Sanford before the events of his last term in office.  It really is pretty much about what it is like to work as Sanford's speechwriter.

And it is a thankless job.  He not only is unable to articulate what he wants from his staff, he is merciless in his criticism.  He is also just plain old inarticulate, which is what prompted Swaim to actually ask for the job interview.  Sanford's staff hates him, mocks him behind his back, and uses devious and comical strategies to deal with his conflicting and at times nonsensical demands.  Swaim finally studies Sanford's own letters and speeches and compiles a list of words and phrases that he would otherwise never use in order to write to please his boss.  Which also makes his characterization of Sanford spot on.

Other than it is an interesting quick read, there are a few bits of information that we as voters, constituents, activists, or merely residents in South Carolina should know, mostly about Sanford, but also about the SC legislature and the characters that reside therein.

I don't believe Sanford is intellectually astute.  But he does understand his base.  At one point, he criticizes Swaim's writing this way:  "'ve got to know your audience.  The mechanic in Greenwood doesn't go around talking about things being 'the extent for which'."  While Sanford's bumbling manner of speech appears to be real, he is very much aware of its impact, and it certainly does the job of appealing to his base, which truly feels that, despite his wealth, he is a good ole boy just like them.  In other words, barely literate.

His gimmicks are notorious.  From bringing pigs to the Statehouse to protest "pork,"

to standing in front of MUSC debating a poster of Nancy Pelosi:

Mark Sanford is as good as any cigarette advertising executive at getting attention, getting a laugh, getting the support of right-wing South Carolina.  He doesn't have to make sense, and he knows it.

Here's another interesting detail from Swaim's years as Sanford's speechwriter.  One of his tasks during those years was to write "surrogate letters."  In other words, he would pen letters to the editor as though they came from Sanford supporters, send them off to those supporters, who would then submit them to the state's newspapers.  That's right, some of those barely readable letters praising Sanford's policies were written by Sanford's speechwriter.  Swaim claims that this is a common practice in politics.  I imagine that the Karl Roves of the political world would agree.  But I wonder if this is true, or if Swaim just needed to be convinced.

While Sanford felt that letters to the editor were a valuable way to convince people to support him, Swaim doesn't have a lot flattering to say about them.  He says, "Of course, very few letters to the editor come anywhere near coherence.  Mostly they're platitudes basted with the rhetoric of outrage."  I like to think this bias is because he spent his time reading the ones that were favorable to the governor (and for which Sanford insisted Swaim send thank-you's under his name).

While Swaim seems to detest Sanford personally and in his professional interactions, he admires Sanford's politics and his refusal to back down.  This (along with the gimmicks) appears to be key to his success.  If reality is working against him, he ignores reality, as with public opinion after the Appalachian Trail scandal.  He is stubborn in a way that only a true narcissist can be stubborn.  He will wait out adversity and damn if he isn't able to outwait us every time.

I would like to end by saying that this book is a rollicking jaunt through Mark Sanford's last term as governor.  In fact, it would be a great deal more fun if the jackass wasn't serving in the US House of Representatives, where he is likely to have an uncontested seat for as long as he wants it.

Even so, it is a painless -- and entertaining -- way to know your enemy.

1 comment:

  1. I also enjoyed Swaim's book very much. It was a keen insight into a sick little mind. I am glad Agnes mentioned the word "narcissist" near the end of her review. That is the image that comes through time after time in Swaim's telling of the Mark Sanford story and anybody who is familiar with his career, his notorious affair, the break up of his family will recognize the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. To learn more about what drives Mark Sanford and what a pathological personality he is, read Jeffrey Kluger's new book, "The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed -- In Your World." I'm sure Jenny Sanford wishes she had read this 25 years ago.