Most books by professional speechwriters (including mine) reach a small, very small, audience: people who already write speeches, or people who want to. But a recent book by a speechwriting pro has drawn reviews and other coverage from a wide range of print and online media, including the Washington Post, MSN, The Weekly Standard, and a whole slew of blogs on politics and the media.
The book is THE SPEECHWRITER: A Brief Education in Politics, by Barton Swaim former speechwriter for Mark Sanford. Sanford, of course, was once governor of South Carolina and is now a member of the House of Representatives. The book has garnered so much press largely because Sanford became a national figure (okay, a laughingstock), when he had to confess that he had vanished from office not to hike the Appalachian trail, but for a tryst with his Latin American mistress.
The book doesn’t focus on that scandal, but dishes a lot about the harsh way Sanford treated his staff, as well as the challenge of writing speeches for a boss who didn’t have a clue about how to write or speak well. Swain found himself removing most of the good writing from the speeches he drafted and instead inserting his boss’s favorite jargon, cliché’s or historical allusions, no matter how misplaced. (Sanford loved it when Swain inserted a reference to Rosa Parks into a speech to an electric bus company.)
At one time or other, almost all of us have to suffer through a bad boss or client. For those who haven’t yet, Swain provides an excellent preview. For me, the book also confirms a lesson I learned long ago: don’t write speeches for politicians unless your family is facing starvation.
There are bad bosses and clients from just about every profession, of course, but politicians have a unique blend of dangerous characteristics. Most crave public approval because at their core they are insecure; add to that the fact that they are surrounded 24/7 by staff members whose entire livelihoods depend on them. Power does tend to corrupt, and powerful politicians tend to treat people who work for them like dirt.
Swain had to learn that lesson the hard way. You can learn it just by reading the book.