Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


For reasons that are unclear, I began the new year reading The Speechwriter by Barton Swaim. Perhaps it was the Author’s Note found in the front of the book. He begins by expressing gratefulness to the editor assigned him, “who made this book far better than it was.” My book is somewhere in a stack to be read by an assigned editor, and I am hoping he or she will do the same. I was also intrigued when a reviewer put this book on his top ten list, though he cautioned that it should be read while sipping bourbon.

I was also drawn to it because of my growing fascination with writing, and my longstanding interest in politics (a carryover of being a Political Science major). Not that I would ever desire to be a political speechwriter. Swaim’s book gives a humorous and poignant look into what it is like to be a speechwriter. Last night, given that it was the State of the Union Address, one of the news segments did a piece on Obama’s speechwriter. It looked impressive, he and the president huddled together in the Oval Office. But Swaim does not paint it as an enviable profession.

He was assigned to a governor from the South, who often met Swaim after a speech with “Again,” a remark indicating the governor’s dissatisfaction. The speech written did not hit the mark, or did not sound like the governor. “You’re not getting the voice! I would never say, ‘the extent to which.’” Pastors live in similar fear each Monday, especially if the sermon preached did not sound like God.

Writing for politicians is an art. One must learn how to use “vague, slippery, or just meaningless language.” The governor is expected to have a position on everything. The intent for a speechwriter, then, is not to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing. I have experienced this when giving an operational plan update to the board.

The dilemma for a speechwriter is that over time one gets comfortable with insincerity. As Swaim notes, “Sometimes I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.” He must not have a dog like mine.

In order to successfully write the right op-ed piece or letter to a family or draft a speech for the Baker’s Union, Swaim had to watch and read and study—and then submit to the governor’s world of language. He began looking for stock phrases “You’ll be in our prayers over the weeks and months ahead”, study the governor’s syntax and favorite words (range, host, remarkable, fabulous, highlight), and look for the patterns. It’s a lot like what pastors do each week in working through a text of Scripture, looking for Paul’s stock phrases, or Mark’s syntax, or John’s random and circular patterns (which can also lead one to bourbon).

Working with a governor can also be unpredictable. This one had erratic bouts of rage, often berating the staff. There would be these “debacles” that would provoke the governor to wonder how someone could be so moronic. For the speechwriter, there is the constant pressure to perform, come up with something magical, something that will make people say, “Oh I never thought of that.” Pastors live with similar pressures—anything to counter the post sermon remark, “Thanks for the reminder.”

It’s almost impossible for political speechwriters to not become cynical. As Swaim observed, most politicians don’t get to this level without a certain amount of self-aggrandizement. Over time, all too many fall victim to vain impulses and lose the ability to be authentic. There becomes a stark difference between the personality presented to the public and the one to which one subjects to the staff. As for convictions, they eventually align with the paycheck.

Swaim closes with an important question, one we should fairly ask during this political season: “Why do we trust men who have sought and attained high office by innumerable acts of vanity and self-will?” It’s not that all politicians are this way, though the process seems to lead all too many to become this to survive. And if we are honest with ourselves, we are all at risk.

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