Ex-governor’s ‘Speechwriter’ tells all

“The Speechwriter” is Barton Swaim’s first-person account of working as a staffer for former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. (Provided)

What would you say if your boss cut the first piece of your cake, put it on a plate and took it back to his office without even wishing you a “Happy Birthday”? Probably you’d be flabbergasted. Certainly, the folks working for then-Gov. Mark Sanford were.

That’s just one of the many revealing anecdotes from “The Speechwriter,” a highly amusing memoir, just published, about three years of working for Mr. Sanford at the Statehouse.

Barton Swaim, the book’s author, started off in the office as an admirer of the publicly engaging, tough-minded, fiscally conservative governor, who was willing to take on his political opponents no matter the consequences.

“His ideas were sound, his views genuinely held, and at crucial times he showed great courage in holding to them — the kind of defiant fearlessness we long for in politics,” Mr. Swaim wrote.

But the portrait that emerges from behind the scenes at the Statehouse is far less flattering.

As a chief executive, Mr. Sanford might have been principled and decisive.

But as a boss he was arbitrary, self-absorbed, and infuriatingly hard to please, Mr. Swaim recounts.

Mr. Sanford did stay true to his fiscally conservative views, in practice as well as in politics. Unfortunately for his staff, that meant working long hours for relatively low pay. And receiving “re-gifted” presents for Christmas. (One holiday Mr. Swaim was given a T-shirt celebrating the opening of a hardware store; for another, he received several cans of shoe polish.)

“The Speechwriter” recounts many of the big issues of the day, but none more consequential than Mr. Sanford’s disgrace over “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Regarding the aftermath of the governor’s extramarital affair, Mr. Swaim wrote: “Everything we’d worked for was discredited; everything the administration aimed to achieve in its second term was at an end.”

There are pungent observations about other politicians, including state Sen. Jake Knotts and S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell (“He wielded his power like a cudgel; nobody in the legislature liked or crossed him”).

“The Speechwriter” is a remarkable account of a political education told with humor and insight.

And with no small measure of relevance. After all, that former governor is now the Lowcountry’s representative in Congress, following a most improbable political comeback.

We look forward to the day when Mr. Sanford tells his side of the story — though it would be hard to top Mr. Swaim for laughs.