Politics & Government

Ready for another hike on the Appalachian Trail?

By Andrew Shain

ashain@thestate.com

COLUMBIA, SC What’s left to know about U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford’s personal life?

South Carolinians know the tale all too well.

Sanford was caught having an affair with an Argentinian woman while he was governor in 2009. His divorce came with a tell-all book from his ex-wife. Still, he apologized his way to political redemption, winning a congressional seat. Then, Sanford announced his breakup with his mistress in a Facebook post.

But South Carolina’s butt of late-night talk show jokes remains an irresistible character six years since he fibbed about hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, a new political memoir, by a communications staffer in the governor’s office during Sanford’s second term, will revive the story in July.

“The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics” details Sanford’s sometimes harsh conduct toward his staff and the havoc after a reporter for The State newspaper caught the Lowcountry Republican returning to the United States on a flight from Buenos Aires.

Reaction to the book – sight unseen – is decidedly mixed.

“If the new book tells us more details about his personal life, I don’t need to know,” Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said. “Talk about too much information.”

Political experts and Sanford’s colleagues say they can not imagine the book containing new revelations that would hurt the Charleston Republican’s reborn political career.

“He’s pretty revealing,” College of Charleston political scientist Kendra Stewart said of Sanford, once thought a dark-horse candidate for the GOP nomination for president. “At the end of the day, South Carolina citizens know what happened, and I can’t imagine (the book) would have anything shocking that would further damage his reputation.”

The book comes out almost a year – an eternity in an election cycle – before Sanford could face a possible GOP primary fight in 2016. He had no opposition in winning re-election last year.

Voters, especially those in the more moderate Lowcountry, disconnect Sanford’s personal and political lives in evaluating their congressman, Stewart said. On the plus side, Sanford continues to benefit because of his reputation with 1st District voters as a limited-government hawk – a niche he developed during his earlier stint in Congress in the 1990s.

“I don’t think people elected him because he’s a man of personal integrity,” Stewart said. “They elected him because of the political principles he stands for. The book does not change that.”

Nontraditional memoir

“Speechwriter” was written by Barton Swaim, who spent nearly four years working in Sanford’s communications office during his second term as governor, starting in 2007.

The 224-page book recounts how Swaim, who holds a doctorate in English, learned to write speeches and letters in Sanford’s voice.

The book also details Republican Sanford’s fights with the GOP-controlled General Assembly over budgets and regulation, and with the federal government over taking stimulus money and issuing new driver’s licenses.

Those battles spurred talk of Sanford running for national office.

That chatter ended, spectacularly, two years into Sanford’s second term when the governor, a married father of four sons, revealed his affair with Maria Belen Chapur. In “Speechwriter,” Swaim describes the chaos and disappointment inside the governor’s office in the aftermath of that scandal.

The State newspaper received a draft copy of the book but was not permitted by its publisher, Simon & Schuster, to quote passages or reveal details.

A description of the book by Simon & Schuster says: “Swaim paints a portrait of a man so principled he’d rather sweat than use state money to pay for air conditioning, so oblivious he’d wear the same stained shirt for two weeks, so egotistical he’d belittle his staffers to make himself feel better, and so self-absorbed he never once apologized to his staff for making his administration the laughingstock of the country.

“On the surface, this is the story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s rise and fall. But in the end, it’s an account of the very human staffers who go into politics out of conviction and learn to survive a broken heart.”

The book is nontraditional political memoir.

While the publisher’s description mentions Sanford by name, “Speechwriter” does not.

Swaim never identifies the governor who employs him. Swaim also uses pseudonyms for staff members in the governor’s office.

The author’s note says Swaim did not write the book to reveal secrets or as payback. But that note also says Swaim has taken some liberties with the chronology.

Despite those liberties, the book is listed under political biographies with Simon & Schuster.

Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan said the book sounds like Joe Klein’s 1996 book “Primary Colors,” a novel based on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign.

Klein offers a quote of endorsement for “Speechwriter.”

“This is the truest book I've read about politics in some time, hilarious and sordid and wonderfully written,” writes Klein.

Swaim, who works for the limited-government S.C. Policy Council advocacy group, declined to comment. He said he would talk closer to the book’s July publication date.

Sanford’s camp reacts

However, others who worked for Sanford had strong reactions to Swaim writing the book.

Former Sanford press secretary Joel Sawyer, now an executive with a political consulting firm, said he is worried about how “Speechwriter” might portray members of the governor’s office.

“Mark Sanford has been in the public arena long enough to know that having unflattering things written about him from time to time goes with the territory,” said Sawyer, who was Swaim’s boss. “My hope, though, is that, when it comes to portrayals of staff, he depicts those coworkers with respect.”

Tom Davis, who was Sanford’s chief of staff during parts of his first and second terms, said he was not offended that Swaim wrote an insider book about the administration.

But he hopes the author did not cross ethical boundaries.

“There is an implied sense of confidentiality at times when you work in the governor’s office,” said Davis, now a Republican state senator from Beaufort, referring to moments when Sanford might have sought advice from his staff.

Jason Miller, who ran Sanford’s 2006 gubernatorial re-election campaign and worked with Swaim as the governor’s deputy chief of staff for a short time, was even more critical of “Speechwriter.”

Miller called the book “a complete farce and a complete joke,” written by someone who not part of the governor’s inner circle.

“Someone using pseudonym sources in a book written five years after the governor left office seems suspect to me,” Miller said. “You’re seeing someone who missed out for their chance to get 15 minutes of fame and is desperate to be relevant.”

Claire Morris, a former Sanford speechwriter and a friend of the congressman since college, does not expect to read anything new in Swaim’s book.

“We all make mistakes, but his mistakes were on a world stage,” Morris said of Sanford. “It bothers me people are trying to profit off of working for him.”

Not having read the book, Sanford and Scott English, Sanford’s chief of staff at the time the affair was revealed, declined comment. Today, English is chief of staff in Sanford’s congressional office.

Voters know his flaws

While Sanford’s allies have concerns, early book reviews of “Speechwriter” generally are complimentary.

Publishers Weekly said, “(Swaim’s) report on his experiences as a governor’s idea man is a fine, sometimes brilliant foray into the nature of contemporary politics.”

Kirkus Reviews called the book “candid but not especially compelling.”

Vinson, the Furman political scientist, said she is looking forward to “Speechwriter.”

Insiders write few political books about state government, she said. Most such works center on the White House.

“It’s valuable information on how these decisions get made,” Vinson said. “It gives voters answers.”

The book should not threaten Sanford’s congressional seat, said Buchanan, the Citadel political scientist. Voters already know his flaws.

“Sanford is not running away from these kind of things,” he said. “What you see is what you get.”

Stewart, the College of Charleston political scientist, said Sanford’s honesty about his failings – and his checkered marital past – might make the congressman slightly vulnerable.

“People did not vote for him because they liked him,” Stewart said. “They believed he would act like a Republican.”

None of the political scientists interviewed could think of a Charleston-area candidate with enough name recognition and an accompanying reputation for fiscal conservatism to give Sanford a serious re-election challenge.

Still, all said Sanford could face obstacles if he runs for statewide office again, such as for governor, as is sometimes speculated. While Charleston’s live-and-let-live voters have reconciled with Sanford, more socially conservative voters in the Upstate and Pee Dee would have problems with his affair, the experts said.

Despite all the unflattering descriptions of Sanford in the “Speechwriter,” the congressman of today could be a different man from the governor that Swaim portrays, Vinson said.

Vinson, who has taken students to visit Sanford over the years, said the politician known for being aloof is more engaged since returning to Capitol Hill from the State House.

“In past times, he just kind of waited for people to talk to him,” she said.

But on a trip to Washington, D.C., last year, Sanford was asking questions from the start. The congressman also was well prepared, knowing Vinson’s group included students in military training programs.

He then took some time, while sitting in the House viewing gallery with the Vinson’s students, to explain what was happening on the floor during a vote.

“The second incarnation of Mark is a lot of more personable,” Vinson said.

THE BOOK ON SANFORD

Title: “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics”

Book description from publisher: “ ‘The Speechwriter’ is a funny and candid introduction to the world of politics, where press statements are purposefully nonsensical, grammatical errors are intentional, and better copy means more words. ... On the surface, this is the story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s rise and fall. But in the end, it’s an account of the very human staffers who go into politics out of conviction and learn to survive a broken heart.”

Author: Barton Swaim, who worked in Gov. Sanford’s communications office from 2007-2011. Swaim, who grew up in Greenville and Myrtle Beach, now is communications director for the S.C. Policy Council, a limited-government think tank.

Release date: July 14

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

  Comments