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The Storyteller: An Interview with Political Speechwriter Barton Swaim

James Walden, Midlands Anchor Advisory Board Member and lead pastor at Riverside Community Church, spent some time catching up with Barton Swaim, a writer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times Literary Supplement for a special interview about his life and career as a speechwriter, as well as his perspective on the current political climate under the presidency of Donald Trump. A native of South Carolina, Barton Swaim worked for former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford as a communications officer.

James:  So Barton, I know you’re a native of the great state of South Carolina. Tell us briefly your story, where you grew up, and what your track has been so far.

Barton:  I was born in North Carolina, but I grew up in the Myrtle Beach area. My parents divorced, and then I moved to Greenville in the early ’80s. My father was living in Myrtle Beach, so I went to high school there and moved in with him. I left for college in 1990, went to Liberty College, now University, in Lynchburg, Virginia. From there, on the grounds that I had no clue what I wanted to do when I grew up, I went to Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. I got an MDiv for some reason. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I have not regretted it. I did an M.A. and PhD in English, at USC and Edinburgh respectively. I got married in 1998 and have three children, all girls, and living happily in Columbia, South Carolina, which is a nice place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit there.

James: I like that. I’ve never heard that.

Barton: It’s true. Can you imagine – someone visiting here?

James:  We’ve got a good zoo.

Barton:  I had some friends come into town one summer, and it was before I worked at the Statehouse. We went on a tour of the Statehouse and it was great. It’s actually one of the best things you can do in Columbia.

James: I agree.  Great tour!  Speaking of the Statehouse, The Speechwriter was a great read. I couldn’t put it down. And it was funny.  Few books have made me actually laugh out loud.  And none of them were on politics.  Obviously it had a popular reception. But I’m wondering, how was the book received among those closest to Governor Sanford – your fellow staff members?

Barton:  Mostly, it was received well. There were a few people who were a little bit prickly before it came out, but I think when those few – really only two – realized that I didn’t make them out to be the jackasses that they, in fact, were, they were pleased. It wasn’t my aim to get back at anybody. If you see a crazy thing, you tell the story, right? If you see an elephant trampling on traffic, you tell your wife when you get home. So I saw this crazy thing, and I’m a writer, so you just have to tell it. And really, I just wanted to make people laugh and maybe think a little bit about politics from a different point of view. But it wasn’t to settle scores, at least I don’t think it was. I mean, that may be creeping around somewhere in my motivations, but I don’t think it’s primarily why I wrote it.

For one of them, I did put the word “jackass” in a line – and believe me, he said much worse. But his mother was unhappy that he called somebody a jackass, or some word like that, some pretty innocuous word. Incidentally, I didn’t put in any F words or any of the other sort of harsh profanity you hear, not because it wasn’t there. There was plenty of it. Profanity for writers can become kind of like a crutch, so you have a good line, or a good observation, and you sort of pump it up with a couple “F words”. You see it a lot, actually. It’s not really that funny without it. It’s sort of like putting a couple gunshots into a line. So I just decided for aesthetic and theological reasons that I wouldn’t do that.

James:  I saw you’re a freelance writer now, and I understand that’s tough work. What else are you up to work-wise, and are there any other books on the horizon?

Barton:  Well, in order to pay the bills I do have to write a lot. I write mainly for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal with some others thrown in there. It took years to get to a point where I could write something and basically figure out some place that would publish it and pay me for it. It’s not easy to get to that point.  Even now, I wish I were paid twice the amount I’m paid, but the going rate for writers is pretty bad. So I do book reviews for the Journal and op-eds for the Post, and just random things all over the place. I’ve been writing some for First Things magazine. All my waking hours are either working here, or taking care of kids —

James: Where is here?

Barton: Current job is opinion editor for the Weekly Standard magazine. Mag’s in DC but I’m doing the job mostly from Columbia. I am working on another book. I’m sort of keeping it under wraps for the most part. But it’ll be similar, I think.

James: So it’ll be another story?

Barton: Yeah, another story that’s about crazy things in politics, of which there are many right now.

James: On that note, as one who’s had some substantial exposure to the party here in South Carolina, working under Mark Sanford, and continuing to do some policy writing, how would you assess the state of the Republican Party today?

Barton: Somebody asked me this yesterday, as if I would know. You know, after the election of Donald Trump, first of all after the nomination of Donald Trump and then the election, I’ve sort of tried to get out of the business of predicting anything. You didn’t ask for a prediction. But so many people have been so wrong about so many things lately that you almost hesitate to say. You watch these cable TV shows, and it’s the same people who got everything wrong pronouncing, with total self-confidence, that they know what’s going on. So I’ve been trying, in the political writing, to be a little more circumspect.

You know, parties aren’t what they used to be. With open primaries, you can blow them up at any moment. People who run the parties don’t seem to have much ability to control anything. The Republican Party never would’ve allowed Donald Trump to be nominated if it had any power to decide these things. So one minute, going into election night, it seemed that the Democrats were going to run Washington, and within a few hours, everything flipped. But that’s symptomatic, I think, of where we are. It can turn in a moment, and I do think the Republican Party is going through some ideological turmoil. But then again, the principles that they supposedly believe, a lot of times you didn’t have much evidence of it. So what’s changing, exactly? Trump is non-ideological. So I don’t know. It could be, at the end of it, there is no more Republican Party except the name. But it could be that the more things change, they stay the same.

James:  So in a sense you’re saying Trump’s non-ideological stance is, in fact, a very clear revelation of where the Republican Party actually is?

Barton:  Maybe so. I tend to think of him more as a symptom. This is kind of a cliché, but it’s still true – it’s a cliché, but nobody seems to want to do anything about it – that he’s a symptom of a lot of anger. A lot of people are very upset, rightly or wrongly, about the shape of the nation’s politics and of Washington. Yet still, nobody seems to want to change anything as a result of that anger. If Donald Trump was a bad answer to a question, then what was the question? And why does no one seem interested in finding out what the question was? It’s almost like everybody just wants to go back to how it was before him, and everything will be fine. Of course everything wasn’t fine; we all hated each other before him.

It’s interesting to me that liberals often sound like conservatives these days. It’s funny. Liberals, looking at Trump, will say, “He’s trampling on the nation’s traditions!” As if they ever cared about that. People talk about Trump’s untruthfulness, his lies, post-truth, as though before he came along, our democratic politics was characterized by reason and truth. Rubbish. We were led to believe by all these post-structural critics in the late 20th century that truth was relative.  And now we’re all objective?

Whereas conservatives, or people on the right, generally – whatever conservative means – are more like, “Yeah, why haven’t we thought of that before? We should totally do that – thing – that we never cared about before.” Which is more like a progressive mindset – just try something crazy. Nobody knows what they are. It could be kind of refreshing in a way, to just shake up the nation’s politics really violently. I think we could come out of it with some benefits. I think Trump’s going to break things that shouldn’t be broken, but he’ll break things that should be broken. That’s my general attitude. We’ll see, though.

James: Regarding politics, some say your conclusions in The Speechwriter are cynical toward the political process. How would you respond to that? Are you cynical toward politics?

Barton:  Maybe the word I would prefer would be realistic.

James:  But isn’t that what cynics always say about themselves?

Barton:  Right. It totally is. If it’s cynical, then it might be more of a self-chastisement because I was of the mind before any of this happened to me that what the nation really needed, or what the state needed, was good people to be in office, so I was always – and this is quite common – searching for that one right person who would take office and lead us into the sunny uplands of whatever. I thought that about Sanford. I think a lot of us did. Here’s a principled guy, family guy, upstanding person, also smart and attractive, and yet the reality was quite different in numerous and different ways. So that just forced me to think, “Well, what was I looking for exactly? Was it a reasonable thing that I was looking for? Does it even exist?” And that led me to the question “What kind of person seeks higher office?” And the answer is, a person who will go around and say, “Vote for me because I’m awesome and I can fix all sorts of problems.”

Good people don’t do that. It takes a special kind of person. I’m glad somebody does because we have a democratic country that I sort of like living in, and we seem to have created some level of prosperity and stability here. But it takes a weird kind of person to go around and say, “I’m really the one that should be making important decisions that affect your life because I have this unique set of competencies that you should be so impressed with that you’ll actually cast your vote for me.” I mean, what kind of person does that? But that is, in fact, what you have to do. But you can’t seem like you’re doing that. The way I stated it, you couldn’t literally say that. But that’s in effect what you have to do – go around and pump yourself up.

James:  Do you think that’s implicit to the democratic process – in other words, that this has always been the problem?

Barton:  Yeah, I do. Well, I think it became more of a reality in the 20th century because of universal suffrage. So when a politician in the 18th century thought about getting elected, he was really talking about a number of people that he could count, you know, right now. The body of electors was very small, and so that changes how you’re going to present yourself, how you’re going to respond to certain circumstances. Come forward all the way to mid-20th century and beyond, the politician who wants to get elected, he has to appeal to tens of thousands of people potentially, or the president, to millions. That takes a very special kind of outlook. You just can’t win unless you are responding in all sorts of ways at all times to what people want. And if you don’t, you just don’t win.

And there’s a certain kind of politician, and Sanford was definitely one of these, who knows how to seem like that’s not what he’s doing. It seems like he doesn’t care what people think. The stimulus thing that I wrote about in my book was a good example – of how he was just sort of “I don’t care what people say, this is what I’m doing.” He knew he was going to make a certain number of enemies in doing that, but it didn’t matter because there would be more people who would be very pleased with him. There’s an art to it. Again, it takes a very special kind of person to have that skill, and to want to do it. Who would want to do it? I don’t want to do that

James:  It’s fascinating to me. Would you say with people that have that skill, it’s a conscious action, or is it almost like an intuition?

Barton:  It’s definitely both. Some of them don’t have it, but for whatever reason – through luck or whatever – they get elected. But they don’t have it, and they end up getting beat. They’ll try to cultivate it. But some have it really naturally. Sanford is the best there is in campaigning. I mean, who could’ve gotten elected to that Charleston district after all that he did? It’s incredible. For me, as a writer, so much depends on tone, whether it works as a piece. You have to pitch the tone just right for the medium that you’re writing in, and if you don’t, your editors are like “This is not right for us at all.” But tone isn’t really a thing you can tell somebody how to adjust. “Hey, your tone is not right here.” It’s like, “What?” Usually an editor just has to do it for you. But in politics, it’s like playing a musical instrument or something. You can sense that this is the opportunity I need to take right now. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong, but successful politicians know how to take advantage of the moment. A negative term for it is opportunistic. But opportunities are real things and you have to take them when you’re given them, without seeming like you’re being opportunistic. Some event happens over here, and the question is always “Do we respond to it? Do we not? Do we keep quiet? If we’re going to say something, what do we say?” And it’s really important to get the tone right and to position yourself, as they say.  And either you can do that sort of thing, or you can’t. And he (Sanford) certainly can.

James:  Would you say Donald Trump has it?

Barton:  (hesitates)

James:  I mean, he did after all win the presidency.

Barton:  That’s what I was thinking. I don’t know if I’d be willing to say yet whether he does or not. What’s definitely true is that he made total fools of all the political experts in Washington and many of them in different states. He did everything that any political expert would tell him not to do. He did them all. Repeatedly. And he still won.

Now you could say maybe it’s a fluke, a weird set of circumstances that can’t be duplicated. Maybe. But I do think that he has an almost diabolic sense of saying something that on its face is false, but there’s enough truth in it to cause people to knock the heck out of each other for weeks on end trying to figure out what the truth of it is. And he’s done it repeatedly – the thing that he said about wiretapping, you know, Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped. In one sense, that was pretty false. But in another sense, once you dug in to the story there was enough truth content sort of swirling around the falsity of it to make people go crazy, particularly his adversaries in the media just go bezonkers trying to refute it. And in the process of trying to refute it, parts of the story that were not that well-known actually surfaced. You know, like in this case Obama’s administration trouble with the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court and the unmasking of intelligence sources and distribution of those identities to other agencies. None of that would’ve been known without Trump’s crazy comment. Not widely known anyway.

So I think he does have this sense: “If I say this right now, it’s going to explode.” It’s a timing thing. He doesn’t wait to sort of consider it – to the chagrin of his advisors. He takes them by surprise over and over again. I do think he has some kind of feel for the political sphere. It’s not a traditional opportunity-grabbing thing that you would see in a normal talented politician. He does have something. I refuse to think that this is just a fluke.

A couple younger colleagues of mine called him a moron. I just stopped them and said, “Do you really think he’s a moron? Do you really think that he has an inability to function in normal society and has no intelligence?” I mean, really. I think large segments of the news media do think that, and that’s why they keep losing to him. Or his rise and retention of power are unaccountable to them because they think that he’s just a moron. Maybe he’s not. He’s not a normal guy, he’s a weird guy, and a self-aggrandizing jackass in a lot of ways. But don’t call your adversary stupid.

James:  The relationship between politics and media is obviously very important, especially now. It’s become a really controversial touch-point with the Trump Administration – his relationship to the news media. How has the relationship between news media and politics changed, in your mind? Or has it?

Barton:  He won the presidency by overtly, explicitly, repeatedly casting the media itself as the enemy. He even said, post-election, that they’re the enemy of the people. But Republican presidents, and presidential candidates, for a long time have used the mainstream media as a foil because it’s just patently obvious that most people in mainstream media outlets are politically on the left side of the divide somewhere. There’s no disgrace in that. It’s perfectly normal, and there are probably sociological reasons for that. But I think it’s foolish to deny it. Many Republican candidates have sort of cast the media as being against them or not giving them a fair shake. But Trump went after them directly, all the time, and accused them of lies, and he won. So you would think the result of that victory would be, on the part of members of the media, to say “Wait a minute. Are we that badly hated? Maybe we should engage in some kind of self-criticism for five minutes.” But it hasn’t. To all appearances, there’s no sense of self-criticism in the media, and they’re just going on. From the day after he was elected, the same people have written the same op-eds, giving the same commentary as they were before the election. It’s unbelievable to me.

So I don’t think he’s changed them, but I do think that the idea that the media are objective, all-knowing judges – which has been kind of a conceit, really for a long time – has maybe, finally, been destroyed. I mean, Fox News did a lot to hurt it. People make fun of Fox News because it was called “fair and balanced.” I don’t actually watch Fox News because I don’t have cable. If I did have cable, I would waste enormous amounts of time watching Fox News probably. But it’s interesting to me that Fox’s motto isn’t “objective”; it’s just “fair.” There’s a difference between fairness and objectivity. Objectivity is “I see reality as it exists.” Fairness is “I try to give time to this side; I try to give time to that side.” There’s some sense of balance, and we’ll see what happens. It’s philosophically not as ambitious. But the idea of objectivity, I think, has been the source of many ills over the decades because it’s not true. You can’t be objective. You bring your own presuppositions and biases to whatever you do, and journalists sort of convinced themselves they had no opinions. They only saw factual reality for what it was.

I think maybe Trump has finally destroyed that outlook because he’s even forced the media to just become full-on partisan. The openness with which the media oppose the administration is breathtaking. Honestly, it’s kind of refreshing – if only they would just admit it, you know, be a little more honest. But they’re becoming more vocal about it, so I think maybe that could be a good thing. I don’t know. It’s certainly ugly when you go through it. But when it’s over, I think maybe it could be a good thing – this false ideal of objectivity is done for, and we’re past modernism and just full-on postmodern, so at least we all know where we stand. In the modernist or objective regime, we sort of had to pretend the elite media types are the arbiters of reality. It’s an epistemological struggle as much as anything else. That’s the more important struggle, maybe. “How do we know what we know?” Trump has just decided it’s going to be a fight about who knows. Nobody’s going to be the arbiter.

James:  So if I understand your argument in The Speechwriter that, roughly, the democratic process by its very nature is sort of a magnet for narcissists – it creates this narcissistic political culture – is that then your subtle way of saying, “I don’t think democracy is the way”? Or are you saying more, like Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”?

Barton:  Definitely more like the latter. There’s been a tendency to, in some Christian circles, and non-Christian circles too, almost to deify democracy. The country that I grew up in, that I love, is a democratic republic. That’s the way we do things, so I’m naturally disposed to appreciate and value it. Memorial Day was yesterday. I’m grateful for soldiers defending our way of life and our way of governing ourselves.

However, many societies have flourished and been humane, productive societies that have produced things of beauty and high educational attainments that were not democracies. Democracies have a unique set of flaws, and we’d be foolish to pretend that they didn’t. I think we’d be violating the First Commandment, and actually worshiping a form of government.

I’ve been reading the book of 1st Samuel pretty closely lately, and it’s interesting to me that the people wanted a king, so they demanded of Samuel, “Give us a king!” God gave them a king, and he went out of his way to choose one, particular guy. There was no election. There wasn’t even a drawing of straws or casting lots. God named the guy. And guess what. He was a terrible king. This was something that Samuel, the great prophet himself, could not understand and he mourned for days when it was clear that Saul was a lost cause. He mourned for days, and God had to wake him and say, “Are you still mourning for Saul? I have someone else.” And so, David is chosen, and even he has this deep flaw and falls in this horrible way. And the books Kings and Chronicles after that are just one after another, kings of Judah who had these terrible flaws. I mention all this just to say that surely we’re to learn from scriptural histories that no earthly system is going to work.

Eventually we’ll all fall to killing ourselves, going to war, and all sorts of other follies because what we’re longing for and don’t have yet is a perfect king in Jesus Christ. I actually think that in the Saul and David dynamic that David is the kind of hoped-for and longed-for Christ figure, and Saul is the earthly king who is always jealous of him because Jesus Christ is going to have his throne and he knows it. And so he (Saul) is always trying to do him (David) in, and can’t. The same dynamic is at work – earthly powers don’t like Christ kind of edging in on what they perceive as their power, and they’ll lash out at him.

I got way off topic somehow.

James: That’s ok.  As a story-teller, you’re allowed to do that.

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