Lessons from a Speechwriter: A Conversation with Barton Swaim

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Barton Swaim is a writer who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Weekly Standard. He holds a doctorate of english from the University of Edinburgh. From 2007 to 2010 he worked for South Carolina’s Governor, Mark Sanford as communications officer and speechwriter. His first book, that caught a great deal of national attention, is titled The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. Barton Swaim, welcome to Thinking In Public.


MOHLER: Barton, your book, The Speechwriter, that was published back in 2015, instantly became a discussion point amongst people who, first of all, are just interested in politics, but beyond that those who are interested in words. In it, you tell an incredible story, indirectly at points. But, how did this book come to be? How did Barton Swaim come to write The Speechwriter?

SWAIM: Well, I had to. That’s the trouble with writers. If we see something that is a story worth telling, we just have to tell it. So, I think I’m right in saying that I knew I would write a book about my experience in the statehouse. After just a couple of months working there I realized it is just a crazy place. It’s a very funny place. And there are some pretty terrible things that go on there. It was just funny to me…

MOHLER: Well your book turns out to be quite a funny book, partly because you must be a humorous writer, and a humorous man, first of all. But you also see the humor in the crazy world into which you stepped when you became speechwriter for SC Governor Mark Sanford. Even that seen about how you were first introduced to the job, is to me somewhat of a classic of a young man’s introduction to politics. Tell that story.

SWAIM: I was a struggling writer. I had gotten a doctorate in english literature. And like a lot of people with doctorates in english lit., I didn’t have a job. I had also always fancied politics and saw myself working in it somehow, someday. So I sent this interesting politician – who lived here in Columbia, the governor – a resume. I must have sent it at the right time. Maybe when their other speechwriter was getting fired. Which should’ve told me something. So, I found myself sort of suddenly in his office and we hit it off well. I didn’t know anything about state politics, but you don’t have to know much about state politics to be a speech writer. It’s like being a writer: You don’t have to know much about anything, you just have to sound like you do. So there I was. And it went well for about 2 weeks! Then it went south. And in some terrible ways – maybe funny in retrospect.

MOHLER: Well this became one of the big stories in American politics, and at a moment when it was completely unexpected. The breakdown of a governor and his administration. In the most bizarre story that no one really would have believed it. But in terms of what it means to be a speechwriter, and out of respect for the english language, I think that one of the most interesting things in the beginning of your book is when politicians meet the english language it’s often just not pretty. By the time you finish your book you’re convinced that it’s probably not an accident. What happens when a politician collides with the english language?

SWAIM: Right, that’s a good way of putting it. Politicians hire good writers for a good reason: they are good at some things, but not a stringing words together. But they need to be able to do that in their job. A politicians only real weapon is words. And if he’s not good at it, he needs to hire someone who can do it for him, at least in the written form. But a lot of politicians – this is certainly true for someone I’ve worked for – think that they actually are good writers. And they hire speechwriters, and it’s the case for a lot of people, mainly to save time. They don’t hire you because they think you are better at putting words together than they. They hire you to put together the words that they would have put together if they had had time. That’s a dicey situation because in most cases they are just not very apt in speechwriting. So, what I end up having to do is write the way my boss would have written – which is badly. In fact, I wanted to call the book “Learning to Write Badly”. That’s not a good title, but it does sum it up. Part of it is figuring out how to write in a bad way, even though you were hired to write well. You have to string words together in really awkward ways, even against your nature. So that was an adventure.

MOHLER: I’d say it was! I gave a speech today on Theodore Roosevelt. Now, he made the english language his friend. But of course, he was a published writer by the time he graduated from Harvard in 1880. He went on to write 35 books. You can think of other presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt with his fireside chats. Or you think of Ronald Reagan, the great communicator. I was recently reading one of his notecards for a speech and it’s fascinating that he made just a few words evident on his card, and he even spelled those words phonetically. He’s very aware that what matters is how he is heard. No one is going to read his note card. He also made the english language his friend. And J.F.K. said of Winston Churchill that he made the english language an army and he sent them to war. But when I look at so much contemporary political discourse, it seems to be particularly vacuous. For instance, the governor you worked for, I think it’s fair to say, when you look at his speeches, he doesn’t really even use sentences.

SWAIM: (Laughter) Right. And his op-eds were in that same style. They were mostly complete sentences, but they weren’t the kind of sentences that would make you read the next one. They were always calculated to make you stop reading. You couldn’t figure them out. I’m picking on him particularly; a lot of people are not gifted in that way. It’s just that some politicians don’t know they aren’t gifted in that way. It can be tough. In most cases, you wouldn’t want a writer being a governor or president. You wouldn’t want your president struggling over phrases in the middle of the night.


But that’s what writers do. They think about the shape of an op-ed intro for hours. You don’t want your leaders to do that. It’s an unusual gift to be able to befriend the english language and not be a writer, enslaved by languages the way writers are.

MOHLER: When you think about this quandary, though, it raises a question: What is it that gets one elected that isn’t befriending the english language? Also – to state the matter bluntly- Governor Sanford was elected overwhelmingly, so clearly there is a political art these days that is not tied to rhetoric, oratory, or literary ability.

SWAIM: Right. I think that there is now, and has been for a while, an impatience with rhetoric. At this point in the conversation, Donald Trump can make his way in because you can’t talk about politics anymore without talking about Trump. And Trump is in many ways a culmination of this growing sentiment, this growing impatience with boilerplate political rhetoric. He’s the most unrhetorical person. His sentences are simple and short and brutal. He uses them effectively, but when you listen to him you don’t hear a politician trying to justify himself or give his view with that typical vacuous political style by saying just enough without really saying anything. You don’t hear that in Trump. You might hear some terrible things, depending on your point of view, but you don’t hear that. The governor I worked for was in many ways the same thing. He was an anti-rhetorical the way Trump is, but people didn’t like Governor Sanford because of the way he used language or even the things he said. They liked his ideas. But he had a way of seeming like he wasn’t a politician. He was kind of plumpy with his words. But he seemed natural and he seemed like he meant what he said.

MOHLER: Well he wore the same blue blazer for his entire administration and never washed it.

SWAIM: All the stories about his cheapness are true. In fact, the stories don’t do him justice really. He’s really in some ways the real thing.

MOHLER: And I want to make very clear: your book is kind of sad without being cynical. There are just some cynical moments in it, I would have to say, to be sure. But you give the governor his due for being pretty authentically who he was. So that raises a host of questions in terms of this kind of conversation. What are the ethical minefields, or inevitable ethical conflicts, into which a speechwriter for a politician walks. What does that terrain look like? By the time one reads your book, their pretty shell-shocked about just how bad this can get.

SWAIM: Right. Well, I went back and forth on that for a long time. I did want to tell a story that I thought was funny and interesting and helpful in some ways. But I should point out that I did not tell the whole truth, in the sense that I didn’t tell every bad story that there was to tell, I assure you. There were other things that went on, not necessarily perpetuated by the governor himself, but by others. A couple people in the media called the book a “tell all”, and I assure you I did not tell it all. But I wanted to tell this story, and I felt I needed to give the governor his due, which I did. I did admire him, and in some ways I’m still admiring him. The ethics of it all, I don’t know. I was not forced to sign any non-disclosure agreement. And incidentally, I didn’t actually use his name in the book. Not many governors have disappeared and emerged to tell the story of an affair with an Argentinian mistress so it’s pretty clear.

MOHLER: While, you said, they were hiking the Appalachian trail.

SWAIM: (laughter) Right, right. It’s pretty clear who it is. But I didn’t use him name just as a way of suggesting that, look, this is about my story and this is a story about American politics as it exists in many spaces and in many states and has existed this way for a while. It’s a story about politics than about any one politician. I wasn’t trying to hit anybody.

MOHLER: Sure. And by the way you’re not exactly incognito because even though you don’t use his name, it does appear in the flyleaf of your book. There could not be any other governor in any galaxy to whom this could apply other than Mark Sanford. But leaving that for a moment, when I ask about the ethical quandary, what I meant was the larger picture. And getting to this particular politician. What are the ethical issues in writing for another person’s voice. Because when you went to do a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh, you probably didn’t plan to be a South Carolina governor’s speechwriter, but here you are writing words for someone else to speak or mail. What does that look like?

SWAIM: Well, some people think that politicians hire speechwriters because they, the politicians, are dumb and they need somebody to put words in their mouth. That is just not true at all. The chief reason why an elected official would need a speech writer is because that official is expected to speak so often about so many topics and so many venues, it’s unnatural. But if you look at any governor’s typical schedule, and certainly and president’s daily schedule, they are asked to speak so often it’s almost cruel. No normal person can come up with something even passably interesting to say without some help. So, you have a speechwriter who will put in a document: this is what the event is, this is who is sponsoring it, here’s what they’re interested in hearing from you, and here’s some interesting things that we the speechwriters think that you should say. The governor reads what the speechwriters have given him. Then he either makes edits, or might say it verbatim, or he might storm into the speechwriter’s office – as my boss did – and say everything you’ve written is dumb and I want it rewritten. In any case, most relationships between a politician and a writer, the process is a collaborative one. It’s not “hey I don’t know what to say here just give me the words and I’ll say them.” That has happened in some cases. But it’s not very productive. I’ve found that the job in some ways was rewarding, not in others. But if only we asked our politicians to speak less, not demand that they say something every moment of the day, maybe they wouldn’t need to be helped so much by writers. But this is what we want from our politicians. We want them to talk about everything all the time. So, they need help.

MOHLER: And endless letters, because you talk about taking on some of the letter writing. And by the way, this is very frightening to me as a leader. I will speak publicly several times today. But the thought that someone else would frame anything I say is horrifying to me. Now, maybe that’s an ethical issue, maybe it’s a pride issue. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. But I can’t imagine getting up and speaking what someone else has prepared, and mailing something in my name that someone else has written.

But I can’t even list all the points at which I had to respond humorously to your book. At one point you talk about having to write the kinds of letters that a governor’s office has to write; for instance, to a boy who got into a prestigious boys choir. And what was funny about that is that you had to write a letter in the voice of the governor which meant you had to put in phrases that, frankly, you would never speak yourself

SWAIM: No you wouldn’t, you’re right. And, Al, you should not run for office. 

MOHLER: Got it.

SWAIM: This brings up a larger topic about working for a politician. When you start working for a politician, early on in that office holders career, you are working for ideals, for goals, for principles. The longer the politician stays in office, his staff finds themselves working to perpetuate a political career. I think that is inevitable. At least, I don’t see any counter examples. Certainly that was true of our office. I worked for the second term of a two term governor, and there were days early on that I felt that we were working hard for laudable principles. Other days, particularly in the latter part of tenure, when it was clear that the only reason we show up to work is to defend a political career and advance it in some way. I don’t say that to pick on him, but it’s just inevitable. Maybe that’s why people seek term limits, I don’t know. But, as a writer, so much of what I was doing, like sending out letters in the governor’s voice, was only to make his name and reputation as widely disseminated as possible. He’s a politician. He needs people to like him in order to succeed, win votes, or win favor to get something done.

MOHLER: You might also point out that these letters have meaning to many people that receive them. A high schooler receiving a letter from the governor congratulating him on his achievement: that’s not nothing. There’s something to that.

SWAIM: Right, and look, the governor I worked for was a letter writer. Raised in the south, when Aunt Bethel got you a sweater and you hated it, you didn’t tell her you hated it, you wrote her a thank you note. He was the same way. He felt that people needed a letter from him – especially when they did or said anything nice about him – he would want to write that person a letter, and fair enough. He couldn’t write all these people letters, or else he’d be writing letters his entire tenure. But, it also happens that there’s a political advantage, especially when you are good at it. I’ve been told that George H. W. Bush was also disciplined in this way, and eh paved the way in the White House with many little notes to various people. That’s a discipline and fair enough.

MOHLER: Yes, and George H.W. Bush, while running for president, would stay up as late as it took to write a thank you note to everyone he believed had sponsored him in an event or helped him within the course of that day. That was legendary to people who were in the administration.

SWAIM: And if you got one of those notes I bet you still have it in your possession somewhere.



MOHLER: The argument that there is a necessary separation of politics from the meaningful use of the english language isn’t new. But it does feel feel newly acute. But as this conversation makes clear, that kind of separation, tragic as it is, has quite a long lineage.


MOHLER: You make another argument in the book. You made the claim that everyone everyone complains of politics separating words from their meanings, and this is part of the reason why: words are useful, but often there meanings are not. Sometimes what you want is feeling rather than meaning; warmth rather than content; and that takes verbiage. “The trick”, you said, “for me was to use the governor’s verbiage rather than the formulaic balderdash of contemporary politics.”

SWAIM: It goes back to the point that politics are asked to speak so often, that when you write for one, your goal is to use verbiage to say something, but you don’t want to commit yourself. People pick on politicians for this all the time, but in their defense, if you ask a politician what he thinks about some issue – and he doesn’t care about the issue since he can’t care about everything – they can’t say they don’t care. He has to say something. So, what he wants to say is as little as possible, without any trouble and making anyone mad, and without committing himself to any course of action he’s not going to take. And I think that’s natural. We probably use language in this way every day. But the longer you’re in politics, you hear it so often that you know it doesn’t mean anything, you become cynical about it. You get tired of hearing it. Yet it’s something you have to produce if you work in a political office. So there’s good and bad in it. I tried to focus on both aspects of the political language.

MOHLER: I think there’s an immediate connection to your book on the part of the reader. I’m thinking of those who would be listening to Thinking In Public, many of whom would be speaking, teaching, and preaching, and there is a real warning in this book about using meaningless phrases even as filler. Sometimes just to be heard saying something without saying anything too specific. You talked about this governor’s habit of using platitudinous observation like “what I’d say”, “going forward”, “where I stand”, “I have every reason to believe”. Well I started stacking those up, and, there are a lot of preachers who do the same thing.

SWAIM: (laughter) We have in Christian circles, I call it, ‘holy verbiage’. And you don’t want to be too hard on preachers.

MOHLER: Hey, “turnabout” is fair play, take your best swing.

SWAIM: Over the years, I tend to hear that Christian verbiage a lot in prayers. The public prayers. For whatever reason, we in the Protestant Evangelical tradition don’t believe we should write out our prayers. Even though we should often. So, extemporaneous prayers end up being themeless collections of Christian platitude. You can know the meaning in most cases, but sometimes you feel like, ‘could you give some shape to this blob of words?’ And it shows up in sermons too. I feel for ministers who, not like politicians in goal, they do have to say something in a lot of cases without saying too much.

MOHLER: True enough. But if you were to describe this as a politician, to use your phrase ‘themeless collections of meaningless platitudes’, you’d have to conclude that with ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that.’

SWAIM: Right! (laughter).

MOHLER: In your book, let’s face it: had there not been the catastrophe of the administration, there probably would not have been so much interest in your book. But part of what makes the book so compelling is that you had an unavoidable and non-volunteered front seat at one of the greatest political meltdowns in American history. What is it like to try to find words in the middle of that?

SWAIM: I mentioned before, I had intended to write a book all along. I didn’t know what shape that would take, or who would be in it, or what I would write about. But, it would be filled with a lot of anecdotes from the office to tell some kind of story. But the more I thought about it, I couldn’t get the narrative arch. It didn’t have a rise and fall. And then this crazy thing happened. One day, the politician I worked for was on top of the world, on TV every other day on cable news…

MOHLER: Mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee.

SWAIM: ….Right. And after the McCain/Palin ticket went down in flames he was mentioned as a big ticket item, as a challenger to Obama in 2012 (so this happened in 2009). One minute, on top of the world as much as a governor could be. Then, in an instant, the butt of a thousand jokes. The object of late night comedy routines. So there was my narrative arch, I didn’t have to come up with one.

I guess the weirdest thing about being a writer for a politician in that situation was that as soon as it happened, my job was no longer to generate language. For one thing, he wasn’t speaking publicly at events; no one wanted to hear from him, maybe. He still might have to speak in some private setting but there were no big events on schedule. But i found that something we had to do was go through a lot of verbiage, that was sent out on routine basis – constituent letters and form letters and such – and take out certain forms of language. I told the story in the book that one day, a deputy chief of staff comes to me and says, “we have a serious problem”. This was 2 weeks after the serious scandal. I said, “What is that?” And she said, “Well the word ‘integrity’ is all over our material. It’s not that I don’t think he has any integrity, it’s just not a word we need to use right now.” Or, there was a letter that went out to people who invite the governor to their weddings. I don’t know why people do this but apparently a lot of people think they need to invite the governor to their wedding. He normally didn’t go, but he would send a letter instead. And we wanted the governor to not send out that letter anymore. He wanted to still send it out, but for me to rewrite it. So I had to write a letter about marriage and its importance, without saying anything about marriage. So it’s that exercise, removing content, that was my primary job for maybe 9 months, until he started speaking publicly again. It was so weird, I mean, how do you not write about that?

MOHLER: I am very thankful you did. I picked up the speechwriter knowing it was coming, but it’s one of those books where I just know that when this book is in my hands, I’m probably not going to eat once I start it. It’s not the kind of book I can pick up and sat down. I read it in a single sitting. I felt myself in the story. It was the intersection of the political reality of the U.S. in our time; of what we’ve done to politics and politicians; of what politicians have done to language. And of what all of us in the culture have been complicit in doing, regarding the meaning of words. The vacuity of our culture. I think of Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. What would we expect from politicians or anyone else, with what we have now inherited?

SWAIM: Yes. I didn’t know about Trump when I wrote the book. But, I think that in some ways he is, for good and evil, the fulfillment of this vacuity – the absence of meaning. I don’t want to go too far into that. But we are in a world now where Trump gets accused of ‘post-truth’ – as people use the term. But we’ve been in a post-truth world for a while now. It’s not new, we’ve been sowing this for a while and now we’re reaping.

MOHLER: We even had a President of the United States say under oath that it all matters what the word “is” means.

SWAIM: Yes and I think a lot about that. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that certain politicians are remembered for certain phrases, or certain acts of evil. I don’t know what it will be for Trump, but for Bill Clinton, it’s that one – the “is is” one.

MOHLER: At this point for Trump I think it’s going to be ‘yuge’ and ‘sad!’. By the way, I think one of the reasons Trump is such a native inhabitant of Twitter, is because Twitter is what we’ve become: 140 characters of ‘sad!’. I hate to say it, but that truly is sad.

SWAIM: (laughter) Yes. He’s really good at it!

MOHLER: No doubt!

SWAIM: He’s just terrific. And there is a talent. There are some things that don’t need to be said in 140 characters and he does it well.

MOHLER: Just about anything that ends with an exclamation point can be said in 140 characters.

I want to shift to a different subject line here. You did do a Ph.D. in English Literature at Edinburgh. You wrote a work on the Enlightenment and argued an interesting thesis that even a London culture of the Enlightenment was essentially driven by Scotland and Scottish figures. And you argue that those Scottish figures were largely influenced by the preaching they had heard. That’s an interesting thesis.

SWAIM: It’s taking me back a little, but yes that’s right. One of the things that I was surprised to learn in studying the 18th century Scotland – but it would apply to England as well – is the degree to which sermons were a part of the culture. I may not get this exactly right, but something like this was the case, that selections of sermons in the late 1800’s were the largest selling form of book in Scotland. It seems extraordinary today, to think people were excited about buying a book of sermons. But they were. People debated whether reading a sermon didn’t have the same effect as hearing it. But it shows the way in which people were interested in that form of discourse. A sermon involved a man talking with authority. No one talked back, at least not in my traditions. And not in the scottish tradition. He speaks God’s word. And there’s a famous question and answer in the Westminster shorter Catechism, that the word of God consists in the hearing but especially the preaching. But the word of God came in this authoritative discourse.  My argument was that culture lead very easily to a culture dominated by essay writers. Essays were much like sermons with an author speaking with presumed authority on a text.

MOHLER: Yes, and the Catechism there states that the preaching of the word is the effectual meaning of the word of God through the sermon. But you mentioned the fact that just about any educated person during the Scottish Enlightenment would be expected to have heard sermon after sermon. At one point I did wonder if you collected words because you used a word in the text that I’ve never seen anyone use. I can only imagine you used it because you’ve collected it and saved it, then used it in that perfect moment: hebdomadal. 

SWAIM: Oh! I love that word!

MOHLER: You said they gave sermons hebdomadally. You know, weekly. But you had used that word on purpose; you had collected it for some time, right?

SWAIM: Well I don’t know if it is an exact synonym for “weekly”…

MOHLER: It’s on a seven day pattern, right?

SWAIM: Right, on a seven day pattern. So, maybe it’s pretty exact. But you’re right, you caught me, I did enjoy using that.

MOHLER: And I’m just guessing, that you could not work hebdomadal into any of governor Sanford’s speeches. Just a guess.

SWAIM: (laughter) I did try though, just to see what would happen.

MOHLER: Okay, a final issue I wanted to discuss with you. You came into a little bit of controversy in recent months over something that matters a great deal to me. You wrote an essay in First Things in which you spoke of the revision of Basic Christianity by the late John Stott. You pointed to a rather intentional move to theological vagueness. A loss of, for instance the doctrine of atonement, that took place in that revision over about a 50 year period. Talk to me about that controversy and how you got into it.

SWAIM: Well, I bought the book – a recent reprint – and I was intending to give it to a friend. And it had been years since I read it. So I started reading on page 1, and the first sentence caught my attention I thought, ‘that doesn’t sound right’. I think in the new version Stott says something like, “Young people today dislike institutions.” I thought, “Well, is that the case? Because they all shell hundreds of thousands of dollars to universities.” So, that made me wonder. Then, I picked up my older version and compared it, and he in fact said, in that first sentence, “Young people are suspicious of institutionalism.” Which is different. So that caught my attention and I started going line by line. The differences were stark. And about every two or three sentences were different in some way. Many of them, small. But some very significant I felt. Some things were sort of like the old high bound religious conservatives like me would care about – like all the references of poetic lines were gone.

MOHLER: And hymns!

SWAIM: Yes, and hymn lines were gone. So I thought, ‘well, I don’t like it but okay.’ Then there were some more theological points that seems to be skirted over slightly. Made less pointed. Now, I think that if you want to do that you need to advertise on the book cover that this is a revised version. There was no indication that the book had been touched, except in a very slight comment by Stott, written not long before he died – that this version had been edited by so and so. That was the only indication. Nothing on the cover like “New Edition” or “Revised Edition” or anything like that. I think it might have said “50 Year Anniversary” but it didn’t say “Wholly Rewritten”! I just think that if you want to rewrite a book, fine. But you have to say so. That book particularly is a very special book to tamper with.

MOHLER: Absolutely!

SWAIM: Many people became Christians because of that book. It’s not going to have the same effect anymore. That book is not going to be as influential as it was a half century ago. And to think that you could just jerk around the language and flatten theological points and take out lines that it’s going to be just as influential, that’s folly to my mind. So I wrote this essay, and it upset people. Primarily, yes, because Eerdmans didn’t do it. It didn’t commission the revision. It was the IVP (InterVarsity Press). The version I had was Eerdmans so I didn’t know. Maybe I should have done more homework on it. But anyways, Eerdmans got quite upset by it. Which is fair, and we came to an agreement, I guess.

MOHLER: But that public exchange was pretty respectful, insofar as it was available to the public. I read all of it out there because I had intense interest in this because I had noticed the very same thing. In particular, the absence of atonement language in so much of the Evangelical literature. And now with this up-to-date version of Stott’s Basic Christianity. So, reconciliation is referenced without direct reference to atonement. Atonement simply disappears. As a theologian, that’s a massive issue. You acknowledged that, but you go on to make another argument that I had not seen made before. It’s very important. It is that even the author of a book does not have the right to change the book and present it as the same book.

SWAIM: Right. I do think that. This isn’t batting averages or some exact science. But, as judgment call, particularly in a book like this that so many people have a deep emotional attachment to, and can remember lines from it, hand it out as gifts, tell stories about when they read it. At some point in the book – I don’t know exactly how to phrase it – but it becomes everybody’s book, not just the authors. Many of hundreds of thousands I feel have some kind of ownership in that book. If you want to change it, it’s a bit like Coke Classic (this may be a stupid parallel), if you’re going to go change the thing that we hold dear, you better admit it upfront and then we’re going to punish you because it’s not what we want, we want the old. It was the almost – not surreptitious – but the quietness of the change that upset me. It was the fact that I had to go line by line and figure out what happened in order to notice it at all.

MOHLER: Yeah and you actually document, according to your math, that two out of every 3 lines of the book had a significant change. By ‘significant’ it means it is no longer the same sentence, to be blunt.

SWAIM: You’re right. I don’t want to say too much about it – people get upset. But, the changing of hymn lines. Some hymn books have these slight alterations. You wouldn’t’ do that to a Milton poem, or a poem by Yeats or Wordsworth. But you can do it to a hymn? If you think it’s theologically objectionable, don’t sing it. If you’re going to sing it, sing the thing that the guy wrote. That could just be a reactionary attitude of mine. But that’s the way I see it.

MOHLER: Yes, and we are used to liberals doing this. This is what liberals do. They take hymns and…

SWAIM: With the constitution!

MOHLER: Yes with the constitution. And with hymns. So, for instance there was the bru-ha-ha quite revealing as it was, about two years ago when the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. wanted to use one of the Getty hymns. They wanted to take out the biblical reference to God’s wrath and atonement. The Getty’s immediately said no, to their credit. But I was in a very conservative church, unquestionably conservative. A church that preaches the gospel, stands by the gospel and contends for the gospel. And there I was on the front row singing “Come Thou Fount of Many Blessings” and the word “interposed” was gone. That is, ‘Christ interposed his precious blood’. Interposed was taken out and now it’s that we are “saved by” his precious blood. Well, that’s not the same thing. The interposition of the blood of Christ and his substitutionary atonement as the propitiation of our sin; that’s not the same thing. If you take out “interposed” you’ve just changed the hymn. Even though it was done by undoubtedly well meaning people. But, you change the sentence, you change the doctrine.

SWAIM: I remember being in a Presbyterian Church, maybe not conservative in this case, and we were singing the great Watts hymn “Oh God Our Help In Ages Past”. The line “time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away”, became, “time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its years away.” So, you didn’t want to say “sons” so you said “years”. But that doesn’t make sense. Time bears years away, is like saying time is time. No, it does away with people, not with itself. So, I wasn’t able to really participate in that part of the service.

MOHLER: Again, that’s followed by the line, “they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” The disappearance of years means nothing, the disappearance of son’s means everything.

SWAIM: That’s right, you don’t have funerals for ‘years’.

MOHLER: Well, we could talk about this kind of thing forever. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. As a matter of fact, we can join in a curmudgeon club to rail against so many of the developments of language and culture around us. But I do want to end with a word of exhortation. I’d like to ask you, as someone who is now one of the most famous political speechwriters of our times, whether you intended to be or not. What would you say, to a young generation of Christians, about the stewardship of words?

SWAIM: I have mixed thoughts on this topic. One thing I do feel is the case: don’t get exercised about the abuse of words in our political sphere. Politics was never a place you went for timeless truth. It’s a sphere of cynical people warring with each other for power, so you need to look elsewhere if you attach sacredness to language. My thoughts on this are still in process. But, I don’t see a lot of hope there; we’ve been post-truth for a while now in the political sphere. But, we do need Christian men and women in that sphere. So, you really need to think through you are theological convictions and your ethical commitments before you go in because you will have to use language in ways that would not be appropriate in other spheres. For instance, as a minister, or in other places. The big thing for me is to not attach so much importance to politics. Politics follows culture. You can win all the elections in the world, but if you’ve lost the culture then you’ve lost. Politics, like advertising, just responds to what’s already there. If you are attuned for politics and like it then have at it and try to make a difference. But, I don’t think that our culture is going to be changed fundamentally by any elected official or group of officials. I just don’t believe it. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong about many things even in politics. I think we’ve all been wrong at times over the last 18 months. My advice is to not take it too seriously and to concentrate on other things instead.

MOHLER: So, about concentrating on other things, you are a writer. You certainly are writing. You’ve written for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. What is your current big project?

SWAIM: I am working on another book. And it’s in the same sphere as The Speechwriter. It will be a fictional account of some things that go on in the political sphere. I won’t say too much about it. But there are so many preposterous and funny things you hear in that sphere. And they need to be laughed at. We should ring our hands at times, but we need to laugh at them. I hope this book will give us reason to laugh at our politics.

MOHLER: There’s something deeply Augustinian about that. I will look forward to seeing that book as well. Barton Swaim, thank you for joining me on Thinking in Public.

SWAIM: It was terrific talking with you Al, thank you.


MOHLER: I certainly enjoyed that conversation with Barton Swaim. His book, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, is one of those books that largely took the political world by storm. It was a surprise book. Here it lands in a political season in which the lessons learned by Barton Swaim, and a very effective way in which he tells the story, was actually a story that had to be told. And of course, the background of it, as he said, he was looking for the narrative arch for his book and it’s hard to come up with a better arch than what landed at his feet catastrophically with the meltdown of the politician he was serving. There are undoubtedly many lessons to learn for all of us in The Speechwriter. There’s the huge, almost epic story, of the meltdown of a man and his public reputation of the collapse of his political dreams. And yet, even as we have this conversation, Mark Sanford is a member of the United States Congress. There are stories within stories here. Then of course, a conversation about language and meaning. I think one of the most interesting arguments that Barton Swaim makes is that politicians need words but often do not need their meanings. Their meanings are often actually, well, in the way of what the politician is trying to do. There’s a danger for all of us in doing the very same thing: using words divorced from their meaning. There is a stewardship of language and of words and of sentences that we should understand as a very important part of our responsibility. It’s not just a literary issue, it’s an ethical issue. Beyond that, there are applications of this to every arena of life. Certainly most pressing, would be the arena of Christian speech, Christian writing, and of course, Christian preaching.

It was also interesting to have that conversation with Barton Swaim about that academic work he did on the Scottish Enlightenment and the centrality of sermons during that age. The absence of that same experience, of just about everyone, hearing sermons, is about more than the loss of a literary form, it’s about the marginalization of Christian speech, and the preaching of God’s word in the larger culture around us.

If nothing else, this kind of conversation underlines that stewardship of words, which should be our concern, no matter whether we are a reader or writer or both, whether we are in the audience or the speaker, or as many of us are at times both, it’s important to recognize that the stewardship of words matters to us all. And it matters for reasons that go far beyond what the secular worldview can yet understand.


Thanks again to my guest, Barton Swaim, for thinking with me today. For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to BoyceCollege.com.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.