The Magazine

Speak the Speech

The twilight world of the White House ventriloquists.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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White House Ghosts

Presidents and Their Speechwriters

by Robert Schlesinger

Simon & Schuster, 592 pp., $30

Is there any creature in the world lower or more pitiful than a White House ghostwriter? I mean, yes, maybe a Hollywood scriptwriter. But at least they can strike. And in some instances their bosses are talented.

Imagine you are working for George Herbert Walker Bush, who gave his writers three rules. The first was that he did not like the word "I," as in "I want a bill that's going to stop crime" because that would be insulting to the police who were trying their best. The second Bush decree: His writers shouldn't pen speeches that were too emotional because he wasn't. And the third was that he wanted his speeches packed with a lot of Yogi Berra quotations. "I would rather quote Yogi Berra than Thomas Jefferson," the leader of the free world, as he was then called, told staffers.

Whatever happened to the proposed era of Berra-isms, one wonders? Why wasn't Yogi offered a few bad meals at the White House mess in return for a few mauvais mots? "I know Texas has a lot of electrical votes"--Yogi's neat political observation to Bush Sr. would not, perhaps, have guaranteed him a landslide victory in 1992. But it might have provided a nice plebeian counterpoint to barcode gaffes at the checkout line.

Alas, White House Ghosts tends to pick up this and other topics and then, without examination or elaboration, toss them, the total effect being like looking at the underside of a tapestry. Lots of threads, no pattern.

In fact, even on completion of this 592-page volume, the reader will remain ignorant of any number of things about presidents and what they are scripted to say. For example: What did these unhappy writers going into the job actually think would be expected of them? Four more years of "a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky" (a disturbing Peggy Noonan landscape, no longer hanging on living room walls). A reprise of "Read my lips: No new taxes" (Noonan as portraitist). A national plague of damp eyes and constricted throats on listening to, "I did not have sex with that woman--Miss Lewinsky"? Come to think of it, the author of that last phrase never is identified in this book.

Startling omissions, however, are only part of the problem. Schlesinger, who is the son of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., speechwriter to John F. Kennedy and famous historian, is a laborious and dutiful chronicler. The early portions of White House Ghosts, devoted to the likes of Warren G. Harding, FDR, Harry Truman, and Ike, are earnest and just a bit dull. The chapter on JFK's speeches and speechwriters, a slight improvement, may indeed be fertile territory; but it is territory that, by now, is pretty well ploughed, and the original ploughers long ago wrote their own books.

It is worth noting that the best passages in White House Ghosts come from the author's own father. Schlesinger the Elder's caustic 45-year-old recipe for State Department policy statements could have been written this morning:

Take a handful of clichés .  .  . repeat at five-minute intervals (lest the argument become clear or interesting), stir in the dough of the passive voice (the active voice assigns responsibility and was therefore hazardous) and garnish with self-serving rhetoric (Congress was unhappy unless we constantly proclaimed the rectitude of American motives).

In a similar vein: When speechwriter Jeff Shesol was debating whether or not to take a job in the Clinton White House at the precise moment that Kenneth Starr seemed poised to sink it, it was once again Schlesinger the Elder who offered some acerbic suggestions. Why not grab such an opportunity? he said. Either way, a speechwriter couldn't lose: "You'll either see a White House fighting for its life or a White House in a state of dissolution, both of which would be very interesting." Besides, he added, the job being dangled wasn't exactly brain surgery: "Have you ever written political speeches before? It's a particularly low form of rhetoric."