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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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Is it really so low? Well--yes. Ventriloquism never has been considered the loftiest form of entertainment. Even when the substance is pretty good (rare enough, given all the White House meddlers) you may still have to look down one day and find some speaker like Jimmy Carter delivering it from your lap. And anyway, modern-day presidents don't really want the citizenry to know quite what they are saying. Such lines as "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America" (speechwriter David Kusnet ventriloquizing for Clinton) or "I ask you to live your lives and hug your children" (Karen Hughes pulling W's strings) or "The kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it" (vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon spoon-fed by--who knows? It's not in the book) most often provoke a simple reaction in the listener: Huh? What the hell is the Big Guy trying to say?

Like many historians, Schlesinger the Younger draws no obvious conclusions (the book might have been better if he had); but if one can extrapolate, it does seem that he dates the downfall of speechwriting to Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson who advised his aides, "You've got to write it so that the charwoman who cleans the building across the street can understand it."

Unfortunately, after a year or so, the average LBJ speech sounded as though the charwoman had written it. This was the result, as the author reveals in a footnote (again referencing his father) of the president's insistence that every sentence had to be made into a new paragraph. Schlesinger the Elder was clearly disgusted on being given these instructions by Theodore Sorenson: "The real triumph is to divide each sentence into several paragraphs," he wrote in his journal in 1964.

If only Schlesinger the Younger shared that wicked touch. Footnotes are the usual repository of such insights as the book has to offer. It is only in brackets, for example, that we learn that, after the Lewinsky scandal erupted, "the need to excise potential double entendres did not end with the State of the Union; some speechwriters kept a running list of deleted lines that became 'very, very long.'" In another, we discover that Peggy Noonan never has managed to figure out why she assigned such a very high number to her points of light: "A thousand clowns, a thousand days," she ruminates, "a hundred wasn't enough." And in a third exhilarating footnote, the author mentions that when Hendrick Hertzberg, then a ghostwriter for a defeated Jimmy Carter, was packing up, he was good enough to leave a vital six-word message on the word processor: "Get your mess privileges right away."

Ken Khachigian, who wrote for Ronald Reagan, recognizing the symbolic and practical value of spending a companionable lunch with the bigwigs, did just that. Which--who knows exactly what jump-starts history?--may account for a lot of other interesting events that occurred during that administration.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.