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."
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.