Tribe of Scribes

Reviewed by David Greenberg
Sunday, May 18, 2008


Presidents and Their Speechwriters

By Robert Schlesinger

Simon & Schuster. 581 pp. $30

All presidential speechwriters fear the wills and whims of the men they serve, but no boss was more demanding than Lyndon Johnson. His most onerous rule required that his speeches make news. So one day in 1966, after speechwriter Bob Hardesty wrote some pro forma remarks for Johnson to deliver about the space program, the president curtly sent them back for a last-minute rewrite. Calling around for a newsy tidbit, Hardesty learned, off the record, that NASA was hoping to revive John F. Kennedy's then-stalled moon-landing project. Desperate, Hardesty added to his new draft some dramatic words. "We intend to land the first man on the surface of the moon . . . in this decade of the sixties." Johnson, he expected, would cut the line but stop complaining.

An hour later, space program officials were calling Hardesty. Did he realize he had thrown the Apollo project into chaos? Johnson, it seemed, had delivered the speech without vetting it. That evening, when the president beckoned Hardesty over as he was going home, he feared his days were numbered. But Johnson just smiled. "Now that's what I call a news lead," he purred.

Delightful vignettes like this fill Robert Schlesinger's White House Ghosts. Although the book is more anecdotal and episodic than analytical, its accumulated evidence drives home an often-neglected point: A president's articulation of ideas makes them real. A speechwriter, far from a technician who simply bangs out the phrases to express predetermined policies, invariably helps to shape those policies. Great speeches have done more than voice well-wrought sentiments or lofty calls for change. They have midwifed social programs, joined moral battles, rallied (or squandered) public support and enabled presidents to enter and exit wars.

A journalist and the son of the august historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Robert Schlesinger notes that presidents since George Washington, who enlisted James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in drafting his farewell address, have benefited from authorial assistance. Not until the 1920s, however, did the White House employ a fulltime speechwriter (then called a "literary clerk") in the person of Judson Welliver, a veteran reporter who penned words for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Yet if Welliver remains a cult figure among speechwriters today -- the fraternity of former presidential ghostwriters that meets periodically in Washington bears his name -- he receives only passing mention in Schlesinger's book. White House Ghosts begins in earnest, fairly enough, with Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt outstripped his Oval Office predecessors in many ways, not least in the extent to which he concerned himself with communication -- radio addresses, conferences, the manufacture of publicity. He made ample use of what his cousin Teddy had dubbed the "bully pulpit," and he drew his scribes from the ranks of his favorite policy and political aides: Louis Howe, Samuel Rosenman, Raymond Moley, Rex Tugwell. Only in 1940 did Roosevelt hire a dedicated writer, the playwright and scenarist Robert Sherwood, and even Sherwood worked in close concert with Rosenman and Harry Hopkins.

Subsequent presidents would continue to rely on policy aides to craft speeches -- Harry Truman had Clark Clifford, John F. Kennedy had Ted Sorensen (see the review of his book on page 3) -- but Sherwood's arrival presaged a trend toward speechwriters whose main job was, fittingly, to write speeches. The 32-year-old Emmet Hughes, a former editor at Life magazine, served Dwight Eisenhower as the first aide whose formal title was speechwriter. Under Johnson, Schlesinger writes, the hiring of Hardesty and Will Sparks -- both of whom came to the White House straight from jobs composing for other government officials -- "set a new level of specialization" by marking speechwriting not as the avocation of policy hands but as a full-time vocation in itself.

Yet the emergence of the dedicated speechwriter didn't remove the White House ghosts from policy-making or guiding an administration's course. Hughes enjoyed one-on-one access to Ike, with whom he brainstormed about the substance of speeches, and, like a skilled bureaucrat, he schemed to keep Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and other Cold War hawks away from a conciliatory speech he meant for Eisenhower to deliver about Stalin's death. A preview of the farewell address that warned against a growing military-industrial complex, this earlier speech was, Schlesinger writes, "one of the underappreciated pieces of Cold War eloquence." Dulles was not pleased.

The infighting under Eisenhower returned under almost every successor, and Schlesinger's talent for limning these recurrent conflicts endows the book with drama. It also stresses how much speechwriters appreciated the real-world consequences at stake. We see, for example, how Ronald Reagan's right-wing wordsmiths, known as the "true believers," sparred with James Baker, George Shultz and other so-called "pragmatists" over his foreign policy talks. In Schlesinger's account, the speechwriters emerge as veritable heroes, while Colin Powell and Howard Baker, who urged cutting the line "Tear down that wall" from Reagan's 1987 Berlin speech, appear short-sighted.

In contrast, the case of George H.W. Bush illustrates a different lesson: the perils of letting speechwriting needs dictate policy. The elder's Bush's unkeepable 1988 campaign promise, "Read my lips: No new taxes," written to inject him with Reaganesque machismo, backfired four years later on his road to defeat.

A small disappointment of White House Ghosts is Schlesinger's decision to tell his stories president by president, with each administration getting its own chapter. Though a defensible choice, this method inhibits Schlesinger from teasing out what might be more provocative ways of analyzing how the practice of speechwriting has evolved -- not just according to the styles of the individuals occupying the White House but in accordance with larger, subtler changes in the political culture.

Still, it's illuminating to see how different presidents' characters played out in their speeches. Devious and forever shifting course, Richard Nixon deployed his all-star cast of scribes -- including William Safire and Patrick Buchanan -- like a golfer choosing clubs, matching the writer's ideology and manner to the particularities of the task before him.

Bill Clinton, who reveled in policy minutiae, transformed State of the Union speeches from numbing laundry lists into mini-masterpieces that held audiences spellbound. At times he even helped to alter his presidency's course, as when he vowed in 1998 to use the new budget surplus to "save Social Security first," assuring Americans amid the breaking Monica Lewinsky scandal that his presidency retained an important purpose. That line, Schlesinger relates, happened to be the president's own. "See?" Clinton said to his aides during the speech rehearsal. "I haven't totally lost it."

Inundated as we all are these days by the torrent of political words, it's tempting to dismiss speechwriting -- as Schlesinger's father did to one newcomer to the craft -- as "a particularly low form of rhetoric." It may be that. But for better or worse it is also an indispensable tool of governance, often integral to policy itself. ยท

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, is the author, most recently, of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."

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