The State of the Union address did not carry a line of credits to Bently T. Elliot and all the guys at the White House. It will go down in history as the words of the Great Communicator, not the Great Communicator's speechwriters.
There is no surprise in this, no cause for scandal or even a lifted eyebrow. It is not just the actor-politician who says what others have written. Few of our leaders write their own words these days or these decades.
The ghostwriter was surely a shadowy figure when the word first appeared in the 1880s -- someone who "unknown to the public does literary or artistic work for which another gets all the credit and most of the cash." But now the ghostwriter is an official speechwriter or even a co-author.
What was once done in secret is now done in a half-light. The hired political pen, or hired word-processor of the 1980s, is at least known to those in the know. It was Peggy Noonan who wrote the eloquent words delivered by the president after the shuttle disaster. Anthony Dolan gets the credit or debit for the "evil empire" speech. Josh Gilder copped the Clint Eastwood phrase "Go ahead, make my day."
Even the State of the Union address comes with its behind-the-TelePrompter gossip. It was patched uneasily, or so they say, by a quilting bee of arguing writers and policymakers. The end result sounded for all the world like a generic speech right off the political supermarket shelf. "America is on the move . . . . Americans are striding forward to embrace the future."
The rhetoric reminded me of the comedic theme of George Lee Walker's crackling new novel, "Doodah." In his fantasy of corporate life, a speechwriter (not unlike Walker himself) finally breaks down and babbles that everything written for the chairman boils down to "Doodah, doodah . . . ."
Today, we are not only more open about the role of these shadow figures, we are also more accepting. No pol is embarrassed to have writers. The demands that events and the media make for something new can't be stated by one person. Writers have become another group of specialists, word specialists, who put political ideas on paper the way a draftsman might shape his client's idea of a house.
But I think we have become too accepting. Three of the top books on the latest national best-seller lists -- "Iacocca," "Yeager" and "Elvis and Me" -- were not written by Lee or Chuck or Priscilla. They were written by William Novak and Leo Janos and Sandra Harmon. Yet it is unabashedly, predictably, Iacocca, Yeager and Presley who stand up when the talk shows call "author, author."
In politics as well we reverse the theatrical rules. The audience assigns authorship to the person who delivers the lines, rather than to the person who writes them. We know what the president "said" today, when in fact he may only have read it today.
I don't suggest that writers are putting words in the mouths of puppet presidents. As Anthony Dolan has said, "Speechwriting in the White House is plagiarizing Ronald Reagan." The boss is both the primary source and the final editor. Yet some of those famous Reaganisms are Noonanisms or Dolanisms. There is a gap between speech and speaker.
As a writer I may be prejudiced, but I am convinced that the very process of writing is one of struggling with ideas and making a commitment to them. Someone who does not write his own "stuff" may skip the stuff of thinking. Someone who doesn't craft his own lines can more easily treat them as a store-bought commodity readily replaced by a new, improved product.
This may be one answer to the grand mystery of the Reagan administration, the president's ability to say absolutely anything, to misspeak time and again, and pay no price in the public mind. We don't hold him to his word. We have become so conditioned to the separation of speech and speaker over the years, that words themselves may have lost their importance. Even those of the Great Communicator.
When speech is divorced from speaker and words from meaning, what is left is just ritual, language as ritual. This is the state of the disunion: "America is on the move! . . . Americans are striding forward to embrace the future." Doodah. Doodah.