Political Writing: Ghoulishly Good White House Ghosts

In honor of Independence Day, I was looking back at the Declaration of Independence, adopted on this date in 1776. I considered writing about that fine piece of work, the words that should be imprinted upon every American’s brain: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It truly is gorgeous writing, meant to be uttered aloud, the words savored in the mouth like fine wine.

But then I thought about how, despite the primary authorship of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence is one of the first pieces of American political writing to emerge successfully from editing by committee (Jefferson might disagree as to its success). And that led me to thinking about an amazing book I just finished reading by Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. This book covers the history of political speechwriters from FDR‘s administration up through the end of George W. Bush‘s first term. It’s WordHappy-worthy on two levels: first, Schlesinger himself does a beautiful job of laying out history in relation to a president’s relationship with his advisers and speechwriters. Secondly, the excerpts of the speeches themselves and some of the thoughts of the speechwriters quoted in the book make great reading as well.

As you read each chapter, it is fascinating to see how each president reacted differently to the challenge of communicating with the American people, whether it be on a campaign train, or via radio or television. Even more fascinating is how we learn that occasionally, being a good writer could be a detriment for a president. Jimmy Carter, for example, preferred to write his own speeches and did not use his speechwriters to their potential. But this proved to be his undoing – he did not have enough time to do his own speeches justice, and they were very badly received. [Note to Obama, who is alleged to write much of his own material: If you make it to the White House, sir, learn to delegate the writing.]

It is also fascinating to see how the process has evolved. In FDR’s tenure, he used a small stable of trusted advisers to write his speeches, that he then edited. The editing and clearance by committee apparently can be attributed to Gerald Ford‘s administration, specifically chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. [Please appreciate the strength of character it takes that I am not making any partisan comments about this dubious honor, nor about the writing of “shadow speeches” — speeches not written by the speechwriting department — by Ford’s second chief of staff Dick Cheney. Must. Bite. Tongue.] Schlesinger uses the words of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, to describe the process:

By Noonan’s estimate an insignificant speech would go to twenty people for approval, a major one to fifty. . . This process was “like sending a beautiful newborn fawn out into the jagged wilderness where the grosser animals would pierce its tender flesh and render mortal wounds,” Noonan wrote in her memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution. “But perhaps I understate.”

This book is an absolute must-read in today’s political climate, for anyone who is interested in the leaders running our country and the extremely dedicated men and women trying to craft those leaders’ messages to the public.

Happy July 4th, everyone!

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One Response to “Political Writing: Ghoulishly Good White House Ghosts”

  1. Betty Olson Says:

    Had just picked this book up at the library and am looking forward to it – especially now that it appears that reading it will be time well spent!

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