White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters
By Robert Schlesinger
Simon & Schuster, 581 pp., illustrated, $30
Speechwriters, President Lyndon B. Johnson told one of his, need to have "a passion for anonymity." Yet the words they write, such as Ted Sorensen's lyrical speeches for President John F. Kennedy, can inspire millions and help transform soaring ideals into realities. Robert Schlesinger's meticulously researched "White House Ghosts" looks at the complicated relationship between speechwriters and the presidents they have served, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush.
The most passionate, insightful pages of this book concern the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses. President Johnson resented being in the shadow of the martyred, glamorous Kennedy. Where Kennedy and Sorensen might appeal to idealists ("Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country"), the earthy Johnson preferred a more understated style. He once draped an arm around Harvard-educated speechwriter Dick Goodwin, a Kennedy holdover, and told him, "No more of that Ivy League crap, huh?"
Schlesinger shows how closely Kennedy and Sorensen collaborated, and how intimately Sorensen understood Kennedy's political worldview. As to who "wrote" Kennedy's speeches, Schlesinger approvingly quotes Sorensen himself: "John F. Kennedy was the author - in the true sense of that word," because "he was putting his name and reputation at stake."
As Schlesinger makes clear, Sorensen played a crucial role in resolving the Cuban missile crisis by writing multiple drafts of Kennedy's speech over several days, attempting to foresee the consequences of different policy options. "Setting policy into words raised new questions and exposed possible weaknesses," writes Schlesinger of Sorensen's role. "And choosing the right words for the speech itself helped set the terms of the international debate."
Sorensen's beneficial influence on policymaking has not always occurred with other presidents. President George W. Bush's speechwriters, for instance, were unable to come up with an overriding, consistent rationale for invading Iraq. Schlesinger describes how Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, at a meeting of the pre-invasion White House Iraq Group, developed one much-used rationale: that we don't want "the smoking gun" proving the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction to "come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
Schlesinger demonstrates that most presidents have been dissatisfied with their speechwriters. The micromanaging Jimmy Carter even forwarded tips on grammar and usage to his speechwriters, instructing them to "avoid split infinitives, avoid ending sentences with prepositions." Like fellow Southerner Bill Clinton, Carter liked to depart from prepared texts, much to the consternation of his speechwriters. President Nixon endlessly urged his wordsmiths to add more colorful anecdotes and folksy touches: "They don't get in tune with the people enough," bemoaned Nixon. "The speeches they send over to me, there's no fire in the belly."
Schlesinger also highlights the common problem of having too many people involved in the speechwriting process. Among Ronald Reagan's speechwriters, he notes, there was a battle between "red meat" conservatives (such as Anthony Dolan, who coined the phrase "evil empire" to describe the Soviet Union) and pragmatists, who wanted a more centrist approach.
Both historical and analytical, Schlesinger's narrative details the tension between style and substance, poetry and policy, that confronts every speechwriter. It's not an easy role. In the final chapter, the author shows us speechwriters trying to get a peeved President Bush to quote Franklin D. Roosevelt in a speech written shortly after the 9/11 attacks: "I don't want to quote anyone!" Bush complains. "I want to lead! I want to be the guy they quote!"
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.