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Schlesinger's 'White House Ghosts': From the Oval Office desk to our ears

The success of Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy has focused renewed attention on the importance of inspirational rhetoric in American politics. Presidents are not merely policymakers-in-chief, and their words can be as important as their deeds.

Those interested in learning about how presidential speeches are written — sometimes in a surprisingly haphazard manner — will get a great deal out of reading White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters. Boston University professor Robert Schlesinger gives readers a behind-the-scenes tour of White House speechwriting, from the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt through that of George W. Bush.

While Oval Office occupants have long benefited from the work of talented wordsmiths, one of the biggest revelations in Schlesinger's book is how involved many presidents themselves have been in the writing and editing process.

President Clinton, for example, often drove staff members to distraction by making changes in key speeches moments before he was scheduled to deliver them.

By contrast, President Kennedy (an avid student of history and rhetoric) was also deeply involved in the writing, but went about it in a somewhat more orderly manner. Kennedy apparently wasn't much of an expert on grammar and spelling but "had a knack for tightening phraseology and sharpening thoughts,'' according to the author.

Schlesinger, the son of former Kennedy aide and speechwriter Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., spends considerable time on the Kennedy presidency, with mixed results. The backstage maneuverings, many of which have been discussed elsewhere, are concisely summarized. However, Schlesinger seems eager to use the book to settle scores on behalf of his late father.

Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's chief speechwriter and a rival of the elder Schlesinger, is described as a "territorial writer.'' Most of the quotes about Sorensen are along the lines of this one from JFK speechwriter Richard Goodwin: "Even to this day he (Sorensen) is unaware of the extent to which (other members of the White House staff) disliked him.'' Not surprisingly, many of the elder Schlesinger's bureaucratic victories over Sorensen are recounted in great detail.

In most of the book, however, Schlesinger sticks to being a fair reporter. There is little of his own voice in the book, though he uses his reportorial eye to give detailed descriptions of the physical traits of many of the people he interviewed.

He has no ideological ax to grind and gives equal treatment to those on all sides of the various conflicts within the 12 White House staffs that are profiled and analyzed. Given all the backbiting and maneuvering, one wonders how anyone had time to put pen to paper.

The behind-the-scenes stories of the Reagan administration are especially revelatory. While much has been written about the fight between the moderates and pragmatists, there were equally sharp battle lines drawn between those who liked soaring, colorful rhetoric and those who favored having the Great Communicator speak more cautiously.

Schlesinger recounts the back-and-forth that preceded Reagan's March 1983 speech in which he described the Soviet Union as the "evil empire.'' Reagan's senior aides kept deleting that phrase, and others they believed were too inflammatory, but key conservatives on the speechwriting staff kept putting it back in.

Eventually, the senior aides relented and kept the conservative language in the text sent to Reagan, believing that the speech was a minor one and would garner little national attention. Reagan kept the conservative lines on domestic and foreign policy when he delivered the speech.

The author notes the mixed reaction. Those in the audience, members of the National Association of Evangelicals, interrupted the speech often with applause. By contrast, many liberals were aghast. Rick Hertzberg, a speechwriter for President Carter, wrote that the speech was "not presidential, not something a president should say.''

Presidents who paid less attention to the importance of how to communicate their message paid a price at the ballot box. Schlesinger describes the frustration felt by those who worked for Carter and the first President Bush, both of whom felt that if they focused on the substance it would not matter how well they spoke to the American people.

When Bush broke his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, he declined to give a speech explaining his shift, a sharp contrast to the way Reagan had handled a similar shift.

"It was a case of not giving a speech that damned Bush. Reagan used communications — speeches especially — to set a context in which it was clear that any tax increases must have been enacted over his objections,'' Schlesinger writes.

That kind of historical analysis — and some great backstage stories — make White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters a worthwhile book for history buffs and anyone interested in the role of communications in politics.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist.


White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters

By Robert Schlesinger

Simon & Schuster, 592 pages, $30

Schlesinger's 'White House Ghosts': From the Oval Office desk to our ears 05/04/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 4, 2008 4:30am]
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