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Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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A-White House GhostsThe son of presidential speechwriter, historian, and Washington insider Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and teacher of political journalism at Boston University, Robert Schlesinger explores for the first time in White House Ghosts the private writers who help to create our presidents’ public personae.

The Topic: Every president since George Washington has relied on others for advice on crafting and editing speeches. It wasn’t until FDR that it became commonplace—necessary, even—for presidents to use media-savvy, behind-the-scenes wordsmiths to present their ideas to the public. White House Ghosts details how presidents since Roosevelt have used ghostwriters—and, increasingly, committees of those writers—to their advantage. Schlesinger also offers some interesting tidbits: John Steinbeck and Gore Vidal were once aspiring speechwriters; George H. W. Bush requested "a lot of Yogi Berra quotes" in his speeches but disliked using the word "I"; Bill Clinton was like a jazz musician, riffing on his ghosts’ words. These, and many other, anecdotes make the book a paean to the unsung public servants who help presidents shape their messages—and their legacies.
Simon & Schuster. 579 pages. $30. ISBN: 0743291697

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Robert Schlesinger … has written a fascinating and informative account of those men and women whose words have become part of history under the names of the men they wrote for. … Schlesinger is adept at illustrating how successfully—or not—each administration used its speechwriters." Joanne Collings

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Schlesinger, who interviewed more than 90 speechwriters and other White House aides, has written an evenhanded account of the speechwriting for presidents, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to George Walker Bush, with a chapter devoted to each presidency. His episodic history is fluent, well researched and richly detailed." Robert K. Landers

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … The infighting under Eisenhower returned under almost every successor, and Schlesinger’s talent for limning these recurrent conflicts endows the book with drama." David Greenberg

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[Schlesinger] has an innate respect for the ghost’s profession, and argues that, at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the office into the media age by grasping radio’s power, presidents’ ‘political successes often reflected’ their good or bad use of speechwriters. Viewing each subsequent administration through that narrow lens becomes the book’s great limitation, but Mr. Schlesinger makes up for it with his richly detailed sense of the maneuvers behind presidential speeches, from turf battles among staffers to the connection between ghostwriting and policy making." Caryn James

Critical Summary

Schlesinger has written an engaging account of the importance of the ghost writer in the high-stakes world of Oval Office politics, though as the New York Times and a couple of others point out, White House Ghosts lacks the breadth that might have made Schlesinger’s thesis even more powerful, and "his reluctance to put speechwriting in a fuller context … becomes a serious liability by the time he reaches the Ronald Reagan years." Reviewers also cite an overemphasis on the impacts of single speeches, as well as shallow analysis of some other speeches. Still, the book’s narrow scope, Schlesinger’s attention to detail (he interviewed nearly 100 speechwriters), and an "insider" feel will appeal to those interested in history and the role of these relatively obscure—and underappreciated—public servants.

Also Cited

All the Presidents’ Words The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency | Carol Gelderman (1997): In this concise book, Gelderman analyzes the rhetorical "spin" that defines the successful modern-day presidency (from FDR to Clinton)—and makes a strong case for the link between speechwriting and policy making.