Signed a contract last week to write his...


August 26, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GEN. COLIN POWELL signed a contract last week to write his memoirs. "Powell's next task is to choose a ghostwriter," the Washington Post reported.

He probably shouldn't, if he wants his book to live and/or to get him in the White House. The two greatest books in that genre were un-ghosted.

Dwight Eisenhower's decision not to use a ghost surely helped make him president.

Ike's book did not make him as rich as Powell's will make him. Powell got between $6 million and $6.5 million advance against royalties. If the book sells a couple of million copies -- a lot -- he might get more.

Ike, in 1948, as he retired as Army chief of staff, took a flat amount, $635,000 for "Crusade in Europe," a memoir that emphasized his supreme commander role in Europe in World War II. That made him richer by far than he'd ever been before, but if he had negotiated an advance-against-royalties deal, he would have become far richer, and his estate would still be earning money off the book. A biographer wrote 40 years after "Crusade" that it had been published in 23 languages, sold uncounted millions and was probably second only to Dr. Spock's baby book in total non-fiction sales in this century.

If that was a surprise to the general public, so was the quality of the book. It drew raves from Democrats and Republicans alike. (Of course, Democrats and Republicans alike claimed Ike as one of theirs in 1948.) Literary figures and historians praised the book for the "simplicity" and "clarity" and "forthrightness" and "manliness" of the prose.

A surprise to the uninitiated but not to those who had followed Ike's career before 1948. He had been Douglas MacArthur's speechwriter at one phase in his career. Thereafter he was said to keep two books with him almost all the time, according to journalist-biographer John Gunther: "Fowler's Modern English Usage" and "Technical English." Gunther also reported that during World War II's Sicilian campaign, Ike had to dictate a memo to the people of Malta. Ike's aides were off, so Gunther took it down. Ike kept changing words. He said it had to be "exquisite." A writer's writer.

When it came time to write "Crusade," Ike, ever the chief of staff, organized a team approach. He would dictate a chapter to a secretary; while she was transcribing it, he'd start on another chapter with a second secretary; when the first was typed it would go to a Pentagon historian to check the facts, and while the second was being typed a third secretary was dictated to . . . This went on for three months, early morning to late at night. Ike had a research assistant and a book publisher and a newspaper editor assisting him in changing spoken thoughts into written ones at times, but they were in no sense ghosts.

Eisenhower's model for his prose was a book by another American soldier-hero who became president.

Monday: "Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant."

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