It's presidents' brains, not their words, that matter: Oratory: Exorcising ghostwriters will not make governance better - vision and leadership are what matter.

The Argument

March 02, 1997|By DAVID KUSNET | DAVID KUSNET,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Does it matter that recent presidents have had help writing their speeches from everyone from White House wanna-be Pat Buchanan to a former flack for Kentucky Fried Chicken? Is all that borrowed bombast bad for presidents, the political system, and the American people who never know whether their leaders' words are their own?

Or - as I would argue - is the problem with public rhetoric even more fundamental: national leaders without commitments or convictions? If politicians are unwilling or unable to speak their minds, it hardly matters who writes their material.

Far from being an invention of the modern media age - a political parallel to Milli Vanilli lip-syncing their hits - ghostwriting has a proud pedigree dating back to the Founding Fathers. Indeed, it's as old as the Old Testament.

When George Washington needed help writing speeches, he called upon Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. The hero of Valley Forge was acting in the tradition of those who led the Israelites on their long march to freedom. In the Book of Exodus, when a fearful Moses told God that he was "slow of speech and slow of tongue," God commanded him to "put words" in his brother Aaron's mouth.

Still, until recently, ghostwriting was an almost unspoken secret of American politics, mentioned disapprovingly if at all. More than 40 years ago, television commentator Eric Sevareid declared: "We don't understand government leaders who are too busy to write their own speeches, for a man's words are the man's own self." More recently, the New Republic published an expose about ghosted authorship of public figures' speeches, articles, and books under the headline, "The Culture of Plagiarism."

Even the best known scholar of presidential rhetoric, Kathleen Hall Jameison, has hesitated to formulate a unified field theory of the impact of professional speechwriting. In "Eloquence in the Electronic Age," Jameison waxes puritanical attacking "speechwriting's divorce of speech from thought." But, in "Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance," she takes a more tolerant view, saying she does not explore the role of speechwriters because "the presidency is an aggregate of people ... a corporate entity ... [that] encompasses more than a single person."

Now, a biographer and literary critic has stepped in where political scientists and students of public rhetoric have feared to speak definitively. In "All the Presidents' Words: The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency" (Walker and Co., 240 pages), Carol Gelderman explores the history of presidential speechwriting since Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" brought his words into Americans' living rooms.

A professor of English and biographer of the novelists Mary McCarthy and Louis Auchincloss, Gelderman offers a surprisingly sophisticated view of the speechwriters' impact on their presidents' prose. She recognizes a president's need for skilled writers to help draft speeches, but makes the case that these assistants should be close advisers, rather than mere wordsmiths isolated from the policy-making, process.

Thus, her golden age of presidential rhetoric encompasses the presidents from FDR to Lyndon B. Johnson, who had serious policy makers help write their speeches. For Gelderman, presidential speechwriting took the wrong turn when Richard Nixon hired full-time wordsmiths and stuck them in the office building adjoining the White House. And the worst presidential rhetoric came from those presidents who ignored or even demeaned their writers - Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and especially George Bush. Bush cut his writers' salaries, excluded them from the White House mess, and, for a time, put them under the supervision of a fellow who had previously been a publicist for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Gelderman supports her thesis with interviews with current and former presidential speechwriters (including me). Unanimously - and unsurprisingly - these speechwriters ask for more access to their presidents and more of a role in policy-making. This recommendation would make life easier and more interesting for presidential speechwriters But it might not improve presidential speeches.

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