A History of the Presidency - Presidential ghost writers





By the same system, presidential speeches are rarely the work of the president himself. George Washing-ton's celebrated Farewell Address, which was so influential during the long period of American isolation from world affairs, was the work mostly of Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury. When James K. Polk asked Congress for a declaration of war against Mexico in 1846, his words were written by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, the most distinguished American historian of the time. Years later Bancroft was again the presidential amanuensis, this time of Andrew Johnson. Understandably, being able to write well is not an ordinary requirement in a chief executive. The most accomplished penman among all the presidents was Theodore Roosevelt, who earned substantial royalties for his works of history.

The last president who wrote his own speeches was Woodrow Wilson, using a typewriter that he had used as a productive scholar in earlier years. Franklin Roosevelt leaned heavily on the poet Archibald MacLeish, the playwright Robert Sherwood, Judge Samuel I. Rosenman, and Harry Hopkins, who was often called the president's alter ego. Hopkins wrote FDR's third inaugural address. Still the many drafts of some of Roosevelt's speeches extant in the FDR Library at Hyde Park, New York, show how much the phrasing was in fact the president's. Roosevelt himself was the author of his powerful "day of infamy" speech delivered before Congress the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

Speechwriters often are the men and women who have the "passion for anonymity" that Franklin Roosevelt hoped to find in his intimates. Their identity becomes known, though, and deserves to be, for they are the makers in a substantial way of the nation's patriotic slogans and political maxims. Eisenhower, who was a superior writer himself, leaned nevertheless on several helpers including Edward Mead Earle, an historian who labored on Ike's first book, Crusade in Europe (1948), a memoir of the conquest of Nazi Germany. As chief executive, Eisenhower relied on a team, as all recent presidents have done. His included particularly Emmet John Hughes of Life magazine, and C. D. Jackson, a former editor of Time. Eisenhower's Farewell Address in January 1961 contained his memorable warning against the corrosive influence of the "military-industrial complex." The text was substantially the work of Malcolm C. Moos, a political scientist and newspaper editor, and a friend of Eisenhower's brother, Milton, then president of Johns Hopkins University. Theodore Sorensen, a Nebraska-born lawyer, was the principal author of some of President Kennedy's best speeches including his distinguished inaugural address. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage (1955), which earned him a Pulitzer Prize and was so influential in helping enlarge his reputation on the eve of his campaign for the presidency, was the product of skillful ghostwriting by Sorenson and others.

Richard Nixon was admirably served by William Safire, who later became a widely read political columnist for the New York Times. Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush used the talent of Peggy Noonan as their writer. Noonan was responsible most notably for Bush's promise not to raise taxes—"Read my Lips!"—that may have helped cost the president the election of 1992. George W. Bush has the services of Michael Gerson and Susan Hughes, who like their recent predecessors, have the ability to mesh their own style of writing with the speaking cadences as well as the thoughts of their principal.

None of these facts should suggest that the president is a ventriloquist's dummy. All the recent presidents have worked over the drafts submitted to them for important speeches so that when the finished product becomes public the president can say, in most cases, it is his own. The public was recently surprised to learn that despite the general impression that he delegated the task, Reagan often prepared even first drafts of his own speeches. The president must deliver so many talks today and meet so many foreign guests who often are accorded state dinners that he could not possibly spend his time researching appropriate remarks, greetings, and toasts that have to come from the head table. Assistant speech-writers draft these ceremonial comments.




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