The man behind the president's speeches was called his "thinking machine" and his "writing machine" and, not least of all, his "lying machine." That criticism might have come yesterday -- or almost any time in the past 175 years, because the president was Andrew Jackson, whose aide Amos Kendall sometimes polished his words. Jackson's name-calling political opponent couldn't have guessed how much our awareness and suspicion of people putting words in presidents' mouths would grow.
It's been a long road from Jackson to our age of spin, a distance Robert Schlesinger charts in his often lively, sometimes plodding but always valuable and painstakingly researched "White House Ghosts." The son of the historian and presidential speechwriter Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., he 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 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 policymaking.
Back in the Roosevelt days, political advisers doubled as writers and there was no formal White House writing staff. Then and now, the best ghosts were part mind readers, part ventriloquists, so in tune with the boss that they could mimic his cadences and channel his policies. Even so, Schlesinger points out, it's usually impossible to know where some enduring phrases came from, because they often evolved from an ethereal blend of previous statements and ideas in the White House air. There are exceptions: Louis McHenry Howe wrote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and Malcolm Moos created "the military-industrial complex," the most (maybe the only) famous phrase from the Eisenhower era.
The writing process has grown so complex since then -- with drafts of speeches created or vetted by the State Department or the Defense Department or however many departments have a stake in the subject -- that it can easily result in written-by-committee documents. That method doesn't work any better for presidential speeches than it does for Hollywood movies, but it does create an ideal situation for power plays. One indication of a president's leadership, Schlesinger says, is his ability to lead and control his often squabbling writers.
John F. Kennedy was so astute at circumventing the bureaucracy, and at using public statements to generate policy, that when he decided to give a speech toning down Cold War rhetoric, he worked privately with his adviser and writer Theodore C. Sorensen and even kept the working draft away from the secretaries of State and Defense.
Each president's relationship with his staff becomes a window into his style of governing here, even if Schlesinger prefers to hand readers the evidence and let them draw the conclusions. Lyndon B. Johnson, the master politician, could expertly pit one faction against another, while the good-guy Gerald R. Ford ineffectually refused to take sides to resolve his writers' infighting. The micromanaging Jimmy Carter gave his writers lists of points to make, arranging them with an engineer's precision. The patrician first President Bush disliked using the word "I" in speeches, while Bill Clinton, who fostered an atmosphere of creative chaos, reminded one of his ghosts of a jazz musician, freely riffing on lines the writers gave him. Schlesinger's approach amounts to saying that each administration reflects the president's personality, but the details are no less fascinating for that.
His reluctance to put speechwriting in a fuller context, though, becomes a serious liability by the time he reaches the Reagan years. Oddly, some of Schlesinger's strongest research is in that section, as he describes the wrangling between the "true believers" in the conservative cause (including Peggy Noonan, one of the best known and probably the most eloquent Reagan writer) and "the pragmatists," who accused the ideologues of overreaching and making policy. But such battles seem to exist in isolation from any broader media strategy, even though Reagan's nickname "the Great Communicator" itself calls attention to how aware of spin the public had become by then.
The public's savvy (which doesn't necessarily make media manipulation less effective, just tougher to pull off) has only grown with the rise of the Internet and the 24-hour cable news cycle. Schlesinger notes that George W. Bush's writers were disappointed that only one line from their speech turned up when the president spoke to the country on the night of Sept. 11; he doesn't tell us who wrote the words Bush did use (although he mentions the important role of Karen Hughes, then the president's adviser and formerly his campaign's communications director).
And Schlesinger tends to overstate the impact of single speeches. It's true that after Richard M. Nixon gave a fierce speech announcing that American troops would strike in Cambodia, the "swift and vociferous" backlash, including campus protests, led to the deaths of four students at Kent State University, but surely the policy created those demonstrations, not the strength of the speech.
Pointing to the many recent White House memoirs, Schlesinger concludes that ghosts aren't what they used to be: invisible. It's too bad that the visibility of spin remains an undeveloped issue in such an intriguing book. Still, the next time David Letterman does his regular "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" routine, with exalted sound bites from former presidents followed by a tacky one from Bush, you'll know that "Our long national nightmare is over" were Robert Hartmann's words before they were Ford's. Who might be behind the Bushism "Man, you're lookin' sharp" is anybody's guess.