Times have changed for presidential speechwriters. In December a photo of Barack Obama’s chief scribe, Jon Favreau, pawing the chest of a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton at a party escaped from Facebook and found its way into the gossip columns. For a few brief moments, the 26-year-old boy genius with a former Maxim model girlfriend and a gift for rhetoric (“Yes we can” is his) was almost as famous as his boss, adding a new and curious chapter to the long history of American political oratory. For a little historical and cultural perspective, try imagining a photograph in The New York Times of Clark Clifford goosing a poster of Thomas Dewey a month after Truman declared victory.
American presidents didn’t even have speechwriters 100 years ago. Before Judson Welliver was hired by Warren Harding in the early 1920s, presidents sought informal help with their speeches, but that was about it. (George Washington bounced farewell address ideas off James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln famously spun incoming Secretary of State William Seward’s line about “the guardian angel of the nation” into the impossibly perfect “better angels of our nature” for his first inaugural.) But with the expansion of the federal government and the proliferation of media outlets during the 20th century, presidents were called upon to deliver ever more public addresses, and White House speechwriting staffs grew to the size of small armies, allowing more and more members of those staffs to creep out from the shadows of anonymity and into the bright light of recognition.
The limelight is a curious place for speechwriters to find themselves. Robert Schlesinger’s new book is called White House Ghosts for a reason: Most of the men and women who made up the speechwriting staffs of 20th-century presidents-from FDR’s “Brains Trust” to Reagan’s “Musketeers” to George W. Bush’s “Troika”-were hired to toil in obscurity. As speechwriters they were trusted advisers, in matters of policy as well as words. But it was always understood that no matter the immediate political significance or long-term cultural impact of any particular phrase, it would be the president who got the credit.
Ted Sorensen, who helped JFK craft his message, summed up the speechwriter’s creed in 2006: “If a man in a high office speaks words which convey his principles and policies and ideas and he’s willing to stand behind them and take whatever blame or therefore [sic] credit go with them, it’s his.” Speechwriters may make their livings with their words, but presidents live and die by them.
Schlesinger maps the evolution of presidential speechwriting with the enthusiasm of a political junkie and a longtime lover of words. (His father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was a writer in the Kennedy White House.) And in the end, it’s the words that live at the heart of his story. Beyond the politics, beyond the hirings and firings, beyond the internal ideological battles and the heart attacks and the larger-than-life-personalities (including Pat Buchanan, William Safire and Peggy Noonan), there are the words. In its most fascinating passages, White House Ghosts reads like a mystery novel, a forensic investigation into the birth and early development of some of the most famous phrases in the English language.
In the book’s first chapter, Schlesinger tracks FDR’s famous exhortation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” from the minds of Roosevelt and his writers Samuel Rosenman, Louis Howe and Raymond Moley back in time through the works of Thoreau, Shakespeare, Cicero, even Epictetus. Then he points out that the line might actually have been inspired by a New York Times piece quoting U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chairman Julius H. Barnes. Or possibly a department store ad Moley had come across in February 1932.
But in the end, it doesn’t really matter where the quote came from. Good writers borrow, great writers steal; as far as history is concerned, it was FDR who put fear in its place.
Josh Rosenblatt is a freelance arts writer and critic in Austin.