Book Offers Window Into Speechwriting

Posted April 21, 2008 at 4:15pm

Veteran political reporter and editor Robert Schlesinger knows a good story when he hears one. And the tales from inside the White House he heard over the years at the Judson Welliver Society of former presidential speechwriters were no exception.

“I thought to myself, ‘Someone should write these down,’” said Schlesinger, whose father was a presidential historian and speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, of the dinner meetings that inspired his first book.

But his initial idea of compiling the stories into a single volume soon took a more substantive turn, as Schlesinger found himself poring over tens of thousands of pages of documents at presidential libraries across the country and logging more than 120 hours of interviews with more than 90 former presidential speechwriters and White House officials.

The final product, “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters,” is a comprehensive account of the speechwriting process, from the relationships between presidents and their scribes to the origins of some of the most memorable words spoken by the nation’s leaders.

The insider’s account offered by Schlesinger, the deputy assistant managing editor of opinions at U.S. News & World Report, also allows the reader to examine the presidency from a new perspective — the prism of speechwriting.

“The driving idea of the book is that such as public speaking is so important to the success of a president, how they deal with that and how they approach it is so important,” Schlesinger said in an interview.

Schlesinger’s book, which was released last week, explores how presidential speeches and the speechwriting process have changed from the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to President George W. Bush.

“One of the themes this book covers is how speechwriting has evolved,” Schlesinger said Wednesday while speaking about the book at the National Archives, later adding, “The rise of mass communications has made speechwriting central to an effective presidency.”

The average of eight public appearances per month made by Herbert Hoover increased to 28 by the time Bill Clinton took office, Schlesinger noted in a question-and-answer sheet distributed by the publisher.

Schlesinger spoke about five of the 12 administrations featured in the book at his recent talk, shedding light on the ways in which different presidents utilized their teams of writers, and how the writers tapped into the presidents’ psyches to pen prose that were in sync with their policy and style.

Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s close relationship with the president allowed him to write in the president’s voice, while Ronald Reagan’s team of speechwriters relied on the president’s long record of public speaking to fashion remarks, Schlesinger said.

“Speechwriters aren’t writing for themselves. They’re not writing with their voice,” Schlesinger said in an interview. “Speechwriters have to get inside the head of their boss and write in their voice, and not simply try to match what they can say but in the best cases try to amplify and elevate to the highest case possible.”

Varying degrees of involvement in speechwriting give insight into differences in leadership styles and legacies of modern presidents, Schlesinger found.

“It’s a sort of reused phrase, but the president is the only person with the bully pulpit, and there is no voice that is amplified like the president,” he said.

The book offers a glimpse into the roots of the speechwriting going on behind the scenes in current presidential campaigns as well. Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) speechwriting team includes a former Sorensen aide, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has recently hired former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully.

Recruiting a strong team of effective and talented speechwriters will be one key component in ensuring the success of the next president, Schlesinger said.

“The incoming president has got to grasp the importance of public speaking and learn how to use that set of tools and not discount that importance,” he said. “Public speaking and the bully pulpit is one tool in a set. It’s not sufficient for an effective president to have that grasp [alone], but certainly it’s necessary.”