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Ghosts In The White House
Discreet helpers have worked on the speeches and papers of many Presidents, but a nation in a time of trial will respond best “to the Great Man himself, standing alone”
December 1958 | Volume 10, Issue 1
Again and again in the past few months when President Eisenhower has spoken over television I have heard a listener mutter cynically, “I wonder who concocted that one.” But the concocting process itself is no secret. Everybody understands that more or less hidden advisers have helped to make the talk sound well and that they have checked and rechecked the content to avoid embarrassing “boners.” During the 1956 campaign a newspaper columnist asserted that there were “five principal architects” of the Eisenhower addresses: Emmett J. Hughes, Arthur Larson, Kevin McCann, Gabriel Hauge, and Robert Cutler. The article continued: “The job of all is to take the candidate’s thoughts and general principles and put them into readable, speakable form in which he can present them effectively to the electorate.”
It is assumed that the so-called “ghost writer” has become “a necessity of modern-day, high-speed campaigning.” Dorothy Thompson has said that ghostwriting “is so common today that one can almost say our thoughts are guided by ghosts.” Even a religious co-ordinator has been added to the White House staff. Recent demonstrations, however, have led some critics to long tor the Good Old Days when a President told his story in his own way.
Joint collaboration in the production of state papers is nothing modern. Every schoolboy used to know, and probably now knows, that Washington had aid in preparing his Farewell Address. Our first President, who in several respects resembled our contemporary Chief Executive, often relied on others whose judgment he thought might be valuable. I shall not attempt here to solve the problem of how much and where, which has confused even his best biographers; but the Address was clearly a fine specimen of Teamwork or Composite Construction, in which Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and others had a share.
Once, as a boy in central New York, during a high school course in elocution, I had to memorize and recite a passage by the patriot John Adams, beginning, “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote.” It was supposed to have been spoken ex corde in July, 1776, at a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in reply to a member who had advocated caution. As a matter of record, the remarks attributed to Adams were written by Daniel Webster and delivered by him on August 2, 1826, as part of his “Discourse in Commemoration of the Lives and Services of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.” Adams’ speech was fanciful, for there was no extant report of the argument advanced by him on that occasion. Commenting on its spectral origin, Webster confessed to Millard Fillmore, “I will tell you what is not generally known. I wrote that speech one morning before breakfast, in my library, and when it was finished my paper was wet with my tears.” George Ticknor, who was present, declared that he had never heard Webster when his manner was “so grand and appropriate”; and many years later a schoolboy in the Mohawk Valley received gratefully the prize of a ten dollar gold piece for its repetition.
Webster was himself to profit by a similar display of creative recollection. On March 10, 1818, before the Supreme Court of the United States, he argued convincingly in the Dartmouth College Case, using notes which he had followed at earlier hearings before lower benches. His plea, consuming most of the session for that day, was later written out by him and appeared in editions of his Works . But the portion which everybody remembers was the emotional peroration, not included in the authorized version, but repeated for the first time on July 27, 1853, after Webster’s death, by Rufus Choate in his memorial address at Hanover. As part of his eulogy, Choate cited a version of Webster’s dramatic conclusion sent to him by Professor Chauncey Goodrich 35 years after the event. Goodrich, at the age of 63, recalled the exact wording of a speech which he had heard when he was 28.
According to Goodrich, Webster, after ending his main argument, stood “for some moments” in silence, as if wondering whether to continue. Parenthetically, I wonder whether any orator, however dominating, ever did pause “for some moments.” Even thirty seconds seem to an audience an interminable period of waiting. At any rate, according to Goodrich’s amazing memory, Webster eventually turned, as if by impulse, to the Chief Justice and began the paragraph closing with the immortal words that even Harvard and Amherst graduates can appreciate: “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college—and yet there are those who love it. …” Many listeners wept visibly, quite unashamed, and not all of them were from Hanover. It was unquestionably an exciting incident; but if it had not been for Goodrich’s letter, supplemented by Choate’s inspiration, the phrasing might have been lost forever. In this case, as in that of Webster and Adams, one genius helped to immortalize another.