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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
In these respects it was far from unique, for the state papers of Presidents from Johnson to McKinley are for the most part dull and dreary. They have almost no individual quality. Hayes is not much different from Arthur, and both are much like Harrison. The only phrase worth rescuing from the prolonged verbiage is Cleveland’s massive “innocuous desuetude,” which was apparently his own conception. “A public office is a public trust,” often attributed to him, was actually used by Dorman B. Eaton as early as 1881. A few skilled ghost writers could at least have supplied to these undistinguished presidential papers a little warmth, color, and human appeal.
Cleveland, whose utterances in public or private were far from sprightly, relied to a considerable extent on his secretary, Daniel S. Lamont. In his inaugural address he used no manuscript—an extraordinary procedure, which led Ingalls to describe him as a “magnificent gambler.” When the President went on a vacation trip to the Adirondacks, he took along neither clerk nor secretary and composed whatever letters were necessary in longhand. “I feel safer alone,” he once remarked to Robert Lincoln O’Brien. He sat up all night revising Secretary Olney’s Venezuelan Message of December 17, 1895, pondering just how far he should go in threatening Great Britain with war. In this instance, two or three ghostly advisers, in consultation, would doubtless have softened the tone of that belligerent document.
We should all agree, I think, that Theodore Roosevelt was the first truly literary President after Lincoln. He was a talented writer, vigorous and dynamic, with a sensitivitv for stvle and a feeling for the vibrant, potent phrase. Many of these are familiar quotations: “the doctrine of the strenuous life”; “the lunatic fringe in all reform movements”; “malefactors of great wealth”; the “nature-faker” and the “men with the muck-rake.” Commenting on the reactions of Roosevelt’s audiences, Hermann Hagedorn recently said, “What they heard when he spoke were not words; they were a life, speaking to their lives; and no life, nobly lived, is a platitude.”
T. R. was not averse to consulting others. Indeed, he submitted his first message to Congress not only to Root and Knox but also to Mark Hanna; and he allowed the rather fussy Henry Cabot Lodge to check his 1905 inaugural address for solecisms and infelicities. But he employed no ghost writers, and would not have tolerated them in the White House offices. Very few Presidents have put so much of themselves into their speeches. As an illustration I must quote one completely unpolitical passage, a favorite of mine: It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again … who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
With its reference to “dust and sweat and blood,” this sounds like a prelude to Winston Churchill, and, like much of the Prime Minister’s matchless prose, it has the resonance of trumpets. It possesses also the merit of illuminating the character of the man who said it. Ghost writers would have emasculated it.
Woodrow Wilson, the most scholarly of our Presidents, also felt no need for ghost writers. Like many other college professors, he had early learned how to use a typewriter, not by the “touch system” of professionals but by the commonplace method of “seek-andpoke.” The machine was an extension of his personality, an intimate tape recorder of his mind. In February, 1913, after his election as President, he had a secret alcove shut off in the Princeton University Library, slipped in one morning, and locked himself up in the stacks. There he drafted his first inaugural, transferring notes in his private shorthand to his Smith Premier. It was one of the shortest and “snappiest” in American history, and every word was his own. Nobody else, except possibly Mrs. Wilson, knew in advance what he intended to say.