- Historic Sites
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
A trivial personal experience illustrates how Presidents arranged such matters in those primitive days. Mr. Coolidge, in one of his weaker moments, had consented to deliver the main address of the sesquicentennial of Phillips Academy, Andover, in May, 1928. About ten days before the great event, “Ted” Clark, the President’s secretary, called me by telephone and asked to have sent to him a book of mine entitled An Old New England School . When Coolidge arrived in Andover, some of us went up to greet him; and as he shook my hand, he smiled and said, “Been readin’ that book of yours!” That he had been doing so was obvious when he spoke his piece, but he transmuted the dry facts to suit his immediate purpose, and his central theme was well thought-out. The spectacle of a President of the United States sitting down of an evening in the White House to read about a New England academy is nowadays so incongruous that it seems to belong to the Paleolithic age. In the 1950’s a ghost team would have had the address neatly typed, bound in buckram, and ready for the President when he boarded the plane. All he would have had to do would be to try not to mispronounce a word.
Mr. Hoover, on his own statement, “never delivered a ghost written speech,” and his secretary adds, “Extensive ghost writing in presidential campaigns began when Mr. Roosevelt set up his ‘brain trust’ in the 1932 campaign.” This is unquestionably true, although Franklin D. Roosevelt had even before that date found ghost writers almost indispensable.
For much of Roosevelt’s later career, Samuel I. Rosenman was Chief Ghost, but among other members of the crew were Rexford Tugwell, Raymond Moley, Harry Hopkins, Robert Sherwood, Adolf Berle, Stanley High, Donald Richberg, and others. In the opening chapter of his Working with Roosevelt , Judge Rosenman describes in detail the process by which he, Hopkins, and Sherwood, on the night of February 21, 1942, prepared in nervous haste one draft after another of a Washington’s Birthday Fireside Chat. The trio, quite different in temperament but all devoted to their chief, went over each sentence word by word, considering always the response of the invisible audience. This particular speech was rather hastily put together, but some addresses regarded as more important required as long as ten days. Often twelve or thirteen drafts were necessary before the President was satisfied.
Rosenman emphasizes the fact that the President always did the final polishing. On this point he says: When in these chapters I say that this person or that one worked on a particular speech or message, I mean that—and that only. I do not mean that any particular speech was Bob Sherwood’s or Ray Moley’s or mine. Because it was not. No matter how frequently the speech assistants were changed through the years, the speeches were always Roosevelt’s. They all expressed the personality, the convictions, the spirit, the mood of Roosevelt No matter who worked with him in the preparation, the finished product was always the same—it was Roosevelt himself.
Rosenman further adds that the group around the President soon learned to imitate his natural methods of expression, indeed almost to understand his mind.
The ghosts were always fearful of the President’s extemporaneous insertions as he read a text which they had scrupulously prepared; indeed, Hopkins, Sherwood, and Rosenman formed a “Society for Prevention of Ad-Libbing.” Roosevelt, of course, was well aware that such spur-of-the-moment additions made the speech seem unmistakably his own.
Even critics of ghostwriting must admit that F. D. R.’s Brain Trusters were responsible for some effective phrasing. “Rendezvous with destiny,” in the 1936 speech accepting renomination, was suggested by “Tommy” Corcoran. The contemptuous reference to the “horse-and-buggy age” was borrowed from a man named George Holmes, through his brother-in-law, Stephen Early. Stanley High contributed “economic royalist,” used at the Philadelphia Convention of 1936. Harold Ickes always claimed the authorship of the “quarantine clause” in the speech of October 5, 1937. Judge Rosenman tells gleefully how the rhythmic sequence of “Martin, Barton, and Fish” occurred almost simultaneously to him and Sherwood. The President, when they chanted it, “grinned from ear to ear,” aware intuitively of its humorous possibilities.
Answering his own question, “Why did not the President sit down and from the beginning write the whole speech himself so that all the words were his alone?” Rosenman said, “There just is not enough time in a President’s day.” But this explanation, though plausible, is not complete. It is difficult to conceive of either Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, even in crowded and critical times, relying on outside assistance as much as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower have done. F. D. R., on the other hand, liked to pick the brains of others, to turn their suggestions over in his mind and, through them, estimate the popular reaction. That the results often justified the procedure cannot well be denied.
In further defense of the practice, it must be admitted that the routine demands on the vitality of any political executive—proclamations for special “Days” and “Weeks” are only one example—have become today so numerous he is usually happy to accept help, particularly when no important decision is involved.