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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
It would seem that the most important element in. any presidential utterance should be its convincing sincerity. It should reveal the author’s true self, that indefinable quality which makes his words glow and shine. Group co-operation, even when it is sympathetic, intelligent, and soundly interpretive, could not have been, and cannot be, a substitute for the individual genius of a Lincoln or a Wilson or a Churchill. Who but Churchill could have declared of Anglo-American friendship, “Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days”? What conceivable ghost writer could have put into his mouth, in 1946, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain ∗ has descended”? Aut Caesar aut nullus ! Inspiration is still a highly personal gift of the Great Gods. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Grand Patron of Ghost Writers, was never more impressive than in his first inaugural, described by Rosenman as “one of those very few of which the President wrote the first draft in his own hand.”
∗Yet the words “iron curtain” were not his but, according to the London Times , those of Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk, Hitler’s minister of finance, and were used by Goebbels in his propaganda material for some years before Churchill adopted them. [Ed.]
Ghost writers cannot help being discreet and unadventurous. Aware of their responsibility, they have constantly on their minds the disasters that a few careless words may cause. Naturally they tend to weaken adjectives and tone down extravagances. In pondering over every syllable, they dilute spontaneity. Experience has shown, I believe, that the statesman with his own gift of expression, even when he blunders, moves more directly to the hearts of his listeners than if he is merely voicing sentences framed by others.
Nothing that has been said in our country since 1865 has equaled Lincoln’s profoundly moving second inaugural, described by Charles Francis Adams as “being for all time the historical keynote” of the Civil War, and written entirely in his own hand. Nowadays we have all the devices of professional advertising—the emphasis on stage setting, the artificial dramatization, the searching scrutiny of each phrase, the practiced intonation of almost every syllable; but all these cannot, in my judgment, compare with a simple dedicated leader talking directly to his people. The ghost writer cannot and probably should not be discarded. In these busier and busier times he protects statesmen and saves them energy and labor, even though, as Ernest R. May has said, “Ghost writers have built an impenetrable thicket about the truth.” This is doubtless an exaggeration, difficult to substantiate. But when a nation needs to be aroused, we almost instinctively respond to the Great Man himself, standing alone with no ghosts in the background. And some of us prefer to have his words and gestures all his own!