Once upon a time, having a speechwriter at all would have been the shameful thing.
Melania Trump’s hijacking of Michelle Obama’s words in her keynote speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday night had the Trump camp immediately blaming her “team” of speechwriters, long before Meredith McIver took responsibility. Meanwhile, the political class is outraged that GOP nominee Donald Trump’s wife did not rely enough on professional speechwriters. The mistake “reinforces dominant themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign,” the New York Times sniffed, including “a reliance on the instincts of the candidate over the judgments of experienced political experts,” like the speechwriters tasked with writing Melania Trump’s speech. “A certain professionalism is expected,” former White House speechwriter Matt Latimer insisted, condemning Trump’s “spontaneous, freewheeling enterprise that actively disdains experienced professionals.”
Once upon a time, “the speechwriter did it” wouldn’t have been the excuse—it would have been the scandal itself. Americans used to prefer the amateur’s natural awkwardness to the practiced pol’s slickness, and thought that using “ghostwriters” or “speechwriters” diluted a president’s authenticity. That was until Franklin D. Roosevelt modernized the presidency, and everything changed.
To Americans in the 1700s and 1800s, delivering a speech was an act of authenticity, not performance art. In speaking your own words, your delivery reflected your integrity. Watching George Washington’s inaugural speech as president on April 26, 1789, Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts was moved by Washington’s nervousness; it suited the occasion’s solemnity. “His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention … produced emotions of the most affecting kind,” Ames later recalled. To him, Washington’s unease reinforced his greatness, it “seemed to me an allegory in which virtue was personified. … Her power over the heart was never greater.”
Half a century later, when General William Henry Harrison ran to fill Washington’s chair in 1840, Harrison’s reliance on a three-man “correspondence committee” to answer his mail offended many. The candidate “must give direct answers to all … reasonable inquiries” concerning his “character and principles,” the Washington Globe charged. Otherwise, why bother the people with elections? Democrats ridiculed “General Harrison’s Thinking Committee.” They dismissed “General Mum” as a “caged” simpleton forced to rely on his “conscience keepers,” a doting old “imbecile” avoiding the public.” These insults finally pierced the general’s armor. He became the first candidate to stump, speaking at military rallies celebrating his victories, while also somehow lapsing into politics to prove himself.
Americans loved a good orator—who spoke sincerely, passionately. And they feared ghostwriters corrupted the dialogue between the president and the people. Those attitudes spawned the legend—which originated in Mary Shipman Andrews’ 1906 book The Perfect Tribute—that Abraham Lincoln relied on notes he scribbled on the back of an envelope in delivering the Gettysburg Address. Americans wanted to believe that, in both preparation and delivery, this greatest of presidential speeches was simple, sincere, spontaneous, making it “the perfect tribute.” Lincoln did write the speech himself, but, like most great writing, it was the result of repeated revising—including the last-minute insertion while speaking, of the words “under God” after the phrase “this nation,” making a national-spiritual link still echoed in the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 1921, Warren Harding hired the first full-time White House speechwriter, Judson Welliver, as a “literary clerk,” but the speechwriter taboo mostly persisted until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded the presidency exponentially. It was common knowledge that Roosevelt did not draft his own speeches. He collected governmental experts as enthusiastically as he did stamps. Raymond Moley, part of Roosevelt’s “brains trust,” said Roosevelt would read almost anything as long as it sounded good. During the 1932 campaign, Moley claimed, when faced with two contradictory drafts for a tariff speech, Roosevelt ordered: “Weave the two together.” Stories like this one proved to his foes that Roosevelt’s dishonest reliance on others’ words reflected a deeper dishonesty in his policies. Roosevelt loyalists, however, insisted that the president still shaped every statement he uttered.
Still, despite their rising profile, ghosts had to remain invisible. After Stanley High pranced through Democratic headquarters in 1936 “proclaiming that he was off to write a speech for the president,” a shocked political operative, Charles Michelson, reprimanded him. Michelson explained that High had violated “the rules of the game, as a ghost is never supposed to admit that he is the author of a great man’s utterance.”
When businessman-turned-pol Wendell Willkie ran against FDR in 1940, he luxuriated in his effort’s spontaneity. At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia he boasted: “I have no campaign manager, no campaign fund, no campaign headquarters. … I have no ghostwriters. I’ve entered into no deals.” He disdained all organizational details.
Boosting Willkie, Republicans echoed the challenge critics first posed in 1936 about Roosevelt: “Do we want a showman or a statesman?” Roosevelt could deliver speeches prepared by the literary staff “as well as any actor can read his lines,” the Chicago Tribune acknowledged. “But can he give and take in a free debate?” Pleased to play the simple citizen against the wily president, Willkie denounced Roosevelt’s “duplicity” and contempt for democracy. “I can’t fake things,” Willkie claimed, as he refused to accept ghostwriters, pose for “phony” pictures or even rehearse for newsreel speeches. These vows proved to a Daily News reporter that Willkie would not be “braintrusted”—the new verb conveying the widespread awareness of Roosevelt’s subterfuge.
In Frank Capra’s 1948 movie State of the Union, Mary Matthews, played by Katharine Hepburn, reprimands her husband for allowing politicians to corrupt his grass-roots, Wendell Willkie-like campaign. “That won’t be Grant Matthews” giving a nationwide radio speech, Mary cries, “it will be a shadow, a ghost, a stooge, mouthing words that aren’t your own, thoughts that aren’t your own.” Her husband, played by Spencer Tracy, throws out his bland, ghostwritten text and confesses to the American people: “I lost faith in you. I lost faith in myself.” To the horror of the bosses and the experts, Matthews admits his speech is an “elaborately staged professional affair. … I thought I could hijack the Republican nomination. But I forgot … how quickly the Americans smell out the double-dealers.” In 1948, Americans still believed they could “smell out” counterfeit candidates.
Only years later did it emerge that even Wendell Willkie was posturing. As his biographer Ellsworth Barnard explained, on the campaign trail, delivering multiple speeches in a day, day after day, Willkie realized “the impossibility of composing them all by himself.” His speechwriting team included reporter Elliott V. Bell; Pierce Butler Jr. of Democrats for Willkie; a young lawyer, Bartley Crum; and a research staff of 20. But, unlike Roosevelt, he kept this operation quiet.
Popular resistance to ghostwriting was still widespread in 1949, when, in Kingsland v. Dorsey, the Supreme Court upheld the disbarring of a lawyer who helped submit a ghostwritten article to the Patent Office. Dissenting because he thought the penalty too harsh, Justice Robert H. Jackson was quick to add: “I should not like to be second to anyone on this Court in condemning the custom of putting up decoy authors to impress the guileless, a custom which as the court below cruelly pointed out flourishes even in official circles in Washington.” Jackson bellowed: “Ghost writing has debased [our] intellectual currency … and is a type of counterfeiting which invites no defense.” Describing Jackson’s dissent, Time reported that in Washington “ghostwriters had become as much a part of the furniture of modern government as the Mimeograph machine.” Jackson himself occasionally drafted his law clerks to draft his opinions.
By the 1950s, with modern media scrutiny making it inadvisable to repeat yourself too often while crisscrossing the nation, it was impossible to run for president, let alone be president, without ghostwriters. Many knew that one of Dwight Eisenhower’s few policy pronouncements during the 1952 campaign, a pledge to go to Korea to handle the conflict there, originated with a ghostwriter. Surprisingly, few objected to the source. “Organizing a presidential campaign is about as intricate as planning a large-scale invasion,” Eisenhower admitted; he could not do it all. Still, perpetuating the illusion that he pored through every speech, the general insisted that he could never deliver someone else’s draft “intact as my own.”
Eisenhower’s opponent in 1952, Adlai Stevenson, a proud intellectual who loved speechifying, had also “confronted … the ugly reality” that he would have to use “speech researchers”—he refused to call them “speechwriters.” Having Harvard professors like the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith drafting glittering addresses eased Stevenson’s pain, somewhat. But when Stevenson came across phrases he disliked while delivering a speech, he often stopped and winced. He blamed these lapses for contributing to his bad “TV image.”
The ambivalence about ghostwriting played out in the career of John F. Kennedy, whose ringing phrases still shape his legacy, far more than most presidents. When Kennedy, as a senator, relied on young ghostwriter Theodore Sorensen to write his 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, Profiles in Courage, he hid Sorensen’s involvement. The investigative reporter Drew Pearson would call Kennedy “the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him.”
By the time Kennedy was president, given the volume of speeches a president must churn out, and the scrutiny every utterance attracts, Sorensen became famous as what the New York Times called “Mr. Kennedy’s principal speech drafter.” Others would praise him as the president’s “intellectual alter ego” and a “lobe of Kennedy’s mind.”
Another great presidential orator, Ronald Reagan, was so confident in his own eloquence, he had no problem when his speechmaking successes boosted his speechwriters, too. Hailed as “brilliant” by reporters, Reagan’s star speechwriter Peggy Noonan would become “that oxymoron, a famous speechwriter, the best-known of the supposed-to-be-unknown,” according to the syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. This cult of Peggy Noonan, with gushing press tributes celebrating the way her words enhanced Reagan’s, suited the realities of the modern presidency, an office that had been ballooning in size and complexity since the New Deal. In this age of the corporate presidency, speechwriters were recognized as essential parts of the collective effort. In her memoir, Noonan wrote: “Speechwriting was where the administration got invented every day. And so speechwriting was, for some, the center of gravity in that administration, the one point where ideas and principles still counted.” “You’re getting his sound,” White House Special Assistant Richard Darman told Noonan. “Actually, you may be recreating his sound, and it sounds very natural to him.”
In our even more open era, ghostwriters take pride in their work, and their bosses are expected to thank them publicly. Hillary Clinton’s lapse in failing to thank her ghostwriter Barbara Feinman in It Takes a Village looked ungracious. Simply saying in her acknowledgments “it takes a village to bring a book into the world” was insufficient. Clinton’s discomfort reflected the lingering distaste about ghostwriting. But in subsequent works she’s acknowledged whatever help she’s received.
Ironically, just as Melania Trump was stumbling—either because she relied too much or not enough on speechwriters—Trump’s ghostwriter on his best-selling The Art of the Deal was going public, regretting “that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” Tony Schwartz told the New Yorker that if he could do it again, he would title the book “The Sociopath.”
It’s possible, though, that Donald Trump’s startling Republican Party takeover will renew the ongoing debate about the ghostwriter’s role in American politics. The way Trump used ghostwritten books to help make himself famous demonstrates the tremendous power these now semi-silent partners possess. But Trump has also mesmerized audiences with crude, candid, unpolished, authentic speeches—speeches that are all his. Maybe Americans are becoming afraid of ghosts once again.