Unsurprisingly, I read about yet another book today on the NYTimes website that I want to read:
White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters by Robert Schlesinger. Schlesinger, son of historian and presidential speechwriter Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., is deputy assistant managing editor, opinion at U.S. News & World Report and teaches political journalism at Boston University’s Washington Journalism Center.
Schlesinger researched this book by interviewing 90 speechwriters and other key officials from each of the administration covered (from FDR through the George W. Bush). White House Ghosts: provides a history of speechwriting and tells the stories of some of the most iconic presidential phrases, such as:
- the first inaugural of FDR (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”)
- the first inaugural of JFK (“ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”)
- Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook”
- Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speeches
- Bill Clinton’s ending “the era of big government” State of the Union
- George W. Bush’s post-9/11 declaration that “whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done”
The website for this book tells us
Judson Welliver, “literary clerk” during the Harding administration, from 1921 to 1923, is generally considered the first presidential speechwriter in the modern sense – someone whose job description includes helping to compose speeches. Emmet J. Hughes, who wrote speeches for President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the first year of his first term (and again briefly in the 1956 campaign and into the Ike’s second term) was the first staffer to officially be called “speechwriter.”
Clearly presidential speeches are viewed to be much more important. As Schlesinger says on the book’s website, “Herbert Hoover made an average of around eight public appearances per month; Bill Clinton made an average of 28!”
Given the intense interest in Barack Obama’s beautiful, poignant and often poetic speeches (which are largely written by Jon Favreau and a team of other young speechwriters — click here for the NYTimes article) and the immense popularity of David Letterman’s “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches” skits (probably my favorite part of watching Letterman), I expect this book will do very well!