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Ghosts In The White House

July 2024
16min read

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”

Again and again in the past few months when President Eisenhower has spoken over television I have heard a listener mutter cynically, “I wonder who concocted that one.” But the concocting process itself is no secret. Everybody understands that more or less hidden advisers have helped to make the talk sound well and that they have checked and rechecked the content to avoid embarrassing “boners.” During the 1956 campaign a newspaper columnist asserted that there were “five principal architects” of the Eisenhower addresses: Emmett J. Hughes, Arthur Larson, Kevin McCann, Gabriel Hauge, and Robert Cutler. The article continued: “The job of all is to take the candidate’s thoughts and general principles and put them into readable, speakable form in which he can present them effectively to the electorate.”

It is assumed that the so-called “ghost writer” has become “a necessity of modern-day, high-speed campaigning.” Dorothy Thompson has said that ghostwriting “is so common today that one can almost say our thoughts are guided by ghosts.” Even a religious co-ordinator has been added to the White House staff. Recent demonstrations, however, have led some critics to long tor the Good Old Days when a President told his story in his own way.

Joint collaboration in the production of state papers is nothing modern. Every schoolboy used to know, and probably now knows, that Washington had aid in preparing his Farewell Address. Our first President, who in several respects resembled our contemporary Chief Executive, often relied on others whose judgment he thought might be valuable. I shall not attempt here to solve the problem of how much and where, which has confused even his best biographers; but the Address was clearly a fine specimen of Teamwork or Composite Construction, in which Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and others had a share.

Once, as a boy in central New York, during a high school course in elocution, I had to memorize and recite a passage by the patriot John Adams, beginning, “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote.” It was supposed to have been spoken ex corde in July, 1776, at a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in reply to a member who had advocated caution. As a matter of record, the remarks attributed to Adams were written by Daniel Webster and delivered by him on August 2, 1826, as part of his “Discourse in Commemoration of the Lives and Services of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.” Adams’ speech was fanciful, for there was no extant report of the argument advanced by him on that occasion. Commenting on its spectral origin, Webster confessed to Millard Fillmore, “I will tell you what is not generally known. I wrote that speech one morning before breakfast, in my library, and when it was finished my paper was wet with my tears.” George Ticknor, who was present, declared that he had never heard Webster when his manner was “so grand and appropriate”; and many years later a schoolboy in the Mohawk Valley received gratefully the prize of a ten dollar gold piece for its repetition.


Webster was himself to profit by a similar display of creative recollection. On March 10, 1818, before the Supreme Court of the United States, he argued convincingly in the Dartmouth College Case, using notes which he had followed at earlier hearings before lower benches. His plea, consuming most of the session for that day, was later written out by him and appeared in editions of his Works . But the portion which everybody remembers was the emotional peroration, not included in the authorized version, but repeated for the first time on July 27, 1853, after Webster’s death, by Rufus Choate in his memorial address at Hanover. As part of his eulogy, Choate cited a version of Webster’s dramatic conclusion sent to him by Professor Chauncey Goodrich 35 years after the event. Goodrich, at the age of 63, recalled the exact wording of a speech which he had heard when he was 28.

According to Goodrich, Webster, after ending his main argument, stood “for some moments” in silence, as if wondering whether to continue. Parenthetically, I wonder whether any orator, however dominating, ever did pause “for some moments.” Even thirty seconds seem to an audience an interminable period of waiting. At any rate, according to Goodrich’s amazing memory, Webster eventually turned, as if by impulse, to the Chief Justice and began the paragraph closing with the immortal words that even Harvard and Amherst graduates can appreciate: “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college—and yet there are those who love it. …” Many listeners wept visibly, quite unashamed, and not all of them were from Hanover. It was unquestionably an exciting incident; but if it had not been for Goodrich’s letter, supplemented by Choate’s inspiration, the phrasing might have been lost forever. In this case, as in that of Webster and Adams, one genius helped to immortalize another.

From these alluring digressions I must return to an examination of presidential practices, Jefferson, the two Adamses, Madison, and Monroe were all highly literate and evidently preferred their own tested methods of writing. It was generally believed that Duff Green, Frank P. Blah, and even George Bancroft sometimes assisted President Andrew Jackson with his state papers. More than once in later American history well-endowed ghosts volunteered their services to Presidents. In 1841, Webster, just appointed secretary of state, drafted what he hoped might be William Henry Flarrison’s inaugural address; but the General, aging though not senile, had brought with him to Washington his own message and at first declined any help. When finally he was induced to consult Webster, the latter urged him to eliminate some of the numerous references to Greek and Roman heroes. One evening Mrs. Seaton, Webster’s hostess, inquired whether anything had happened during the day. “You would think something had happened,” the “godlike Dan’l” replied, “if you knew what I have done. I have killed seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.” Even in such a negative and ferocious fashion, ghostwriting has altered the national archives.

Many of our pre-Civil War Presidents could have profited by the advice of candid, talented friends. I have always enjoyed what the caustic ex-President John Quincy Adams said of another President, James K. Polk: “He has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator, but confidence, fluency, and labor.” That would seem to have settled the matter, but I am sure that Adams would have been glad to be of ghostly assistance had he been invited—which at no point was ever likely.

Such an indictment could not have been made of Abraham Lincoln, who, although limited in his formal education, was always able to transmute his ideas into felicitous verbal expression. In getting ready for his Cooper Union Address on February 27, 1860, in New York, he “searched the dusty volumes of Congressional proceedings in the State Library,” examined the basic principles of government, and alone produced what Horace Greeley called “the very best political address to which I ever listened.” His farewell to his Springfield neighbors, only 150 words in length, so simple and yet so moving, was spoken without a manuscript. For it he neither needed nor received any aid.

Shortly before that, the President-elect, faced with the obligation of saying something significant at his inauguration, shut himself up in a room over a store across the street from the Illinois statehouse and there, in cheerless but uninterrupted isolation, read and thought and pondered over phrasing until the words were down on paper. Then he had it set up and carried it with him to Washington. Over it he had toiled unusually hard, modifying its language from morning to morning. When he reached the capital, he submitted it to William H. Seward and Orville H. Browning, both of whom made helpful suggestions. The noble closing paragraph referring to the “mystic chords of memory” was conceived originally by Seward but improved by Lincoln. Some of the changes were significant; but the Springfield Republican was correct in saying, “No one can doubt that Mr. Lincoln is the author of his own Inaugural.”

Although the Gettysburg Address is commonly assumed to have been entirely Lincoln’s, some mystery is connected with it. He evidently composed it rather hastily in Washington, where he read it to Ward H. Lamon, with the comment that he was not at all satisfied and was afraid it would not come up to popular expectation. On the evening before, Lincoln took the sheets of paper and went next door in Gettysburg for a half hour’s conference with Seward. What took place during their meeting neither man ever revealed, but it is unlikely that the President made any significant changes in what is now regarded as his masterpiece.

Various Presidents since Lincoln have followed different methods, depending on their temperaments, experience, and faith in themselves. Garfield, confronted with the necessity of composing a letter accepting the Republican nomination, wrote Blaine, “Please write me your suggestions on any phase of it.” Invitations of this nature, it may be added, are seldom declined by American politicians. The resulting reply was apparently a composite, including sections by William Evarts and Carl Schurz, as well as Blaine. As March 4 drew near, Garfield bravely undertook to read the inaugural addresses of his predecessors, reaching the not unjustified conclusion that “those of the past, except Lincoln’s, are dreary reading.” Worn out by this self-imposed drudgery, he felt what he described as “an unusual repugnance to writing” and instructed his political agent, T. M. Nichol, to prepare an outline. Soon, however, Garfield’s conscience became so active that he started to recast what Nichol had produced. To a friend he confessed, “I wrote the last sentence at hall-past two o’clock A.M. , March 4.” Even his friendly biographer had to admit that the published address was “devoid of imagination or elevated rhetoric.”

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.

Wilson’s somewhat battered machine accompanied him to the White House, and on the evening of his inauguration, after a dinner with 25 Wilson relatives, “he retired to his study on the second floor, to his own typewriter and his problems.” Within a few days he had to face a critical situation in Latin America. At a Cabinet meeting he drew from his pocket a typed copy of his proposed announcement, with changes and additions in his own flowing script. Secretary Houston reported, “I do not know to what extent the President had consulted Bryan, but Bryan had not presented the matter; and the President did the reading. Bryan listened with a smile on his face and nodded approval as the President read.” Thus early and openly in his administration did the master take charge. A sadder picture is that of Wilson, after a Cabinet meeting on August 4, 1914, hurrying to the bedside of his dying wife and there jotting down in shorthand his message tendering the good offices of the President of the United States, if they should be desired, “in the interests of European peace.” Even he, however, once yielded to temptation, for research has recently turned up the original draft of his “neutrality in thought” proclamation of August 18, 1914, in the handwriting of Robert Lansing, with annotations by Secretary Bryan. I am sure that Wilson, shaken by the death of his wife, was willing in this instance to let his associates temporarily take over.

Nevertheless Wilson usually preferred to think his problems out and act alone. Jerome D. Greene has mentioned Wilson’s “intellectual obstinacy and his unwillingness to expose himself to advice from men of contrary opinions to his own.” In this respect the President was not unique. For the famous Lusitania note, issued on May 13, 1915, he made several successive drafts on his typewriter, revising them one after another in longhand. On the night of March 31, 1917, having already called Congress into extraordinary session, he rose from bed and carried his portable to the south veranda of the White House. Mrs. Wilson brought him a bowl of milk and crackers from the kitchen. Then and there he tapped out the sentences which he read to Congress on April 2, when he declared that “The right is more precious than peace.”

When Secretary Baker handed him his original statement designating June 3, 1917, as the date for military registration, Wilson couldn’t resist the impulse to correct it as he had done with many an undergraduate theme. No one formulated phrases for Woodrow Wilson. They took shape in his own teeming mind, and one after another they symbolized stages in our history: “Opinion ultimately governs the world”; “Peace without victory”; “Too proud to fight”; “The world must be made safe for democracy”; “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” In Wilson’s brain everything had to be orderly before he could communicate. This country has never had a more fluent and logical impromptu speaker. No ghost writer of his generation could have imitated his crisp, precise style.

The literary contrast between him and his immediate successor was so striking as to be ludicrous. On the other hand, Harding’s speeches were as unmistakably his own as Wilson’s had been. No one who heard the Republican Senator on May 14, 1920, in Boston, is likely to forget the impression made by his “big bowwow style of oratory” as he declaimed: America’s present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy, not revolution but restoration, not agitation but adjustment, not surgery but serenity, not the dramatic but the dispassionate, not experiment but equipoise, not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.

One can imagine the complacency with which Harding dictated this balanced alliterative nonsense and the scholar’s contempt with which Wilson read it in his morning newspaper. No reputable ghost writer would have allowed Harding to put it into print, but no one was asked to give advice. That the passage expressed his personality is unquestionable.

No Brain Trust occupied rooms in the White House in the 1920’s. Calvin Coolidge, following a habit formed when he was governor, composed virtually all his speeches and messages, writing them out in longhand on unruled yellow sheets and then having them copied by his stenographer. When he once rashly agreed to dedicate Aeolian Hall in Boston, he realized that he knew nothing about music and promptly enlisted the co-operation of a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But Mr. Coolidge was honest, and when a collection of his speeches was about to be edited, he told Frank W. Stearns, “That Aeolian Hall talk is pretty good, but it isn’t mine. Keep it out!”

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.

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!

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