Monday, April 21, 2008

Robert Schlesinger's "White House Ghosts"

Robert Schlesinger is deputy assistant managing editor, opinion at U.S. News & World Report. Formerly political editor of the insider publication The Hill and a Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, he has written for The Washington Monthly,, The Weekly Standard, and People. He teaches political journalism at Boston University's Washington Journalism Center.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, and reported the following:
White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters traces the history of presidential speechwriting from FDR through Bush 43. On page 99 we pick up the story at the end of the Eisenhower presidency:

During the first week of December, [speechwriter Malcolm] Moos gave Eisenhower a draft of the speech. It warned against a "military-industrial-scientific complex," a formulation that was later shortened at the suggestion of scientific adviser James Killian. A later draft discussed a "military-industrial-congressional" complex, but Eisenhower decided it was inappropriate to lecture Congress and dropped the legislative reference. "I think you've got something here," Eisenhower told Moos, slipping it into his desk. On December 14, Ike received a call from Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, urging him to "give a 'farewell address' to the country ... reviewing your administration, telling of your hopes for the future. A great, sweeping document."

Addressing the nation at 8:30 pm three days before John F. Kennedy's inaugural, Eisenhower delivered his famous warning:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Eisenhower had told Moos that he was not interested in capturing headlines, and in that regard the speech was a success. While Walter Lippmann noted that Ike's speech "will be remembered and quoted in the days to come," it in fact went largely unremarked.

Things began to change months later. "There is an interesting development, Mr. President, involving your 'Farewell Address,'" [Bryce] Harlow wrote to Eisenhower on March 17, 1961...

In this case, the Page 99 Test works well -- White House Ghosts gives readers an inside portrait of presidents and how they approached the “bully pulpit.” Here we see Ike’s unwillingness to be seen as bullying Congress and lack of interest in saying something particularly flashy in his farewell.

And White House Ghosts also gives the back-story on famous presidential addresses (there’s more about Eisenhower’s farewell, but that’s on pages 97 and 98!), allowing readers to see the genesis and evolution of well-remembered phrases -- in this case "military-industrial complex."

Of course there’s so much more here: The book covers a dozen presidents -- I spoke to at least one speechwriter or other key aide from each administration, more than 90 in total -- and does so in what I think is a very readable, accessible manner. (Lesley Stahl said that the "book is fascinating. And funny. If you like reading American history, you’ll love this book.")

Read an excerpt from White House Ghosts, and learn more about the book and its author at Robert Schlesinger's website.

--Marshal Zeringue