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White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters Hardcover – April 15, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Even George Washington relied on others for ideas and words for his great state papers. But Schlesinger, who teaches political journalism at Boston University, starts this snappy history, the first on its subject, with FDR, who inaugurated the modern practice of employing others to craft important policy statements. Administration by administration, the author takes us through a lively, often unforgettable cast of characters who both enlarged their presidents' visions and suffered from White House infighting and policy battles. He emphasizes how changes in the media (radio, television and the Internet) altered the settings and presentation of presidents' words. He ends with the current administration, its ghostwriters the first to step from the shadows and claim the limelight. Schlesinger's coverage is wide, his research comprehensive, his pace fast, his prose light. But surely there's much more to say about the way pre-FDR presidents went about conceiving and writing their major speeches, about what we may have lost (while also gaining) from the intervention of outside wordsmiths. And one wishes the author had sprung free of his material and ended with his own thoughts about what he's written, for no one knows more about this subject than Schlesinger. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Apr. 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"White House Ghosts takes you into the minds and machinations of presidents in a way no other book has -- through the insights of succeeding generations of White House speechwriters. As a long-time student of the American presidency, I was constantly engaged, intrigued, and amused by this very smart and ambitious book." -- Tom Brokaw, author of Boom! and The Greatest Generation

"A president's words can frame an era or shape world history. That makes his speechwriters critical. Robert Schlesinger, son of one of the greatest, brings the flair of a storyteller and the insight of a scholar to the White House's obscure but glorious ghosts." -- Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

"Robert Schlesinger's White House Ghosts is a welcome addition to the literature on presidents. His book not only adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how presidential speeches were constructed but also deepens our knowledge of the way in which major policies were developed. Schlesinger has given us an altogether delightful and informative study that will become essential reading for anyone interested in the modern presidency." -- Robert Dallek, author of Nixon and Kissinger

"It's no surprise that the men and women who have written speeches for our presidents have stories to tell! What is a surprise is that Robert Schlesinger has dug up so many of them. White House Ghosts flows along with one rich anecdote after the next. All the major speeches (and several minor ones) are dissected. (Some presidents actually did some rewriting themselves. Imagine!) The book is fascinating. And funny. If you like reading American history, you'll love this book." -- Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes and author of Reporting Live

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (April 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743291697
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743291699
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #454,656 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 30, 2008
Format: Kindle Edition
Schlesinger describes the men and women who acted as speech writers to every President from FDR in 1932 to George W. Bush in 2001. Each administration is given a chapter. Each President's relationship with his speech writers is outlined with an analysis of one or more key speeches. Sometimes an Inaugural Address; sometimes the State of the Union address; or a speech on foreign or domestic policy; once a resignation speech.

What's fascinating is the unique relationship each President had with his speech writers and other close advisers. The games they played. The office politics. The late nights. Who `owned' the speech and at what point and to what extent the President gave direction. The best were intimately involved. Sorensen and Kennedy were so close that someone observed "When Jack is wounded, Ted bleeds." Carter kept speech writers at arms-length and "didn't much like the idea of using them, ever." It showed.

In some administrations, White House staffers would rail against the power of a speech writer to make policy. In others, the speech writers were emasculated scribes left out in the cold.

What's absolutely fascinating for anyone who has worked in communications in large commercial organizations (as I have) is how eerily familiar many of the trials and tribulations of the role supporting a CEO is to that of the White House Ghosts. Here's some which had a familiar ring:

* Eisenhower's speech writer Bryce Harlow only agreed to take on the role "on the condition that he get to spend a great deal of time around the president so as to best understand how Ike liked to express himself, what his concerns were, how to capture the man's voice." (p. 82)

* Eisenhower advising Harlow not to circulate a speech too widely for review.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By R. C. Kopf on June 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
as a speechwriter, this book was manna from heaven for me. there are few books around that look at modern presidential speechwriting in depth. it also has a broader appeal as a presidential history that gets you right inside the inner circle of modern presidents. the book is well written, excruciatingly researched and filled with funny, inspiring and humanizing anecdotes.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By B. Giron on April 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Schlesinger has summarized the presidencies from FDR to W. How each president used, or not, the skills of their respective 'ghosts' shows one and all that words do matter; as well as the wisdom of our first executives when it came to choosing their wordsmiths. Witty and full of details, each chapter of this book is a joy. Indeed, this a must read.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Scott K on May 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Even though I live in Australia, I have long been fascinated with U.S. politics. Especially since GWB walked into the job. It made your politics a lot more interesting. (Good or bad, make your own decisions, I have certainly made mine.)

Even more interesting to me are the Presidents speechwriters. I realise there may be plenty of good books available on this topic which I could have bought, however I was always waiting for that up to date and new book which inevitably had to be released.

For me, this is that book. I am sorry that I do not have the ability to write a comprehensive review. My writing skills do not allow, which is probably why I am fascinated with the skills of a Presidential Speechwriter.

If, like me, you are a layperson who simply enjoys reading about these remarkable writers and how they interact with their Presidents, I am sure you will not be disappointed with this book.

Also, Mr. Schlesinger writes in such a way that even though this book looks imposing, with almost 600 pages, it is nice to read and easily digestible.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Marc Korman on June 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
'White House Ghosts' seeks to answer the questions of who wrote the best Presidential speeches and lines, which President gave the speech, and who came up with the ideas at the core of those speeches. Often times, other than who said it, those questions are not easily answered but Schlesinger still weaves a great historical accounting of presidential history, communications, and policy development since FDR. At its best, Schlesinger makes clear that speechwriting is a collaborative effort that brings together a President's vision with the wordsmithing of a talented writer with the time to spend on a speech. At its worse, speechwriting appears to drive policy development and changes because a good line was created, so the policy must follow through. Perhaps even worse is when a line has no relation to policy at all (see President George W. Bush's second inaugural). Schlesinger's exhaustive research brings you into each presidency, shows you how the President interacted with the speechwriters and how some of the most famous, and important, words of the 20th and early 21st century came about. A must for any student or fan of presidential history.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Reckless Reader on July 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It was quick, easy, amusing read; lots of historical anecdotes from each White House since FDR....but apart from that, I can't say I know much more about what makes for a good speech, a good speechwriter, or a good Presidential speaker now than I did before I read the book.
Apart from figuring out that speeches written by committee don't make for memorable prose, the anecdotes don't really add up to much--- not much insight as to what FDR, JFK, and RR shared in common, if anything, that made them great in this department, versus what Carter and the 2 Bushes shared, if anything, that made them so mediocre....
Look for a fun read, but don't look for any analysis or depth of understanding...
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