White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters
(By Robert Schlesinger. Simon and Schuster; 581 pp., $30.)
Even among political pundits and scribes, few give more than a passing thought to the work of presidential speechwriters. This is unfortunate because many talented men and women have composed speeches that moved not only emotions but history itself. Political journalist and professor Robert Schlesinger (son of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) attempts to call attention to this oversight in his new book, “White House Ghosts.”
The scope of this work is wide: from Warren Harding — believed to be the first president to employ a speechwriter — right up to the present day. When speechwriters are in tune with their White House boss, they can turn out some truly brilliant and persuasive rhetoric. Consider Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do …” speech by Sorenson; Roosevelt’s “Nothing to fear but fear itself” speech; Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall;” and Eisenhower’s “Military Industrial Complex” speech. In addition to being poetic, a good speech can sink or elevate a presidential legacy, or, in extreme circumstances, decide the fates of cities, nations and peoples. Schlesinger argues convincingly that speechwriters have had a much greater effect on public policy than is commonly believed.
The main criticism of this book is a rather obvious one: At almost 600 pages, it gets boring. Schlesinger’s style is term-paper dry, so the subject matter must carry the day. Unfortunately, the subject is short on thrills, chills and laughs. It doesn’t take long for the act of reading to become the act of staring and turning pages. Perhaps a speechwriter of his own might have come in handy. —Paul Kopasz
Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara?: The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World’s Best-Loved Books
(By Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy. Penguin Books; 318 pp., $13.)
I wish I had known about “Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara” last summer, when my 13-year-old son was reading “The Catcher in the Rye” (a book most young teens, despite their attitudinous stances, are not quite ready for). The boy kept asking me, “What’s the story with this Salinger guy? Was he some lazy bum potty-mouth like Holden Caulfield?”
We could have learned from “Pansy” that Salinger was anything but a slacker. In 1944, he wrote in a letter to his favorite teacher from Columbia University: “Am still writing whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole.” The man carried a typewriter at all times in his jeep and was known to type underneath a table when certain hideouts he was in were being bombed. Does this make Salinger the ultimate model for today’s warfront bloggers? Nah. Though he was writing from the front, he was not writing about war.
Bond and Sheedy have provided a marvelous little compendium for anyone interested in the genesis of their most beloved fiction and non-fiction. Guess which Russian author made his wife copy, by hand, his 3,000-page manuscript not once but seven times? (His name starts with T and ends in oy.) Which alleged British spinster novelist had a long, passionate affair with a Belgian professor? (Her sisters also wrote gothic novels.) Oh, and can you name the manuscript that when stacked up was taller than its author? (Hint: Margaret Mitchell was a very short woman.)
You can’t go wrong with this book. It is vivid, addictive and, best of all, succinct. —Mary Welp