It was late in the afternoon, the big hearing was the next morning, and the chief counsel of the US Senate subcommittee realized that no one had written an opening statement for the chairman.
So I, law student and intern, got the job. The hearings were on the Penn Central Railroad, which was the Enron of the late ’60s, and I really cut loose. Why not? Weren’t there wise staffers on the floors above me in the Dirksen Building who would turn my excesses into polished Senate prose?
The next morning I sat in horror as my draft came back to me from the chairman’s mouth, word for hyperventilating word. For a young writer it was a lesson in polemical excess. But even more, it was a lesson in how Washington really works.
Washington is a ghost town – more precisely a ghosted town. It is a place where few important people really say what they “say.” Did you hear on the news today that “Bush said …” or “Daschle said …”? Chances are they didn’t really say. They read something that a ghostwriter wrote for them or whispered in their ear.
That’s that amazing thing about the continuing flap over the president’s State of the Union address. President Bush blamed the director of the CIA for the fibbing over Iraq and no one found it unusual. I mean, wasn’t it the president’s speech? Well, actually not.
Gaylord Nelson, former governor of and US senator from Wisconsin, once stopped in the middle of a campaign speech and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first time either you or I have heard this speech and frankly, I don’t agree with it.”
That was in the 1960s. I doubt there’s been such candor since.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, words have consequences. Remember the president’s “axis of evil” speech? Those words became a force in world affairs – and in the president’s own mind. Yet he didn’t think them up. A ghostwriter did – and a hyperventilating one at that.
But more, speech is identity – and character. Lincoln didn’t review the Gettysburg Address. He wrote it – and thereby showed us who he was. “The best you can write will be the best you are,” wrote Thoreau. When we don’t know who really says what our leaders say, then we don’t know who – or what – they are. Perhaps they don’t, either.
You know how bad it’s gotten? A TV movie is on the way that portrays the president in the days after Sept. 11. An actor will play the president, and he will speak words written by a screenwriter. It is reality television in a way the producer probably did not intend.
I say it’s time for a little truth in saying. Politicians should tell us who actually wrote what they say. Ghostwriters, spin crews, and pollsters should get due credit – on speeches, letters to constituents, everything. Campaign ads should have a list of credits, too.
And why can’t reporters ask them this? When the media start to tell us who really writes what our leaders say – instead of just intoning “Bush said” or “Clinton said” – then maybe our leaders will get embarrassed. Just maybe they’ll start to speak as Lincoln did – for themselves.
Jonathan Rowe is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, and a former Monitor staff writer.