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, his work has appeared in The Washington Monthly, Salon.com, The Weekly Standard, and People. He teaches political journalism at Boston University's Washington Journalism Center. Robert also blogs at Robert Emmet, The Huffington Post and Snakes in My Pants and can be contacted at rschles@hotmail.com. He lives with his wife in Alexandria, Virginia.

A Conversation with Robert Schlesinger

Q: What inspired this book?

A:

My father, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., was a member of the Judson Welliver Society of former presidential speechwriters. He brought me as a guest to many of their dinner meetings where current and former speechwriters would trade stories of their White House experiences. After enjoying a half-dozen or more of these evenings over the years, the thought popped into my head: "Someone should write these stories down." Little did I realize the project would become so much more than a collection of stories, that it would grow to include tens of thousands of pages of archival documents, scores of hours of interviews, and secondary source materials, providing a unique glimpse of the modern presidents.

Q: How important are speechwriters to the success or failure of a presidency?

A:

No modern president can be successful without an appreciation of the importance of communication and public education. And no president has the time to write his or her own speeches. The best presidents have a strong sense of when and how to communicate with the public -- and know how to use speechwriters to best achieve that goal.

Q: How did you research it?

A:

I interviewed more than 90 speechwriters and other key officials from each administration covered, from FDR through the George W. Bush. In all, these men and women gave me more than 120 hours of their time, virtually all of it on the record. Some also gave me access to their private papers and diaries. I gathered tens of thousands of pages of documents - speech drafts, memos, other internal documents, oral histories - from each presidential library from FDR through George H. W. Bush (counting the DC-area Archives II branch of the Richard Nixon Library) as well as the Library of Congress. I supplemented these sources with my own reading: I read every speechwriter memoir I could find, as well as presidential histories and biographies and contemporaneous news accounts.

Q: Who was the first real presidential speechwriter? Who was the first person to hold that official title?

A:

Starting with George Washington and his farewell address, many presidents have sought others' advice on speeches and other public communications. Judson Welliver, "literary clerk" during the Harding administration, from 1921 to 1923, is generally considered the first presidential speechwriter in the modern sense - someone whose job description includes helping to compose speeches. Emmet J. Hughes, who wrote speeches for President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the first year of his first term (and again briefly in the 1956 campaign and into the Ike's second term) was the first staffer to officially be called "speechwriter."

Q: How did the rise of new forms of media affect the role of the speechwriter?

A:

It is no mistake that speechwriters only became a permanent staple of presidential staffs when radio became the dominant national medium. Radio, television, cable television and the Internet have dramatically increased the frequency and reach of presidential pronouncements - and so too has the importance of presidential speechwriters increased. Herbert Hoover made an average of around eight public appearances per month; Bill Clinton made an average of 28. Those remarks have to come from somewhere!

Q: Who was the best presidential speechwriter?

A:

Ted Sorensen, JFK's speechwriter and top domestic aide, remains the model presidential speechwriter. The best speechwriters are able to capture their boss's voice and help him elevate his game, to use a sports analogy. No one has been better able to do this than Sorensen, whose years of working closely with and traveling with John F. Kennedy before they achieved the White House allowed him to know the styles of rhetoric and argument that his boss preferred.

Q: Who were the best writers among the presidents?

A:

Each president brings different gifts to public communications. JFK had a strong sense of style and a flair for improvisation. Richard Nixon spent more time than any other president writing his own speeches. Ronald Reagan jotted long sections of major speeches himself, especially early in his first term. Bill Clinton could extemporize and interpolate seamlessly, moving back and forth between his prepared text and his ad-libbed remarks. President George W. Bush has a strong sense of order and structure. One thing that most presidents have in common is a strong ability as an editor, both in terms of clarifying and streamlining prose but also in terms of translating it into language that is more natural to them.

Q: Which presidents used their speechwriting teams most effectively?

A:

FDR had a way of getting the best out of his speechwriters - and tapping new ones as effectively when, like Raymond Moley, they burned out or grew disillusioned. JFK and Ted Sorensen had the model president-speechwriter relationship. Richard Nixon complained about his speechwriters' product, but had one the most talented teams and had a keen sense of choosing specific writers to reflect specific moods. Bill Clinton presents a fascinating case as someone who - like Jimmy Carter - had never used a speechwriter before running for president, but, unlike his Democratic predecessor, learned how to use his ghosts and the bully pulpit.

Q: What are some of the stories behind the great presidential speeches - the inaugurals of FDR and JFK, Eisenhower's military-industrial complex speech, Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall, and Bush's speech to Congress after 9/11, for example?

A:

Each administration has its own surprising and illuminating stories, some of which are told for the first time in White House Ghosts. There are numerous fascinating, illuminating and sometimes funny stories about where famous phrases or speeches came from. In many cases, like "New Deal," for example, iconic phrases or sentiments were not conceived in capital letters and surprised with their longevity.

In other cases White House Ghosts traces how speeches or phrases evolved into their final, famous form. Eisenhower's farewell phrase, for example, first appeared in a speechwriter's idea to warn about a "war based industrial complex." And some times the histories are not clear - FDR and JFK both sought to hide others' contributions in their inaugural addresses, for example, and even decades later Bill Clinton would use similar tricks to hide Dick Morris from his regular speechwriters. Often speeches have been the focus of fierce internal debates, especially during the Reagan administration where the conservative speechwriters would run guerilla battles to protect phrases like "tear down this wall" from the depredations of moderate staffers.

Also, one of my favorites is the genesis of George W. Bush's post-9/11 promise that "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." What neither he nor most of his aides knew was that the notion had come from a former Clinton speechwriter who had secretly sent it in to a colleague who had written for Clinton but stayed on in the Bush administration.

Q: Who really "owns" the words of a presidential speech - the president or the speechwriter?

A:

A president has ownership of his speeches. Tracing the origins of famous phrases and measuring a president's involvement in speech composition can be both entertaining and illuminating. But ultimately it is the president who gives the speech and lends his office's authority to its words - and so must get credit or approbation for what he says.

Q: To what extent do presidential speechwriters not only reflect policy but help to make it?

A:

White House ghosts have had a strong effect upon policy, though it varies administration to administration. One of the stories of White House Ghosts is how the relationship between speechwriters and policymakers has evolved over a dozen presidential administrations. FDR's key speechwriters - people like Raymond Moley, Sam Rosenman, Harry Hopkins - were policy advisers who also helped writer speeches. The same was true to various extents for many of his successors, through to the Lyndon Johnson administration. LBJ used top aides but also established dedicated speechwriters - though in an activist administration like Johnson's, they had surprising power to affect policy.

But while words cannot be separated from policies, speechwriters were increasingly set apart from - and at odds with - policy makers, a trend that reached its nadir under Jimmy Carter, whose quite talented speechwriters were often marginalized or ignored. While Ronald Reagan's speechwriters had a special place in his administration, they were often at odds with senior staff - who angrily accused them of trying to make policy. Under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, speechwriters returned to somewhat more traditional positions, with key senior aides taking part in the process and speechwriters sometimes having policy portfolios.

Q: There have been a number of very public controversies involving presidential speechwriters. A recent one involved Michael Gerson, who was George W. Bush's chief speechwriter until 2006. Another Bush speechwriter, Matt Scully, accused him in a published article of self-aggrandizement and manipulation of his own image in the press. There have always been rivalries and bruised egos among presidential speechwriters. But are we in a new era, when the "White House ghosts" are no longer content to remain invisible?

A:

We're in a new era not necessarily because White House ghosts are not content to remain invisible - though that is certainly the case in some instances - but for better or worse they no longer can hide. No one pretends that presidents write all of their own speeches any more, and media interest in where speeches or phrases came from remains high.

Q: What is the special perspective that a presidential speechwriter offers that no one else can?

A:

Presidents' words and speeches matter - and so too do presidents' attitudes towards those communications. Speechwriters have a unique vantage point at the intersection between policies and words, giving them a first-hand view of the attitudes presidents bring to these issues and how they handle their competing demands.

Q: Your father, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was not only a famous historian but a highly regarded speechwriter for JFK. How aware were you of his work as a speechwriter at that time? Did he share a lot about it with you in later years?

A:

I was born nine years after the end of the Kennedy administration. I grew up aware of my father's work in the JFK White House, but working on this book did give me a new appreciation for that part of his life, especially when I got to read his journals from those years.

Q: How is it different from the many books written by White House speechwriters themselves - Ted Sorensen, Jack Valenti, William Safire, Peggy Noonan, and so on?

A:

A: These wonderful books were helpful to my research, but each presents a narrow view - their perspective on a single administration, and in some cases only a slice of that administration. White House Ghosts has an unprecedented scope - covering each president from FDR through George W. Bush, giving a broad perspective on presidents, their speechwriters and how their positions have evolved.