The specters behind the speeches
By Briana Shemroske
The fuzzy, scrutinizing images are what people remember—politicians swiftly condemning one another in black and white, using tacky slogans and keeping composed smiles. Hubert Humphrey’s voice crackled through a 1968 television ad and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign echoed through a divided nation. But what got lost in their speeches were the voices behind it all.
As far back as 1796, ghostwriters were buzzing quietly behind the scenes. A ghostwriter is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as a person who “write(s) (as in a speech) for another who is the presumed author.”
George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” though written by him, received help from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton as they hovered beside him to fine-tune the rhetoric of his elegant calligraphy. Declarations of political factionalism and foreign alliances resonated through American newspapers on September 19 of 1796, but the aids of these words slinked by unnoticed.
As technology progressed and public appearances became a standard, the demand for speechwriters increased dramatically. By the early 1920s Judson T. Welliver served as a “literary clerk” throughout the Harding administration, “…becoming the first presidential speechwriter in a modern sense,” says Robert Schlesinger in his novel, White House Ghosts, “someone whose job description includes helping to compose speeches.”
By 1968, as Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace battled for the White House in the largest realigning election since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, speechwriters became a necessity.
Young college graduates flocked to the occupation. “Political speechwriters are generally younger because the hours are unbelievable,” says President Carter’s former speechwriter James Fallows in a 2008 interview with Ragan.com, “They are simply better adapted to the circumstances of a campaign: bad food, no sleep, no pay.”
The majority of speechwriters do not possess a specific degree or training in the field, just a broad understanding of basic economics, political roles, and policy issues. A liberal arts degree often satisfies the basic requirements for the profession.
Ben Stein and Pat Buchanan, the ghostwriters for Nixon’s campaign, were both in their late twenties when they began speechwriting. Stein, now an Emmy-award winning actor, graduated with honors from Columbia University’s Columbia College with a bachelor degree in economics. Buchanan earned a master’s degree from Columbia in journalism. Citizens vividly recall Nixon’s Checkers or Cambodia speeches, not the speechwriters behind them.
As for George Wallace’s campaign, Asa Earl Carter jumped in after studying journalism at the University of Colorado. He was only in his early thirties. Citizens recall George Wallace’s speech on segregation, not Asa Carter’s. The minds behind these deliveries tend to be eclipsed by smirking presidential hopefuls. When it came down to accrediting writers, the names behind the campaigns were washed out. According to author Allen Barra in his article, “The Education of Little Fraud,” George Wallace denied that he ever knew Asa Carter. Instead, Wallace’s associates subtly paid off Carter in the backdrop.
The deception of political speeches has thickened over time: poised images promise words that are not their own. As Americans became seduced by images and actions, the messages sent in the speeches that originally allured people collapsed somewhere along the lines. But if it’s words that convey these widespread political stances, is each vote misplaced? After all, a vote to Nixon’s campaign could have been based on voter’s appeal to Stein and Buchanan’s words, not Nixon’s.
In the midst of the chaos of ’68 and the explosion of television and technology in the media, a divide slashed through the American public and the electoral process. As color television became ubiquitous in homes across the nation, America’s love affair with televised debates caused people to mistake the speaker for the writer and the superficial became the deciding factor.
What remains forgotten is how black and white the matter is: the risks pursued, long hours worked, and words written are what remain today. Each blurring television image or contrived grin is shoved backward by true meaning. The speeches or quotations are what make it into history books and trigger thought. Words, no matter how they are spoken, have the power to linger. And because of ghostwriters, they have the ability to do so.
Briana Shemroske is a freshman journalism major. E-mail her at [email protected]