February 18, 2008


SAM SMITH, THE IDLER, 1965 - Senator Gaylord Nelson was in the midst of a campaign speech last fall when he suddenly halted. He looked out at his audience and announced: "Ladies and gentlemen. This is the first time either you or I have heard this speech and, frankly, I don't agree with it." He finished his address speaking off-the-cuff. The occasion brought a rare moment of truth to the nation's speaking platforms. For here, unnoticed by the press, a public official had confessed to having been duped by a member of a sinister elite: he had been reading words handed to him moments before mounting the stage written not by himself, but by a ghostwriter.

Not even the Central Intelligence Agency is as secret and powerful an organization as the society of ghost-writers. Yet like CIA agents, ghost- writers have proliferated in recent years, their actions, number, and appropriations unchecked by a joint congressional committee or any other board of review, until today they sit at thousands of typewriters behind thousands of unmarked doors, making inarticulate men articulate, and forcing senators to say things they don't believe.

Like an agent of the CIA, a ghostwriter often works under a cover. He is labeled an "administrative assistant" or "staff aide," but whatever his title, his job is to spew forth an endless stream of verbiage upon the American scene. In his candid book, Congress, the Sapless Branch, Senator Joseph Clark revealed the extent to which words are sown amongst the good citizens of his state under his signature, words which he may never have seen. Clark admitted he decided early in his senatorial career that he would have to give his staff assistants "virtually complete responsibility for processing the mail." Clark's mail, like that of many other legislators is answered in large part by robotypers. The Pennsylvania senator rhapsodized about these machines: "Robo machines are semi-automated electric typewriters which will type a form letter at the press of a button. There is a newer, more expensive model which is fully automated. The robos will produce hundreds of perfectly typed letters in an afternoon: the super-robos will produce thousands of letters all night, while the staff and Senator sleep! And the beauty of it is that only a real expert can tell a robotyped letter and signature from one personally dictated and signed." Then the Senator went on to describe the ultimate in deceptive devices - the autopen, a $1200 contraption that simulates signatures. Clark has three forged signatures that he uses: "Most answers get the formal 'Joseph S. Clark.' Politicians who are not intimate get 'Joe Clark.' Friends get 'Joe' as do a fair number who are not friends but call me 'Joe' when they write."

(Before being too critical of Clark we must consider the ironic and interesting possibility that the comments on ghostwriting machines quoted above may have themselves been ghostwritten and that the senator may never have seen them before they were published under his name.)

Senator Clark's wonderful writing machines and the growth of the ghostwriting as a profession are evidence of widespread acceptance of a strange theory that the complexities of modern life make it necessary for public figures to say more than they can compose themselves. In fact, it is even believed in some circles that it is better if the public figure composes nothing at all and merely reads what is given him. Thus the news report on a new speech-writing office in the Navy Department which included the rather scornful note that "Now speech writing, even on the higher levels, is a sort of 'do-it-yourself' project."

Those who write their own stuff are (as a ghostwriter might phrase it over at the Pentagon) becoming virtually obsoleted. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that George Murphy should win a seat in the U.S. Senate or Ronald Reagan run for governor of California. They are the ghostwriter's ideal, actors who have learned to be pliant performers of someone else's words. We strongly suspect, in fact, that if the Republican Party fails to recover from its present afflictions it will be replaced by Actor's Equity. It is argued that someone as busy as the President must employ a staff of ghostwriters in order to keep up with his verbal commitments. Yet is Mr. Johnson any busier than Winston Churchill was at the height of the Second World War? Churchill, according to the reports we have read, spent hours sweating over his speeches, grooming them to perfection. Somehow, amidst the V-2's and the invasion plans, he found time to prepare his own words.

We will, however, concede that there are some valid reasons for the President, speaking as the whole government, to employ ghostwriters. But do senators, representatives, Air Force generals, bank presidents, ball players, police chiefs, bishops, United Fund chairmen and Girl Scout leaders have the same need? Hardly. If they are presented the choice between hiring someone to compose their speeches or articles and not speaking or writing, let them keep silent. We would all be the better for it. Congress would function more smoothly. Businessmen would not suffer indigestion from attending too many bad public dinners.

Further, we would be able to vote for political candidates as they really are, unvarnished by the efforts of a anonymous group of scribes. As things stand, we have no assurance that a candidate, once in office, will keep the same speech-writer used in the campaign and so we likewise have no assurance that we will continue to get what we paid for at the polls.

It might be possible to abolish the profession of ghostwriting altogether if a Federal law against plagiarism were passed. Our legislators could, if they had trouble drafting the measure, check with any of our higher institutions of learning for model academic codes dealing with this problem.

But we realize this isn't too practical and so offer a typical legislative compromise - a labeling bill. Under it, speakers and authors would be forced to disclose the true origin of their material and the names of ghostwriters would be listed with those of their candidates on all ballots. It's going to be tough to get even this measure through. The ghostwriters will work overtime churning out speeches in opposition to it. But if we win, a glorious silence will descend upon the land. Public figures will say no more than is within themselves and they will learn what Lincoln discovered some time ago: that if you have something to say, you can write a pretty good speech on the back of an envelope all by yourself.