Ghost Stories

In October 2007 -- the same month that Random House emerged from a four-day auction with a $9 million deal for Tony Blair's memoirs -- Robert Harris published his sixth novel, The Ghost. It centers on a cynical, self-aware ghostwriter who must finish the memoirs of a former British prime minister. The PM, thanks to war crimes, waterboarding, and other timely plot points, is laying low in America, but Harris spends more time skewering publishers than politicians. He did his homework, interviewing real ghostwriters and pulling epigraphs from a handbook by "Britain's foremost ghostwriter," and his novel makes for some biting (if predictable) satire. No wonder Harris told National Public Radio, on the last day of his rather busy October, that he "just really was interested in this phenomenon of the ghostwriter."

The main thing that interested NPR, and the novel's reviewers, though, was playing connect-the-characters with the Blair administration. The Ghost certainly allows for this reading, and Harris handled the attention with the skill of someone who'd been expecting it, smirking and demurring his way through round after round of sales-boosting interviews.

Now it's happening again -- this time to the recently released film version of Harris' novel, adapted by Harris and director Roman Polanski and retitled The Ghost Writer. Polanski doesn't ease up on the publishing industry -- that he casts Jim Belushi as the publisher's CEO should tell you everything you need to know -- but, yet again, context has overpowered conceit. Last year, after decades on the lam, Polanski was arrested on charges of having "unlawful sexual intercourse" with a young girl in 1977. He managed to finish The Ghost Writer under house arrest, but the contours of its reception were set. (How many reviews start with something like: "A horrible crime, a scandalized public figure, the specter of extradition -- no, it's not Roman Polanski's life, it's his latest movie"? I'll take the over.)

In both book and film, it seems, Harris' inquiry into the ontology of ghostwriting never stood a chance. But that's just as well since, on both sides of the Atlantic, people stopped worrying about ghostwriting a long time ago.


George Washington's most famous speech, the Farewell Address (1796), wasn't actually a speech -- it appeared, over the course of a few weeks, in almost every American newspaper. The address wasn't Washington's, either. Alexander Hamilton, with assists from Washington and James Madison, did most of the writing.

In the years after Washington's death, readers continued to assume that the first president alone had written the Farewell Address. By 1810, though, Hamilton's authorship was being noted in private letters and public gossip -- a legitimate piece of Antebellum undernews. Hamilton's wife, Eliza, desperately wanted to reveal her husband's role in writing the address and, in doing so, to rehabilitate his reputation, but Hamilton's executor refused to give her the draft that proved his authorship. So she sued him, at which point newspapers began speculating about the author of the address. Jefferson, Madison, even the Historical Society of Pennsylvania weighed in, and the debate persisted for decades. The prominent Philadelphia lawyer Horace Binney admitted in 1859 that the public, with its "deep and undivided reverence" for Washington, "was unwilling to learn, that, even on an occasion of ceremony, he had worn any vesture but his own."

Madison worried the Farewell Address would "lose the charm of the name subscribed to it," but he also knew that Washington made "no secret to some that he occasionally availed himself of the friendship of others" -- others, that is, who could write. The affair didn't stop American politicians from turning to ghostwriters. Early examples remain fairly infrequent and often anonymous, but this had less to do with the fear of scandal than with the fact that the political world simply produced less prose.

This had all started to change by the election of Warren Harding, the first president to employ a full-time ghostwriter. Judson Welliver wrote Harding's speeches, which H. L. Mencken famously compared to "a string of wet sponges," undetected. (Elsewhere, Mencken called Welliver "a journalist of the highest skill.") Yet within a few years, Time magazine could clearly detail Welliver's duties as a ghostwriter to Harding and, later, to Calvin Coolidge. The Time article focuses mostly on Welliver's successors, including F. Stuart Crawford, who "went under a cloud when it was found that the Coolidge addresses, when dealing with geography and other indisputable facts, followed with a striking literalness the text of the International Encyclopaedia."

While Coolidge decided to proceed without a full-time ghostwriter, he would be the last president to do so. This is not to say that future presidents were ready to relinquish their shot at projecting a Washington--like image of solitary genius. Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the ghostwriting-by-committee approach -- historians still argue about which aide coined the "new deal" phrase -- but, for his first inaugural, he looked to one man: Raymond Moley. Moley typed up a draft and, the next night, revised it with Roosevelt, watching as the president-elect copied it onto a legal pad. When they finished, Moley threw his initial text into the fireplace and said, "This is your speech now." But FDR took him too literally, adding, a month later, this note to his handwritten draft: "The Inaugural Address as written at Hyde Park on Monday, February 27, 1933. I started in about 9.00 P.M. and ended at 1.30 A.M." The note makes no mention of Moley, and historians continued recounting FDR's lonely night until Moley cleared things up in his own memoir.

Moley wrote several memoirs, in fact -- and, among FDR's ghostwriters, he was not alone in this. As books like Charles Michelson's The Ghost Talks (1944) became best-sellers, they indicated that ghostwriting had moved solidly into the mainstream. There were a few surly outliers like Walter Lippman, who argued that "no one can write an authentic speech for another man; it is as impossible as writing his love letters for him or saying his prayers for him." But most politicians, media types, and, above all, voters found themselves with more or less modern attitudes toward ghostwriting. In 1952, American University started offering a course in ghostwriting, and it wasn't too long before The Washington Post was subjecting the "boyish" James Fallows, Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, to the same puff profiles it now does to Obama's top scribe, Jon Favreau.

Speeches are one thing, but audiences tend to hold books -- even political books -- to higher standards. The division between these categories, however, has never been precise. Before today's clearly defined campaign biographies and manifestos, the most popular way to kick off a campaign was with a collection of speeches, previously ghostwritten, now compiled by anonymous aides. The rise of ghostwritten books also parallels the rise of ghostwritten speeches. James Buchanan, a terrible president but a titan in the untold history of presidential autobiography, had an assistant write his memoirs from dictation in 1867. (Buchanan died before they could finish.) By 1927, when the Authors' League held a meeting on ghostwritten celebrity books, the consensus was that "the public was at one time completely credulous on the point. Now it seems unlikely that it believes in any of the noted athletes, singers or politicians who break out in print."

For readers, in other words, a political book's impact matters more than its authorship -- and nowhere was this clearer than during the postwar period, which saw a series of popular political books, all best-sellers, all instrumental in shaping their authors' careers. Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe (1948), Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative (1960), and Richard Nixon's Six Crises (1962) relied on ghostwriters to varying degrees; no one cared. Jimmy Carter wrote Why Not the Best? (1975) without any help; no one cared about that, either.

In the midst of all this, of course, came John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage (1956). And while Kennedy's authorship- -- -or, more accurately, Ted Sorensen's authorship -- became controversial, it was the book's Pulitzer Prize that catalyzed the backlash. The problem wasn't ghostwriting; it was award-winning ghostwriting. Profiles in Courage was, from the beginning, both a political boon and a popular success, with a serialization in The New York Times Magazine and, a mere two weeks after its release, a television-adaptation deal. But the sniping at Kennedy's authorship didn't start, in print, at least, until after -- a mere eight days after -- he won the Pulitzer on May 7, 1957. Even Drew Pearson, the political columnist who dragged the issue onto the national stage, framed his accusation in terms of the award: "Jack Kennedy," Pearson said on ABC's The Mike Wallace Interview, "is the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize on a book which was ghostwritten for him."

While Pearson couldn't recall his name on air, Sorensen used ghostwriting to acquire his own degree of celebrity. (Sorensen also used it to get revenge: He wrote the retraction Pearson had to read on the next week's show.) It makes sense that many successful writers have ghostwritten political books and speeches- -- -and that even more have used ghostwriting as a step toward broader success. Let's put an end to the absurdly resilient rumor that Mark Twain ghostwrote Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs, then note that the ghostwriting ranks have included George Bancroft (he wrote speeches for James Polk and Andrew Johnson), Archibald MacLeish and Robert Sherwood (FDR), Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Steinbeck (Lyndon Johnson), William Safire and Pat Buchanan (Nixon), Hendrik Hertzberg and Chris Matthews (Carter), Thomas Mallon (Dan Quayle) -- and Walter Lippmann, who prayed and loved on behalf of both Woodrow Wilson and JFK.


In our own age, ghostwriting has matured into a decorous, rule-bound discipline -- lawyers and polite society both recognize the difference between a book's "writer" and its "author," and one can draw similar (though less precise) distinctions between byline language choices like "and," "as told to," or "with." If specific ghostwriters get noticed, it is only as an extension of their client. Indeed, most recent attempts to scandalize ghostwriting reflect partisan motives or divisive personalities more than any underlying anxieties about ghostwriting. When Hillary Clinton opted not to thank her ghostwriter in the acknowledgments of It Takes a Village (1996), it became a mini crisis; when Howard Dean repeated her mistake in Winning Back America (2003), only Newsweek noticed.

This selective outrage helps to explain the bizarrely detailed accusations, launched by right-wing bloggers late in the 2008 election, that Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father (1995) was ghostwritten by Bill Ayers. In fact, the Obama-Ayers example perfectly illustrates the state of ghostwriting today: Only the most partisan readers can muster (or manufacture) any anger about it. If the bloggers were truly concerned about the demise of political discourse, they might have compared Dreams to the muzzled style of The Audacity of Hope (2006) -- and to the latter's acknowledgments page, which nods to a whole focus group's worth of political allies, including Favreau.

The bloggers were never concerned about this -- nobody is. It's too late to save Harris and Polanski from the collective shrug that greets ghostwriting. But what about Blair? His autobiography, The Journey, arrives this September, and he and Random House insist he's writing it without any help. Someone should get him a subscription to The London Review of Books, in which a recent review laid into the new historical book written by Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, for making mistakes "a competent ghost-writer might have avoided." At least, the reviewer snarked, "our new prime minister should be able to fend off any doubts about authorship."

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