LiteratEye #35: Ghost Story: The Riddle of Who Wrote What

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes, Media Literacy

Here’s the thirty fifth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.


LiteratEye #35: Ghost Story: The Riddle of Who Wrote What
By W.J. Elvin III
October 16, 2009

seance-200It may come as a surprise to some that Sean Connery, in his recent book, Being A Scot, provides a truly enlightening cultural history lesson.

The book, issued by Phoenix Illustrated and as yet available only as an expensive import here in the States, surveys Scottish creativity, inventiveness and history. And, since it’s autobiographical in its own quirky way, there’s the necessarily egocentric focus on Connery.

Of particular interest to armchair detectives of the LiteratEye squad is the invitation to help solve a literary mystery.

Connery presents a gloom-and-doom quote, written two hundred years ago but obviously appropriate in the present day. Sorry if it’s a bit windy and profound, it’s Sir Sean’s puzzle, not mine:

“A democracy is always temporary, and therefore cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It will only exist until the voters discover that they can reward themselves with the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury. A democracy therefore always collapses over loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a great dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”

Connery says the quote traces to the voluminous works of a fellow Scot, the historian Alexander Fraser Tytler. It was given new life in a speech by President Ronald Reagan (who, ironically, sparked massive raids on the public treasury to compensate for the economic crimes and disasters resulting from his deregulation debacles).

What Connery wants to know is just where in Tytler’s work does the quote appear? A search of Tytler archives in the U.S. and Scotland failed to turn up the exact source.

So readers are asked if they know or can determine the exact source. It seems to me Connery makes a big mystery of this because he mistakenly believes Reagan, now released from this earthly asylum, is the only one who could answer his question.

Though he did take a serious hand in the crafting of his speeches – unusual for a politician – Reagan relied heavily on others for much of the work. So the person to ask in sourcing the quote might be Peggy Noonan, or another of his speechwriters. One of them just might remember.

There’s always a stable of speechwriters in residence or on call at the White House. Not to mention the bevy of advisors who can often be counted on to reduce the speechwriter’s artistry to soupy pabulum.

One revealing book on the subject is White House Ghosts by Robert Schlesinger. What it reveals, a reviewer notes, is the astonishing fact that several presidents actually penned their speeches themselves.

James C. Humes tells of his work with five presidents in another insightful insider account, Confessions of a White House Ghost Writer.

While presidents may have at least tweaked their speeches a bit, it’s very doubtful they did the basic research. Speech-givers, at least those on the national circuit, usually have staff to handle chores such as research. So what it comes down to is this: If you’re looking for information about something said in a speech, article or book by a public personality – politician, CEO, celebrity –, you’ll probably have to figure out who actually wrote the material and put your question to that individual.

Which brings us around to this silly – absurd, inane and ridiculous – flap over authorship of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. The charge that he had a ghostwriter is being billed – I kid you not – as the greatest literary scandal in American history.

There must be literally a thousand bloggers wetting their pants over author Jack Cashill’s declaration that Obama was assisted by a ghostwriter. Apparently there’s some truth to that assertion, but even so it’s about on par with discovering that water is wet.

“Had the truth about Dreams been shared widely during the 2008 campaign, Obama would never have been nominated, let alone elected,” Cashill writes. Cashill is an educated man, seemingly savvy about how the world works. What in the world is he thinking?

Maybe he’s thinking as do some popular media writers and editors of my acquaintance, along the lines of: “What have we got in the way of raw meat to throw to the wild beasts this week?”

Most of the rhetorical incontinence is streaming forth from the right, where a legion of bloggers seem determined to prove yet again that right-wingers are cave dwellers who haven’t even discovered fire yet, explaining why they spend so much time in the dark.

Over to the left there are fewer wild-eyed yahoos on this particular issue, but here and there a true believer expresses bewildered astonishment over the very possibility that the noble Obama might have had help with his book. Wait ‘til they hear JFK personally won a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage, a book that had a committee of authors, notably Ted Sorenson.

These folks need to get a clue. If you’ve read current works by Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Sarah Palin or just about any other public figure, you’ve read the work of a ghostwriter.

Agents and publishers frequently rely on ghostwriters to make a marketable product out of a mish-mash, whether it be “fact” or fiction. “Op-Ed” opinion pieces by doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, among others, often have a ghost behind them. Well-known people in various fields are paid simply for use of their names on columns, newsletters, fund raising letters and so on.

I’m not talking about once in a while – I’m talking about reality, how it works, business as usual. In fund raising, quite frequently the heart-felt and personal letter is first written by the pros and then the question becomes: Who do we get to sign it?

Back during the Reagan era it was a Washington joke, heh-heh, that somewhere there was a firm, Rent-a-General, providing signatures for the patriotic pressure groups pumping out militaristic scare letters to potential contributors, on themes such as “We need a missile defense umbrella now!”

Whether it’s the need for a missile shield, a rain forest crisis, or a pitch to help starving Africans, interest groups don’t leave it to amateurs to inspire donations. Crafting such documents is an art and science handled by professionals.

There are of course exceptions. Morris Dees, founder and driving force of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is legendary for his masterful crafting of what the industry calls “beg letters.” There are, in other words, those in leadership positions who write their own material, but it’s a rare thing.

A popular and productive British ghostwriter described his role as “ventriloquist.” That may seem a bit demeaning of the client but it is sometimes true. I worked once for a wannabe politician who, though very successful in his particular line of business, seemed fairly much a vacant lot when it came to fresh or inspiring ideas on the issues of the day.

So I had to put thoughts in his head as well as words in mouth.

In addition to a little work in ghosting, I had the opportunity to observe ghosts in action over the course of many years. The case of Vice President Dan Quayle comes to mind. He looked good, but, left to his own devices, he’d open his mouth and spoil it with a clinker like his famous misquote of the United Negro College Fund slogan: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind…”

Those who were around and aware at the time will recall the slogan actually went, “A mind is terrible thing to waste.” At any rate, his staffers were perpetually concerned that he might blow a speech.

I happened to be seated at a table next to Quayle’s handlers and writers at some grand function that was undoubtedly forgotten the next day. Quayle took the podium and his henchmen studied the reactions of the audience with great intensity. It was a little weird, even to a cynic like me, to watch their carrying-on. For instance, they’d giggle and high-five when a flag-waving, patriotic line – undoubtedly of their creation – was delivered with appropriate solemnity and drew rousing applause.

But that’s the real world of politics. The star-quality politician is a product, packaged and marketed by professionals.

If anything, the hullabaloo over who wrote what shows the desperation of those looking for ways to pillory Obama. If he’d spent a million dollars in campaign cash at casinos in Vegas, that’s a story. But that he had help, even a lot of help, on a book he claims to have written?

Sure, if it’s true he had help, he could have mentioned it the way Sean Connery mentions Murray Grigor, up front and honest. But that’s not standard operating procedure and failure to mention the ghostwriter is certainly no scandal by today’s publishing standards. In speechwriting, you probably wouldn’t ever learn who wrote the thing, unless it was a monumental flop – then, as sometimes happens, the speechwriter might become the speaker’s scapegoat.

With the Obama book, though, it’s not just that there was a ghostwriter, it’s the credentials of that particular writer. Bill Ayers was a bomb-planting 1960s radical noted for his “kill your parents” advice to his generation. Anyone who was a parent or loved a parent in those days might even now disrespect the guy.

I’ve read some of Ayers’ recent writing. He still believes the country is in some part in the hands of corrupt, cruel and incompetent people. You disagree?

He’s devoted his life to educational reform and was, so I read, named a Citizen of the Year in Chicago. Consider this, from a New York Times article posted on his blog: “No one can reach my age with their eyes even partly open and not have hundreds of regrets. The responsibility for the risks we posed to others in some of our most extreme actions in those underground years never leaves my thoughts for long.”

People change, cultures change. I saw a news report recently where Ayers was asked if he wrote Obama’s book. His answer, however tongue in cheek, was mainstream American. Yes, he wrote the book, he said, adding something to the effect of “now, where are my royalties?”

photo: Jason Kodiak’s ghostwriting site


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact Literateye@gmail.com)


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