Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter

Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter

by James C. Humes

A behind-the-scenes look at people who make presidents talk.See more details below


A behind-the-scenes look at people who make presidents talk.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Humes has enjoyed a diverse career as a legislator, lawyer, and author of 21 books, including three about his idol, Winston Churchill. He also served as a speechwriter for Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush, enjoying a close relationship with Nixon. The most revealing chapters of this book show the unraveling of the Nixon White House during Watergate. Humes identifies David Gergen, then an assistant to chief presidential speechwriter Raymond Price, as Deep Throat, the snitch who helped reporters Woodward and Bernstein. Like all good ghostwriters, Humes never takes center stage in this engaging memoir, which is laced with wickedly funny anecdotes; the politicos, presidents, and British royalty whom Humes fondly remembers receive star billing. Even Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, whom he does not admire, are not treated with the rancor that often passes for political humor. This winning combination of charm and humor is cheerfully recommended for public libraries.Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.

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Regnery Publishing
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


His words are a very fantastical banquet.


There are illusions—or delusions—about a White House speechwriter. People entertain the illusion of some whiz kid planting notions into the ear of the Great Man. The delusion is that the presidential scribe eventually starts fooling himself that he really has such power.

Actually, the speechwriter is more "image maker" than "idea maker." Back in the early days of the New Deal, the press called some of Franklin Roosevelt's speechwriters—particularly Raymond Moley and Judge Sam Rosenman—"the brain trusters." Well, the speechwriter today is more beautician than brain truster.

Presidents don't want new ideas from their writers. New ideas are controversial ideas. They rattle the status quo. Presidents prefer old cliches that are reminted to seem like brilliant insights.

What is Franklin Roosevelt's most-remembered line? The one in his Inaugural on March 4, 1933. "Let me again assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

FDR could have said, "Don't push the panic button," but that's not very original. Nor would he have made Bartlett's Quotations if he had just said, "Have faith." But Sam Rosenman crafted a beautiful line from an old bromide.

Twenty-eight years later, another president in his Inaugural Address captured the imagination of his country when he proclaimed, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country." Again,speechwriter Ted Sorensen had come up with a ringing way to say "be patriotic."

Read aloud this line by Ray Price, writer for Richard Nixon:

Faith without strength is futile
but strength without faith is sterile.

It combines both parallel phrasing and poetic rhyme. As women go to hairdressers to look beautiful, presidents count on the speechwriter or word cosmetician to make them sound beautiful.

Another notion people have about speechwriters is that they spend most of their time punching out drafts of earthshaking importance—an Inaugural Address or a State of the Union Message. Well, an Inaugural Address is written every four years and the State of the Union every year—not much to keep a stable of six or seven speechwriters busy. Even if you pile the recent ritual of the Saturday radio address—started by Nixon and institutionalized by Reagan—or the occasional speech that the networks televise from the Oval Office, it doesn't add up to a hefty caseload.

Actually, what you do, most of the time, is serve up the same kind of pap that some anonymous scribe in Buckingham Palace does almost every day for Queen Elizabeth. For every inaugural there are thousands of "ceremonials." Peter Benchley used to draft speeches for Lyndon Johnson. (He quit in 1968 to write Jaws.) Benchley had a name for these informal remarks—"Rose Garden Rubbish."

That's how Benchley described the concoctions of commendations, felicitations, and salutations that come forth from the president when he exits the Oval Office into the Rose Garden to deliver greetings to the Easter Seal Poster Girl or the "seasonal wishes" when he lights the National Christmas Tree.

Some writers resent their talents being wasted on these ceremonials for the president as chief of state. I didn't! Such "Rose Garden Rubbish" includes toasts at state dinners to visiting royalty as well as presidents and prime ministers. I always liked doing these "chores" for President Nixon because he used to invite the toast-writer to the "coffee and brandy hour" after the state dinner. (That's when guests file into the East Room after their banquet in the State Dining Room.)

Unlike a Queen Elizabeth, the president does not make Frank Sinatra "Sir Francis" or Ted Turner "Earl of Atlanta," but we do have our republican version of knighthood or peerage—the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I once spent a whole day writing one Duke Ellington. "In the royalty of music, no one swings higher than the Duke."

Yet ceremonials shouldn't be lightly dismissed. The greatest American address in history was a ceremonial—the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln, by the way, wrote it himself, and not on the back of envelopes on the train ride to Gettysburg. He sweated out seven drafts in his Executive Mansion study before he was satisfied. (Two words, however, he did ad-lib-he—added "... that this nation under God...".)

Peggy Noonan, with her Gaelic ear for melodic lines, drafted ceremonials for Reagan. Two which captivated the world were the speech at Normandy in 1984 and the one lamenting the crash of the Challenger spaceship in 1986.

Space was also the occasion of my most cosmic contribution. In 1969, I penned my draft for the plaque on the moon vehicle (actually it was on the LEM, the Lunar Expeditionary Module) that was left on the moon:

Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon in July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.

It would be followed by the names of President Richard Nixon, Edwin Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins.

Just before submitting it, I dined al fresco at an Italian restaurant on 18th & M Streets. I scratched out on a paper napkin these words after two bottles of Chianti.

Just as man explores space,
hope unites mankind exalting science.

Of course, the original draft was taken but, when it was pointed out to Bob Haldeman that it was an acronym of my name, I was soon called on the carpet.

"Humes," said Haldeman, "it's sacrilegious, it's obscene this—ego trip."

"Mea culpa," I replied. "If going to the moon doesn't qualify for an ego trip, what does?"

In July 1995, I was regaling my audience with my moon story at one of the camps in Bohemian Grove. As I bragged about "writing on the moon," one listener interrupted, "Jamie, you may have written on the moon, but I walked on the moon." I hadn't realized that a member of my audience of three was Pete Conrad.

I AM ALWAYS ASKED, "Why does a president need to have these extended amenities written out? Why can't he just wing it?" The answer is that everything the president says is engraved eternally in stone. President Carter tried ad-libbing at a state banquet in Mexico City by saying he had suffered from "Montezuma's revenge" on his honeymoon in Mexico. That almost triggered a rift in relations with our border ally!

When I'm out on the lecture circuit, I get questions from listeners who think there's something dishonest, or at least deceptive, about the use of a speechwriter. But a president has to be both "king" and "prime minister" and wear, as well, all the other hats as chief executive, commander-in-chief, and head of party. If he had to write all his own speeches, he wouldn't have time to do anything else.

By the way, a presidential speechwriter is not a recent development, a reaction to twentieth-century media demand. It dates back to when George Washington was president. He thought he was "an elected king" and the only model he knew was King George III, even though he'd kicked him out of the colonies. Prime ministers like Pitt wrote George III's speeches to Parliament just as Margaret Thatcher and John Major have drafted speeches for Queen Elizabeth for the past fifteen years.

George Washington's famous Farewell Address (the only speech required to be read aloud by Congress each year) was ghosted by Alexander Hamilton.

Of our forty or so presidents, only a few wrote their own speeches, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. (By the way, the first presidential speech ever typed out was Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865.)

Far from trampling on the Rose Garden requests, I welcomed the chores and cultivated the chance to write them. President Nixon once called me "the schmaltz king" for my declarations and dirges on decorations, disasters, and death.

In 1978, when I was promoting my book How to Get Invited to the White House, Tom Brokaw on Today asked me, "Mr. Humes, you did a lot of the fluff speeches but not the hard ones?"

I replied,"I don't know about that. You try sometime writing the presidential Thanksgiving Day message and not sounding trite!"

What I didn't tell Brokaw was that it was even harder because I didn't have the journalistic experience that most White House writers have. My equalizer was my arsenal of anecdotes and quotes.

THE FIVE PRESIDENTS I HAVE worked for include all the Republicans since the chief executive at the time of my birth—Herbert Hoover.

I drafted some remarks for Dwight Eisenhower in the last month of his presidency and others in 1967 in connection with the Nixon election effort. But most of my writing was for Nixon—first as a part-timer in his vice presidential office, then in his presidential campaign, and finally in the White House in 1969 and 1970, after which I went over to the State Department. I came back to the White House in 1976 to write some speeches for Gerald Ford. Later, in 1977, I was an editorial adviser in the preparation of his memoirs.

Of the five presidents I worked for, the one with whom I had least contact was Ronald Reagan, which I regretted since he had the best delivery of drafted remarks. Previously, I had helped him with a draft in 1975, while he was still governor of California. And I supplied him with some help in ceremonial toasts and remarks when called on during his presidency.

As for George Bush, I wrote speeches for both of his abortive campaigns in 1980 and 1988. I also supplied some speech material when he was president, in response to requests from the White House.

My life as a White House speechwriter could be said to have begun when I first came to the attention of Vice President Richard Nixon. At the time, my wife Dianne was writing the "Messages" for Nixon to sign. Those were letters of commendation or condolence, such as the fiftieth anniversary of the VFW or the death of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.

In a conversation with Nixon at a staff party, I told him of my file of a thousand quotations, as well as the hundreds of anecdotes that I had collected from my readings. I had stacked up to the ceiling in our Capitol Hill apartment ten black looseleaf notebooks that bulged with quotations. They had labels that ranged from "Action" to "Youth," as well as inspirational tidbits amassed from reading biographies such as Sandburg's six volumes on Lincoln or histories such as Will Durant's tomes on the history of civilization, and even the Bible and Shakespeare.

Nixon once introduced me to cabinet member "Red" Blount, saying, "Mr. Postmaster General, James Humes is my Quotes-Master General."

What Nixon liked was that he didn't have to memorize or read the remarks if he had an anecdote on which to play off. Once he got the anecdote in his head, such as the following about Jefferson and Franklin, he could expand it in a few sentences.

When Thomas Jefferson arrived in 1778 to be our minister to France, the French prime minister Count Vergennes said, "Monsieur Jefferson, have you come to replace Dr. Benjamin Franklin?"
Jefferson replied, "No one could ever replace Doctor Franklin. I am only succeeding him."
And Secretary [So-and-So] can never be replaced...

Bill Safire, in his Before the Fall, referred to this when he quoted Nixon: "Why can't you guys come up with the parables like Jamie Humes?"

Or take this tidbit that I dug up from my files—this one from Will Durant—when Nixon was toasting the shah:

The forerunner of Persia was Medea, and the capital of Medea was Ecbatana. Now Ecbatana means, in Farsi, a place where people from different religions and backgrounds meet to discuss peace. And tonight that is what the shah and I...

In my part-time work for Vice President Nixon in the 1960 campaign, I noted how Kennedy in his campaign speeches would often end with an important vignette from history. Sorensen, in his book on JFK, used some of these so often he would just end his draft with a hand-drawn picture of a "Sun" or "Candle."

If it was a picture of the sun, Kennedy would close this way:

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin arose and said, "I have often looked at the presiding chair which bears the design of a sun low on the horizon.

"I can tell you that there were months that I thought it was a setting sun, but today I know it's a rising sun, a new day for America, a new dawn for freedom."

Or if it was a drawing of a candle, Kennedy would say,

On June 4, 1780, in Hartford, Connecticut, there was an eclipse of the sun so that even at noon it was as dark as midnight. In that day—more religious than today—many thought it was the end of the world.

State legislators in the General Assembly clamored for adjournment, but the Speaker of the House, Colonel Davenport, silenced the din with these words, "Gentleman of the House, the Day of Judgment is either at hand or it is not at hand. If it is not nigh, there is no need to adjourn, but if it is at hand, I would want the Lord to know that I was doing my duty.

"I therefore will entertain the motion that candles be brought in to enlighten this hall of democracy."

My arsenal for ceremonials may have got me into the White House, but no speechwriter likes to admit he spends a lot of time dishing up the Rose Garden Rubbish. He or she prefers to have everyone think that he is formulating presidential policy. In fact, don't look in the White House directory for the Speechwriting Department. It comes under the euphemism Presidential Policy Staff.

But what about the messages to Congress on health care or foreign aid? I am often asked, "Jamie, didn't the president have one speechwriter who was a specialist on welfare and another who was a foreign policy expert?"

To which I would answer, "We writers are translators"—not translating Spanish into English but translating the bureaucratic into the poetic, the legalese into the elegant, the corporatese into the conversational, the complex into the simple.

Speechwriters are generalists—they can't be specialists! If the writer had been an economist or sociologist he'd write that way. The job of the writer is to zap the jargon with which academics or bureaucrats couch their proposals.

New foreign policy positions are drafted by someone in the National Security Council, budget messages by some deputy assistant secretary of the treasury.

But if a president were ever to deliver a televised address in the same form that some department functionary sent over to the White House, it wouldn't be a "Fireside Chat" because it would put out the fire!

In 1942, a civil servant brought, for Franklin Roosevelt's inspection, a new placard that was to be posted in every room of every federal building across the nation. The sign was prompted by the need for blackouts at a time when the United States believed it was threatened by bomb attacks.

The placard read:


Roosevelt took one look at it and roared, "Why the hell can't we say `Put out the lights when you leave'?!"

A speechwriter would also like you to believe that he is some kind of alter-ego for the president. Ted Sorensen for JFK, Bill Moyer for LBJ, Peggy Noonan for Reagan. With the possible exception of Sorensen, Ray Price for Nixon was the only one. (He would become Nixon's "son," the philosophical and ideological extension of the man.)

Actually, the Camelot speeches of JFK manifested more of Sorensen's taste than Kennedy's. Sorensen was a would-be poet who liked to entertain at dinner parties with comic verse and ditties. The internal rhyme in Kennedy's speeches was a Sorensen trademark. ("We prefer world law in an age of self-determination—we reject world war in an age of mass-extermination.")

When people asked me how I managed to work into a Ford style after writing for Nixon, I answered, "I don't try adapting—I write them all the same—simple syntax and conversational style."

It's as if someone were to ask me to bring back a dress from Paris for their daughter who is a size six. I'd buy something with simple lines and let the young woman make it her own with accessories and hairstyle.

A president will make an uncluttered style his own just by his individual inflection and delivery. The only time I ever tried for rhetorical eloquence was in an inaugural or convention acceptance speech which I knew the president would rehearse many times. If a president is reading a prepared text without at least reading it over several times, he is more likely than not to stumble over an unusual word or trip over a carefully crafted line.

Of course, you do have to learn the idiosyncracies of presidents. Nixon, for example, liked the didactic "Now, why do I believe that?" and the much parodied "Let me make it perfectly clear." Ford had problems with the pronunciation of "nuclear," in which he added an extra syllable. One wrote "atomic" instead.

I would also dig into the president's background. I might throw in a reference "to the swallows of Capistrano" for the southern Californian Nixon, or the effect of the "T" formation for former Michigan guard Ford, or a Babe Ruth anecdote for the All-American college first baseman Bush—when he was playing for Yale, Bush was introduced to the dying Home Run legend.

I studded Nixon's speeches with quotations from the statesmen he admired—Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were his favorites. For Ford, whose taste didn't run to biography, I kept to Lincoln and Churchill.

Actually—before Kennedy—quotations were rare in presidential utterances, but in the 1960 campaign Sorensen cited a galaxy of greats to light JFK's path to the presidency—not just the famous in politics but luminaries in poetry and philosophy, too. Sorensen paraded T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Plato, as well as Jefferson and John Calhoun to convince the voter of young Kennedy's wisdom and knowledge.

I learned early, however, that the esoteric quotation could backfire. In a commencement address I once wrote for Vice President Spiro Agnew, I quoted the French philosopher Albert Camus, "What makes a job a vocation is the service to truth and the service to freedom." Unfortunately, Agnew, unfamiliar with French pronunciation, sounded Camus with an "s." Afterwards, when a reporter asked who "Kamos" was, I explained, "an ancient Greek philosopher."

At a seminar in Harvard, I was asked, "You can't mean, Mr. Humes, that speechwriters are only `cosmeticians' or `translators'?"

Well, actually there are some occasions when a speechwriter might merit a footnote in history—like Alexander Hamilton's Farewell Address for President Washington. Some others that I can think of are Rick Hendryk's "malaise" speech for President Carter in 1975, Malcolm Moos's draft for President Eisenhower's Farewell Address in 1961, Tony Dolan's work for President Reagan in his address to Parliament in 1981, and Ray Price's "Silent Majority" speech for President Nixon in 1969.

This is what I call, in Plato's words, a "Philosopher-King" speech. Such a talk is not so much a plea for congressional votes as it is an appeal to American values. The president gives to the speechwriter only the most general of guidelines. It is up to the writer to fill in the details. It is every speechwriter's dream to be asked to draft a commencement speech, for he deals with the president directly—not through the filter of a White House chief of staff.

This is the kind of speech that triggers editorials by the New York Times or reams of newsprint by columnists.

And then there are those occasions when the speechwriter actually does make policy. I call it "the 3:00 A.M. president." Sometimes—even if the general details of a legislation message have been hammered out—unagreed matters remain because of fights between competing departments. As the various drafts of the proposed message are relayed to various cabinet heads for approval, one cabinet secretary knocks out one word or item and his rival puts it back in. A change goes in—then it's taken out. The beleaguered speechwriter watches the process bounce back and forth as he would a Ping-Pong match. The hours pass from late night into the wee hours of the next day, when the president is scheduled to deliver the message. Finally, the department heads go to bed and the final decision is left to the writer—hence the 3:00 A.M. president.

I remember one message on mass transit by President Nixon. The bone of contention was the funding. Budget Director Arthur Burns demanded it be paid from the gasoline tax, but Secretary of Transportation John Volpe wanted it covered by general revenues. At 3:30, I had to decide. I chose general revenues.

Strangely, my decision drew no backlash. Everyone assumed the president had made the decision. What did draw comment was a line where the Bard in me was trying to transcend "the bureaucratic." I had written, "We shall eliminate the `mass' in mass transit." I meant the congestion, but at a subcabinet meeting, vetting the talk, Counsel John Ehrlichman said, "What the hell does that mean?" And Budget Director Arthur Burns put down his pipe and surveyed my over two hundred pounds of corporeal splendor and said, "It means that Humes will never be allowed to take a subway or bus again!"

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