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THE CAPITAL: The Trouble with Ghosts

3 minute read

“Ghostwriting has debased the intellectual currency in circulation,” snapped Justice Robert Jackson, “and is a type of counterfeiting which invites no defense. But has any man before ever been disciplined or even reprimanded for it? And will any be hereafter?”

Jackson was dissenting sharply from a Supreme Court ruling last week, disbarring an aged patent lawyer from practice before the U.S. Patent Office because he had submitted a ghostwritten article as evidence. He was also pointing up an old Washington custom: ghostwriters had become as much a part of the furniture of modern government as the Mimeograph machine. Many a legislator was as helpless without his ghost as Jack Benny without his gagmen. They appeared on congressional payrolls as “secretaries,” in executive departments as “administrative assistants” and “information specialists.” And on the Supreme Court itself, some Justices’ legal styles changed in curious relation to their law clerks.

Ancient Tradition. Actually Washington’s ghostly authors were only bringing mass-production methods to an even more ancient if questionable tradition. Scholars hold that Nero’s speeches were written by his tutor, Seneca. Aulus Hirtius is credited with turning out part of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries. A good part of George Washington’s Farewell Address was probably written for him by Alexander Hamilton.

In later years, Hoover and Coolidge both employed ghostly assistance. And in his campaign speeches, Warren Harding had the help of a rising young ghost, Arthur Vandenberg, then editor of the Grand Rapids Herald. Today, Michigan’s Senator Vandenberg is one of the few who fashion their own rolling periods unaided.

But it remained to Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring ghostwriting into prominence by employing such eminent men as Judge Samuel Rosenman, Playwright Robert Sherwood, Brain Truster Raymond Moley and Poet Archibald MacLeish. Dean of them all, and perhaps the shrewdest, was the late Charley Michelson, longtime pressagent for the Democratic Party, whose typewriter supplied uncounted Democratic bigwigs with taunts that made a whole generation of Republicans miserable.

Eloquence for Hire. Currently, Washington’s most conspicuous ghost is President Truman’s Clark Clifford (Economic Adviser Elliott Bell performs the same function for the Republicans’ Governor Tom Dewey). Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington is supplied with speeches by young, cocky Steve Leo, onetime Maine newsman; Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan by ex-TIME Reporter Wesley McCune. General Omar Bradley’s famed, soldierly prose is the product of Lieut. Colonel Chet Hansen, an ex-newspaperman who planned to leave but has been persuaded to stay on—to finish Bradley’s memoirs. Of the host of other U.S. postwar memoirs, few have come into print without a touch of ectoplasmic eloquence. Two recent exceptions to the rule: General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s and General George Kenney’s.

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