Ghostwriting and the political book culture

In the spring of 1949, Eleanor Roosevelt turned in the manuscript for her second memoir — this one on the White House years — to her editors at Ladies’ Home Journal. “You have written this too hastily,” came the reply, “as though you were composing it on a bicycle while pedaling your way to a fire.”

Roosevelt’s editors asked her to revise the manuscript with the help of a ghostwriter, but she refused. “I would have felt the book wasn’t mine,” she said. She ended up selling her book’s serial rights to the Journal’s biggest rival, McCall’s, for $150,000. “This I Remember” became a bestseller, and provided McCall’s with a nice boost in its battle for the hearts and souls of America’s housewives.

This might seem like a story designed to rally supporters of serious writing and thinking: A political figure who actually crafts her own words, who stands up to lazy editors and stands on her convictions. But what would those supporters make of Roosevelt’s various assistants? To complete “This I Remember,” she relied on them not only to edit and offer advice but to dig through her files for anecdotes and stories, to compile questions to spur her memory — even to organize and outline her responses.

The point is, even politicians who write their own books don’t write them alone, and we’d be better off looking past ghostwriting to the real problems behind political books.

One way to see this is in the fact that it’s almost impossible to define what a ghostwriter is. Ulysses S. Grant, whose “Memoirs” is often cited as the best presidential book, relied on a small army of aides — not only Mark Twain, who edited and published the book, but also a number of now anonymous researchers and assistants. Modern political authors typically add a ghostwriter or two to this mix.

But even there, things can get slippery, with some politicians writing the first draft, others writing or dictating specific passages, and others simply supplying the raw materials. (This is one reason “ghostwriting” remains a sexy but misleading term: It imposes uniformity on what is really a broad range of relationships.)

Every political book, in other words, involves a degree of collaboration. But so does every book, period. This should be easier to see today, when many works are less weighty, well-reasoned tomes than multimedia launching platforms. And yet you can always find someone, usually a professional writer, willing to bash ghostwriting. These critics may start by pointing out how nice it is when politicians write their own books (and I agree, when the politician can write a good book). But their attacks quickly turn visceral. And ghostwriting quickly turns into a symbol of our political and cultural decline.

There’s an irony in all of this: People fixate on ghostwriting for the same reasons they fixate on authors. Over the last 200 years, we’ve invested a lot of time, energy and emotion in a particular idea of The Author, alone and inspired. It makes sense that, when confronted with the complex systems that produce, promote and sell books, we need to isolate one element: whether to idolize (The Author) or condemn (ghostwriting).

But this impulse causes us to miss the more pressing problems in our political book culture. I think we can all agree that these books share some common flaws: bland prose, too many details we don’t want, too few details we do, and a hopelessly cliched life story (what was, in previous centuries, the log cabin problem). But it’s a mistake to blame this on ghostwriting, especially when the real problems stem from money and politics.

Again, there’s a long history here — Roosevelt’s advance adjusts to about $1.5 million in today’s dollars — but the shortlist for best villain would have to include the publishing industry. Editors now give fewer and fewer authors bigger and bigger advances — major investments that, as with blockbuster movies, lead to a safe and formulaic approach. Those advances contribute to other problems too. Editors need to publish while their authors-slash-commodities remain a hot property. Politicians now sign deals before leaving office, then get maybe 12 months to churn out a book. (Compare this to Harry Truman, who kicked off the modern presidential memoir: He and his ghostwriters got almost three years.)

Also problematic are the politicians’ inner circles. Every adviser will have an opinion on this sentence and an argument for cutting that juicy detail. Finally, there are the politicians themselves. They bring to the writing process both a legacy to preserve and a willingness to cash in on public service, and it’s no surprise that their books often reveal nothing more than a desire to rewrite history and a still-hot ambition.

With all of these external factors (and this is just a partial list), political ghostwriting becomes a byproduct not of laziness but of logistics. It’s a symptom, not a disease. After all, Laura Bush, one of our more literate and literary first ladies, turned to a ghostwriter while working on her new memoir, “Spoken from the Heart.” Lyric Winik, Bush writes in her acknowledgments, “helped me put my story into words.” If Bush needed the help, what political figure wouldn’t?

Just last month, it came out that Winik also will be helping Scott Brown with his new book (due in early 2011). But it’s far more telling that Bush and Brown share another connection: Robert Barnett, the D.C. mega agent who has secured multimillion-dollar book deals for Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, both Clintons and many, many more.

Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books.