Ghostwriters, Speechwriters, and the State of Our Union


going rogue Bill Pugliano Getty 600.jpg
Politico reports that freshman Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is "writing a book," and I suppose that's an accurate statement if "writing a book" means hiring someone to write a book for you.  As Brown's spokeswoman says, he "will work with a collaborator," indicating that like most celebrity athletes, pop stars, and politicians, he will be the "author" of a book (a memoir, no less) that someone else has written.  
But the degradation of authorship, hardly a new phenomenon, does seem a most appropriate one today.  When political inexperience and ignorance are practically qualifications for office, why should literary experience or talent be required of authors?  People who can't or won't govern are elected to high office, so why shouldn't people who can't write win lucrative contracts to author books?    
Pop culture promotes a perverse relationship with expertise (as I've written here).  The personal development industry encourages consumers to seek "expert" advice when common sense should do: dieting gurus, relationship experts, life coaches, and a range of pop psychologists peddle secret formulas for such daily challenges as talking to your spouse, discouraging unwelcome friendships, or dieting (the secret of which is nothing so simple as "expend more calories than you ingest").  Meanwhile, candidates for offices that require extensive knowledge, intelligence, reason, fairness, and nuanced judgment often boast of their ordinariness (at least you can't accuse them of false advertising). Scott Brown posed with his truck; Sarah Palin introduced herself as a "hockey mom," just as, years earlier, Democrat Patti Murray successfully ran for Senate as a "mom in tennis shoes." (Women have long brandished their domestic experiences as credentials for political office, partly out of necessity; they've run with feminine stereotypes instead of against them.)
Ordinariness is supposed to signal the candidate's authenticity, but authenticity, in politics or publishing, is carefully constructed by agents, consultants, and other marketers--with the full cooperation of voters and consumers.  (Voting, as many have observed, has devolved into consuming.)  The construction process is surprisingly and disturbingly transparent.  You can sympathize with people who are tricked into buying what they mistakenly believe is the real thing, and you can strive to expose the tricksters.  But what hope is there for people who can see the man behind the curtain and believe in his wizardry anyway?

So while covertly ghostwritten books were marketed more dishonestly than books that give second billing to the celebrity author's "collaborator," at least the dishonesty gave consumers an excuse for crediting the celebrity with writing a book.  Today the celebrities retain their claims to authorship even as they acknowledge that their books were "told to" named writers.  It's no secret that Lynn Vincent ghostwrote Sarah Palin's book, but her critics and detractors alike have treated Palin as both author and writer anyway.  "She writes with sensitivity and affection," the Wall Street Journal's Melanie Kirkpatrick opines.  (Actually she writes with Lynn Vincent.)  Palin "talks, "writes," and "argues" in her book, Michiko Kakutani says, even while parenthetically noting Vincent's "assist."
When they're not getting credit for authoring openly ghostwritten books, politicians are identified with the language of their openly ghostwritten speeches.  The emergence of the celebrity speechwriter is an even odder, more troubling phenomenon.  Crediting a star athlete with authoring an "as told to" book is a lot less consequential than crediting a candidate for a vision of governance that we know someone else articulated.  Politics matters.  Celebrating Ronald Reagan for what we knew to be Peggy Noonan's eloquence mattered.  Political consultants openly fashion "stories" and "narratives" about candidates, as if they were fictional characters engaged in metaphoric quests. And we oblige them by reacting less like citizens than members of an audience, willingly suspending our disbelief.

Photo credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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