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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Rhetoric

White House Ghosts answers these questions by describing how presidents, and presumably other leaders as well, end up defining themselves and their rhetorical strategies through their chosen and ill-chosen speechwriters. The people you pick to help put words in your mouth, and how you manage them, reveals more than a little bit about who you are as a leader and what you aspire to be as a communicator.

Schlesinger declines to make the explicit case for it, but he has collected all the material needed to prove that the rhetorical engineers whom a president selects have a bigger impact on public perception than the cabinet secretaries he nominates.

For example, when Lyndon Johnson gave his powerful 1965 address supporting civil rights, he took care to pick a speechwriter who could marry the politics of the moment to the transcendence of enduring values: former JFK speechwriter Richard (Dick) Goodwin. Schlesinger writes:

Goodwin knew that he was participating in an historical moment. “There was, uniquely, no need to temper conviction with the reconciling realities of politics, admit to the complexities of debate and the merits of ‘the other side,’” he recalled. “There was no other side. Only justice — upheld or denied. While at the far end of the corridor whose entrance was a floor beneath my office, there waited a man ready to match my fervor with his own. And he was the president of the United States….

“Although I had written the speech, fully believed in what I had written, the document was pure Johnson,” Goodwin would write. “My job was not limited to guessing what the president might say exactly as he would express it, but to heighten and polish — illuminate, as it were — his inward beliefs and natural idiom, to attain not a strained mimicry, but an authenticity of expression. I would not have written the same speech in the same way for Kennedy or any other politician, or for myself. It was by me, but it was for and of the Lyndon Johnson I had carefully studied and come to know.”

Is that the kind of rhetoric-generating relationship presidents should want? White House Ghosts skillfully finesses that question.

Presidential rhetoric is as much the product of organizational leadership and culture as it is of personnel, process, or policy. Schlesinger’s book should be read both as chronological collection of White House rhetorical gangs and as insightful sociology of this country’s essential bureaucracy of persuasion. If words truly matter, how they are created truly matters, too. The author would have better served his readers and his ghosts, however, had he invested a bit more effort in considering how radio, television, cable TV, and — yes — the Internet have literally changed the rhetorical channels of communication. Americans don’t yet live in an era when the State of the Union address features PowerPoint slides…but wait.

Jack Said
Of course, there’s no need to wait for PowerPoint slides to describe the state of General Electric: They’re already there. Leading America is undeniably more difficult than running GE, but as Ronald Reagan might have observed, the rhetorical emphases are remarkably similar. With no disrespect intended to the late president or to other rhetorically gifted politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former GE Chairman and CEO Jack Welch had powers of persuasion as remarkable as they were globally successful. Compelling and dynamic rhetoric was at the core of the Welch leadership brand.

Bill Lane’s Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company is shockingly informative, unexpectedly funny, and a surprisingly good read about Welch’s tenure as GE’s CEO and CRO (chief rhetoric officer). Lane was a GE speechwriter for Welch for two decades. In this memoir-cum-management text, he paints his former boss as a feisty, profane, hyperkinetic mama’s boy from Pittsfield, Mass., hell-bent on molding America’s premier company to his vision and will. Lane’s Welch becomes almost a cartoon caricature of a shorter-than-average stutterer intent on being a larger-than-life CEO.

 
 
 
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