White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters
(Simon & Schuster, 2008)
Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company
Aristotle was right: Compelling rhetoric makes for compelling leaders. Rhetoric — far more than logic — is management’s method of converting dispassionate observers into committed participants. Leaders, even coercive leaders, want their words to win hearts and change minds. They equate eloquence with influence — and influence is the currency they crave. In business, politics, and practice, the quest for “better” communications translates into calls for better rhetoric. If it doesn’t effectively persuade — if it doesn’t lead people into inspired compliance — it isn’t effective communication.
That’s why presidents, CEOs, and prime ministers invariably seek help. They turn to wordsmiths, advisors, and communications gurus to better articulate their ideas and ideals. They pick sounding boards to clarify and amplify their persona and thoughts. Entire bureaucracies spring up to support the words and imagery used by leaders to manage expectations. Rhetoric makes their world go round.
Aristotle’s insights into the art, craft, and science of rhetoric have never been more relevant. More people in more places require more persuasion than ever before. The challenge of translating Aristotelian principles into practice, however, has become disconcertingly more complex in a Google, Facebook, and YouTube era. Thus, understanding the fundamentals matters more.
Although rereading Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric is not a bad idea, two new books persuasively present a more contemporary understanding of executive rhetoric at the highest levels. Each captures, from a radically different perspective, the individual and institutional bickering and telepromptered tweaking that ultimately puts words into leaders’ mouths. Their authors know how to tell a good story. The stories have a moral.
Pithy and fast-paced, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters is Robert Schlesinger’s history of Oval Office speech writing, presented both as a portfolio of personalities and as an evolving — mutating? — presidential institution. Schlesinger, son of Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and JFK house intellectual Arthur, has a keen ear for quotes that capture the improvisations that have shaped the communications of U.S. presidents from the 1930s through today. He can deftly trace the transformation of a phrase like “New Frontier” or “Great Society” from a throwaway scribble to an enduring cultural meme. White House Ghosts is my choice for the best book in this category.
Schlesinger also possesses a sharp sense of the absurdities that define interpersonal relationships at the apex of global power. Presidents of all eras want to express what they want when they want — be it the memorable phrase or a “weaving together” of two seemingly distinct speeches. Kennedy was a particularly demanding client, according to Schlesinger. “JFK said [to his feuding speechwriters] he was reminded of when his father would reject memoranda proffered by subordinates. ‘They would ask what he wanted, and he would say, “That’s up to you,” and walk out of the room,’ the president told his aides. ‘That’s what I am doing now.’”
This is a raconteur’s tale of communications innovation at the institutional level; you can’t help but smile and shake your head. Even the footnotes are as entertaining as any vignette in the central narrative. They’re analogous to speech writing’s “throwaway lines” that lift the pretty good talk into an energizing intimacy with the audience.
Any CEO, chairman, or C-suite executive paid to persuade external constituencies or internal workforces will find himself or herself jotting notes or reaching for the yellow highlighter while reading White House Ghosts. Viewing the presidency through the prism of the practice and culture of speech-writing offers unique insight into why rhetorical excellence is so hard to create, let alone maintain. The failures are as illuminating as the successes. Serious executives will be shocked at the seemingly slipshod ways in which the most important presidential communications are composed; they will also be intrigued by how presidents of different temperaments choose to collaborate with, compete with, and ignore their staffs and speechwriters. The words are frequently less interesting than the process that produces them.
Schlesinger’s White House history affirms how at least one vital aspect of that presidential process, from the FDR presidency to that of GWB, transcends politics and personnel: Speeches aren’t written. They’re rewritten, rewritten once more, and then revised. Only the best speeches — and the toughest speechwriters — are rhetorically elevated instead of fatally compromised by the seemingly endless iterations and political review.
To succeed in this environment, more than a few White House ghosts appear to have had egos larger than those of the presidents they served. The rhetorical imprint of JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen on Camelot was such that the Kennedy administration’s chapter becomes “The Age of Sorensen.” The man’s self-assurance and intimate relationship with his president (and, yes, writing partner) is simultaneously poignant and off-putting. On the one hand, Sorensen’s pride of White House place and craft careens into an alienating arrogance. On the other, Schlesinger observes, the man remains touchingly protective of the slain president he so ably served. (For another take on the Sorensen years, see “A Master Class in Leadership,” by Nell Minow.)
When it comes to manipulating rhetorical machinery, the presidential differences are as interesting as the similarities. FDR was a master manipulator and collaborator who loved language and skillfully edited the output of his rhetorical brain trusts; Truman was more invested in his plainspoken Missouri self-image than in the patrician speechifying of his predecessor. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were constrained both by the limits of their own communication styles and by their speech-writing processes. Richard Nixon could improvise a decent narrative from bullet points, whereas the first George Bush demanded that no submitted speech contain sentence fragments. Ronald Reagan’s years as an actor and General Electric spokesperson — as well as the sharp ideological divisions between his administration’s pragmatists and conservative “true believers” — made him an editor par excellence.
But they all had one thing in common: No formula for the writing process was sustainable. If the speech-writing process is too institutionalized, the rhetoric reads like laundry lists of policy points and Appropriations Committee compromises. If relationships are too personal, speechwriters become de facto policymakers rather than superior wordsmiths. The question of whether “policy should become speeches” or “speeches should become policy” has been a perennial source of tension in presidential politics. Whether speeches should be defined as events or as part of ongoing rhetorical processes has been a bloody bone of White House contention for decades.
These arguments extend deep into speech-writing mechanics and content. Should speechwriters be as knowledgeable as policymakers? Or is the rest of the institution better off when the writer’s role is to polish dull proposals into serviceable speeches? (Indeed, when the Clinton administration’s National Security Council “took away” foreign policy speech writing from the White House speechwriters, Schlesinger reports, it was heralded as a coup d’etat.) Are all the president’s communications best served by an all-star rhetorical team? Or is “good enough” good enough so long as the team is overseen by a superb editor who fluently knows the president’s voice?
The amorphous nature of the speech-writing process highlights other unavoidable complexities. For instance, how many of a leader’s public words reflect his or her own ideas rather than expressive implants from collaborators who have empathized their way into the leader’s thought processes? When gifted ghosts come to know their charges more as real people than as scripted orators, what do they then become? Peers, colleagues, advisors, collaborators…or something else? Presidents are never pure puppets, but history confirms that they seldom author either their most memorable or their most important lines. Who is the speechwriter’s true client: the president or the president’s chosen constituency?
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.
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.
But make no mistake: When he took over from the courtly and distinguished Reg Jones, Jack Welch understood that GE could not become the world-class company he wanted unless he became a world-class communicator. Actions speak louder than words, but Welch knew what actions he wanted to take. What he needed were the right words to express and explain them inside GE and out. That’s where Lane came in.
Lane is an ex-Army officer who was neither intellectual wordsmith nor business brain. But he understood hierarchy, command, communications, clarity of expression, and leadership’s compulsion to control “the most important” message. He was clearly someone who knew how to run a briefing or a presentation for busy and impatient people. Lane became Welch’s chosen instrument not because he was as smart or insightful as his boss but because he was willing to empower the CEO to succeed on his own terms. For better and worse, Lane made it easier for Welch to express his authentic self. (That’s a luxury that Schlesinger’s ghosts rarely had amid the bureaucracy of the U.S. executive branch.)
What makes Lane’s book particularly valuable is its prescriptive descriptions of how Welch reengineered GE’s rhetoric to create internal alignment. What Lane describes goes far beyond “the CEO’s speech as rhetoric” into a realm in which Welch defined himself as both author and editor of every GE leadership theme that mattered. Lane documents how his CEO constantly revised the rhetoric of his followers — his direct reports and managers — to simultaneously scale and impose himself and his vision enterprise-wide. Aristotle would have been impressed.
GE watchers and Welch fans all fondly point to GE’s Crotonville, N.Y., training facility as the firm’s crucible for executive development. Although this is true, it misses Lane’s sharpest point. Jacked Up shows why communications and indoctrination matter as much as or more than mere executive education. Crotonville is where GE’s top talent came to get “on message” (that was Jack’s message) or to get out.
As Lane observes: “Crotonville really works for GE. The drama of a plant being stopped in its tracks based on the recommendations of a bunch of ‘students’ sent a message across the management of the company: ‘They listen to and act upon what we say, so we can’t get up there and bullshit....’”
And Welch himself is quoted as saying, “I want conclusions people can walk out the door with. Not a lot of details. What are the other companies doing? How fast are we going, in their opinion? Fast enough? Too fast? If not fast enough, how do we make it go faster? Where do we need more resources? Do we have the right people? What should specific strategies be? Do they think there is a serious enough commitment across the businesses? How important is it perceived in the organization? I want specific recommendations. Add an officer? Buy two companies? Name those companies.”
Straightforward. Direct. Clear. This was the rhetorical template Welch demanded throughout his company. Performance mattered, but persuasively communicating the hows and whys of ingredients and investments that generated high performance was essential to the new GE. According to Lane, leaders who weren’t superlative presenters simply could not be leaders in Jack Welch’s GE. If you wanted a leadership future in GE, you had to have the ability to persuade Jack Welch.
Although several of Lane’s lessons are, frankly, communications clichés, how Welch’s leadership team reengineered the company around them is a compelling story. Their words were undeniably aligned with their actions.
From Aristotle on, this remains rhetoric’s greatest challenge and opportunity: How do leaders use language to persuade people to take action? How do actions illuminate and animate the words leaders choose to utter? Whether leaders write their own speeches, skillfully edit the prose that pops up on their laptops, or read whatever texts are projected on the teleprompters, the simple truth is that a “call to action” is supposed to result in action. As both this year’s best books on rhetoric persuasively illustrate, history judges whether the eloquence of the call matters more — or less — than the outcomes of the action.
Michael Schrage, who has ghostwritten speeches and op-eds for both public officials and business executives, holds appointments at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and London’s Imperial College. He was a Washington Post reporter and a columnist for Fortune and the Los Angeles Times.