ALL THE PRESIDENTS' WORDS by Carol Gelderman

ALL THE PRESIDENTS' WORDS

The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Gelderman (English/Univ. of New Orleans) departs from her usual genre of biography (Henry Ford, 1980; Mary McCarthy, 1988) in this thesis-driven history of speechwriting in the White House. The first half of her thesis--that presidents until Richard Nixon utilized a cadre of policymakers to double as speechwriters, thus uniting speechwriting with policy--is strong. Gelderman shows that, with varying degrees of effectiveness, presidents created policy through the speechwriting process itself, often taking months to draft their most famous words. The process was collegial, as with Eisenhower's ``Wheaties'' group, which drafted policy over breakfast every day. But with Nixon, media image, not substance, became the goal of the presidency. Nixon crafted his controversial speeches in isolation and kept key policy advisors in the dark. Gelderman's argument deteriorates in its post-Nixon passages. She identifies Nixon's heir as Ronald Reagan, which seems an odd choice, given Nixon's reputation as a workaholic who alienated his colleagues and Reagan's as a 9-to-5er who was content to let his aides do the work. The common ground, according to Gelderman, is the ``virtual presidency'': that is, the central importance to both leaders of image-crafting and the power of television. Gelderman claims that the reliance on TV has divorced policy from speechwriting and reduced the latter to the art of crafting attractive soundbites. But to prove this, she relies almost exclusively on foreign-policy issues, with little attention to domestic programs. She also shortchanges the Ford, Carter, and Bush administrations; Carter felt dishonest using speechwriters and wrote complex speeches. The author ultimately argues that Clinton is returning to the old marriage of speechwriting and policy (though here she bases her argument almost entirely on domestic issues, such as his masterful handling of the tragedy in Oklahoma City). An unfocused and unconvincing ending after a promising start.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-8027-1318-1
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1997




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