Vic Powell Reveals the Ghosts of American Politics

by Susan Veatch Cantrell

February 4, 2005

With his memorable, room-filling energy, Wabash professor and dean emeritus Vic Powell rang out the famous phrases:  "Give me liberty or give me death;"  "A house divided against itself cannot stand;"  "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."  Midway through each phrase Powell challenged his student audience to complete the familiar saying. "You know it," Powell exclaimed. "Now tell me who said it."
 
The Chapel grew quieter as students mumbled their guesses to their friends.
 
Powell’s Feb. 3 lecture couldn’t have been better timed, coming as it did less than 12 hours after President George Bush’s State of the Union address to Congress. After asking how many listened to it, Powell told them who wrote it. No, the author was not the President, but his ghostwriter Michael Gerson. Powell quickly admonished the students not to be disappointed in the President for that because United States Presidents beginning with George Washington himself have made good use of speechwriters – ghosts, as they are known in the business.

President Washington was probably more fortunate than most because his speechwriters included none other than James Madison, chief author of our Constitution, and Alexander Hamilton, the founder of our banking system. Indeed, it was Hamilton who wrote Washington’s often-quoted farewell speech to the nation.
 
After telling the audience that Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson wrote almost all of their speeches themselves, Powell explained that the public statements of our leaders have come to mean so much to Americans most likely because they did not write the speeches themselves. For that matter, neither do most politicians at any level or men and women business leaders. Speechwriting is difficult, and doing it right takes far more time than executives have – or, in the case of George Washington and many before and after him, more time than they had.
 
Former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson called ghostwriting "legal fraud," but Powell disagrees. "What you hear are always the speaker’s ideas," he pointed out. "The speechwriter may labor over the many drafts of a speech, but any writer foolish enough to try to impose his own opinions on a President of the United States would soon be finding him or herself walking among the Washington tourists. It is the speechwriter’s special skill to know the employer well enough and listen so carefully to his or her speech patterns that the writer can create a document that replicates the way the speaker’s thoughts and style. The philosophy and cadence are the speaker’s, not the speechwriter’s. They belong to the person who stands up in public and says them aloud.
 
Throughout our country’s history what our political aspirants and leaders say has been important to our government and the way the people think about it. Professor Powell suggests we should be grateful for the people who can help our leaders say just what they mean. Some of those statements have been strong enough to hold the nation together in times of trouble. They can enlighten us or infuriate us, but they always give us reason to think about our government and what it means to us and the world.

 


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