The Writers Behind the Writers
Members Often Turn to ‘Collaborators’ to Help Tell Their Stories
When it comes to penning the perfect book, prominent American figures from Ulysses S. Grant to “Simpsons” icon Krusty the Clown have been known to seek professional assistance.
So it’s hardly surprising that many Members of Congress would turn to a ghostwriter or collaborator (the preferred term for these modern-day Boswells) to ease the sometimes-daunting task of capturing their lives and views on paper.
“I don’t think there were many politicians who ever wrote [their own] books,” said New York Sun columnist William Tucker, who worked with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on his 1995 bestseller, “To Renew America.” “A lot of these guys have all kinds of ideas and don’t know how to organize them.”
“Ever since the Newt Gingrich deal, everybody and their mother is in search of a book contract,” added New York literary agent Lynn Chu, a principal at Writers’ Representatives, who’s turned down several Members’ book proposals in recent years — many of which, she says, were likely “the product of entrepreneurial aides.”
The proliferation of Members writing books — so far during the 108th Congress about 10 percent of Senators have done so, and even the usually understated Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is working on a tome with writer Trevor Armbrister — has spawned a small cottage industry for those individuals willing to serve as a Member’s behind-the-scenes Svengali.
“It’s very intimidating,” explained Democratic political guru (and Roll Call contributing writer) Donna Brazile, whose memoir, “Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics,” is due out in June. “What you use ghostwriters or coaches for is to help bring out more information and to clarify things better. In the long run, I didn’t need a ghostwriter. What I needed was someone to go through it … and say, ‘Explain it.’”
While truly anonymous ghostwriting is a rarity today — the scribe’s name is usually listed on the book jacket or discreetly placed in the acknowledgments — the challenge has remained the same ever since Seneca first began drafting speeches for Nero sometime in the first century: to massage one man or woman’s vision into publicly consumable prose.
And in a town obsessed with self-promotion, one of the job’s toughest aspects may be the self-sublimation required of the writer.
The journalists, Congressional aides and professional writers who take on the challenge of delving inside someone else’s head compare the experience to that of being a “ventriloquist” or “mouthpiece.”
“This is not really about the collaborator,” said Jeff Nussbaum, who recently co-authored a book with James Carville and helped edit Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) “Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever.” According to Nussbaum, such writers must be “willing to subsume their own ego … and become a bit of a chameleon in order to help someone find their voice.”
But there are degrees to how involved the ghostwriter becomes in a Member’s life.
For most writers the collaboration is limited to periodic, tape-recorded sessions with the Member, which the writer then transcribes and distills into a readable format, with varying levels of input from the subject.
For others, like Mike D’Orso — a former feature writer for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper who has ghosted for several Members including Daschle, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) — the work often involves near-total immersion in a Member’s life. Work on Lewis’ 1998 “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” took D’Orso on an extensive driving tour through the landmarks of the South’s civil rights history. And during the crafting of “The Cost of Courage,” he even moved into the dilapidated Alabama home of Rep. Carl Elliott (D-Ala.) — a Kennedy-era Congressman who had unsuccessfully challenged segregationist Gov. George Wallace’s (D) wife, Lurleen, for the state’s governorship in 1966 — for the duration of the “winter of the Gulf War.”
Given the intimacy of the relationship — which D’Orso compared to a marriage — and the politically oriented nature of the work, ideology can become an issue. Which raises the question: Is it possible for a ghostwriter to collaborate with a Member with radically different political views?
While several writers said the quality of the story, not the Member’s politics, is the overarching concern, others admitted that a degree of political compatibility is a prerequisite to accepting a project.
D’Orso, a Democrat, said it was unlikely he would ever agree to do a book for a Republican — at least not now.
“I am not going to do something to help them,” he said, referring to Republicans, before quickly adding: “I might do John McCain.”
That said, staffers — who guarantee a Member both personal and political familiarity — are well represented in the ghostwriting pantheon.
“The Member wants someone they are comfortable with, which is why they would choose former staff,” said Nussbaum, himself a former Daschle aide.
One of 2003’s most successful releases, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) “Living History,” was written with the assistance of three women, including Lissa Muscatine, an ex-aide to the former first lady who Clinton cryptically credits in the acknowledgments as “responsible for many of the words … in this book.” But Clinton’s collaborators reportedly signed a confidentiality agreement, meaning the extent of their assistance may never be known. And nearly five decades after the release of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) “Profiles in Courage,” rumors continue to circulate that speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, not the Massachusetts Senator, was actually responsible for the book.
When the relationship between a Member and ghostwriter ends badly, the results — much like a divorce — can be acrimonious.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is currently writing a book, generated a bit of negative publicity when he parted ways with his first collaborator, Washingtonian magazine National Editor Kim Eisler. Eisler wrote a somewhat unflattering account of their sessions together in the magazine, which sparked some items about the controversy in The Washington Post and Roll Call.
“He sold the book while I was on vacation to Judith Regan [of HarperCollins] and no one had the courtesy to tell me even though I wrote the proposal,” Eisler said in an interview. While the two had no formal agreement, Eisler said he was promised $2,500 for the proposal, but that Lott refused to pony up “for the longest time,” before eventually sending him a check for $2,000.
“He was going to stiff me completely if it was up to him,” Eisler said.
Despite some risks, several writers said ghostwriting remained one of the few financially lucrative undertakings available to the professional scribe.
“It’s the only decent pay I ever got in this business,” said Tucker, who earned about $100,000 for the Gingrich book. “I never made any money on my own books, but I always made money on other peoples’.”
While most collaborators are reticent to discuss the terms of their agreements, payment for a book with a high-profile pol can fetch advances in the low six figures in addition to a percentage of the royalties.
For a few lucky collaborators, such as Mark Salter, who has teamed up with his boss, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), on three books, including the runaway bestseller “Faith of My Fathers,” the payout has meant a veritable financial windfall for the 49-year-old chief of staff, who splits author royalties with McCain. According to the most recently available financial disclosure reports, Salter has earned more than $1 million from the literary collaboration since 1998.
The commercial viability of ghosted books varies widely, however. Those Members with compelling personal stories — such as Lewis, McCain and Clinton — have seen no decline in sales as a result of their collaborations.
But Chu, who said her agency tends to avoid such works, doesn’t have much faith in the effectiveness of ghosted books, unless the “writer is really talented.”
“Most of them don’t work. Most of them are really crappy,” she said. “Books are not a committee kind of enterprise.”
Still, there are some Members whose voices are widely viewed as so unique, it would be difficult for any writer, no matter how gifted, to satisfactorily capture.
“I don’t know any [ghostwriters],” asserted Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who recently penned “A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat.”
The six-time author, who is known for his colorful, idiomatic quips and floor speeches, said his one literary undertaking with a collaborator did not result in a satisfactory product.
“I appreciate them doing [it],” said Miller. “But it didn’t sound like me.”