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The Stupidest Criticism of a Clinton, This Week

Gregg Easterbrook, an ESPN2 columnist and senior editor at the New Republic, takes a whack at Hillary Clinton and her bookwriting prowess, presenting some interesting evidence that she’s a “liar” in his column (you’ll have to scroll down to find it):

“Living History” is a 562-page book. A work of that length would take an average writer perhaps four years to produce; a highly proficient writer might finish in two years, if working on nothing else. Clinton signed the contract to ‘write’ the book about two years ago. About the same time, she also was sworn in as a member of the United States Senate. Clinton took an oath to protect the Constitution and to serve the citizens of New York. So in the last two years Clinton has either been neglecting her duties as a United States Senator — that is, violating her oath — in order to be the true author of ‘Living History,’ or she is claiming authorship of someone else’s work. Considering that Clinton has made almost daily public appearances during the period when she was supposedly feverishly ‘writing’ her book, let’s make a wild guess which explanation pertains.”

What Easterbrook ultimately appears to be wound up about is that it’s probably very likely Clinton used a ghostwriter for some or all of the book and yet she’s taking all of the credit. Well, this is a stupid argument. I don’t think anyone’s terribly shocked that politicians and celebrities use ghostwriters for their books. It’s unlikely that Easterbrook will find much traction for this outrage up on the Hill, since just about every politician up there who has published a book has used a ghostwriter for it.

And if Easterbrook wants to get exercised about Clinton, he’ll also need to get exercised about JFK, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage was probably written by Theodore Sorenson, and Ronald Reagan, who reportedly said of his own autobiography that he had heard it was a great book and that he should read it sometime.

With politicians there’s the accepted fact that their words are written for them all the time — they have speechwriters. When a president goes up and gives a State of the Union address, no one in his right mind believes that he’s written that speech himself (this is particularly the case with the current resident of the White House). However, news reports don’t say “Tonight, President Bush, as written by David Frum, announced sweeping new tax proposals.” The words are attributed to Bush. The same thing happens with columns and articles produced by politicians for newspapers and magazines. Be that as it may, most of us accept the words as the politicians. I don’t see the nation rising up to contest this apparent theft of work. We get the concept.

Also, it’s not as if ghostwriters are typically abused by the agreement. By and large, ghostwriters for prominent celebs and politicians get a hefty upfront payment and some cut of the royalties. And of course the ghostwriter him or herself is known to the publishers, which positions the writer nicely for another profitable ghostwriting assignment or for his or her own works. If Clinton used a ghostwriter, it’s unlikely you’ll hear the ghostwriter complain about the arrangement. By and large, it’s a good deal for the writer.

(Well, this time, anyway — the ghostwriter for Clinton’s It Takes a Village got into an argument with her about credit and complained to the media. Presumably Clinton and her publisher made it clear with whatever ghostwriter they might have used this time what the situation would be.)

Probably the best way to look at the ghostwritten works of politicians and celebrities is to approach them like you would “solo” albums by musicians. Solo albums are anything but — usually there are songwriters, producers, engineers and other musicians who contribute to the effort. When you think about solo albums by celebrities, usually soap stars, the “solo” aspect of it becomes even less accurate. No one expects the singer to do every single thing on the album, unless they are Prince.

Well, you say, at least these people sing on their albums. True enough. But it’s not as if Clinton, if she did use a ghostwriter, was totally uninvolved. First off, it is her story, and whatever part of the book she did not write herself she had direct supervision of its writing; rest assured that nothing in that book got past her without her approval. Clinton may have not scribbled out every word of it herself, but the book says exactly what she wants it to say. It’s undoubtedly her book. She’s the producer. So, I suppose, you could think of it as the literary equivalent of an Alan Parsons Project album.

Thereby, I don’t think it’s especially dishonest of her to present it as her own, with her name solely on the cover. Easterbrook is merely being intentionally obtuse about how politicians write their books in order to take a whack at Clinton. Easterbrook mentions that some politicians include their ghostwriter’s names on the cover. Sure. And some don’t. Clinton’s not the first, and she won’t be the last, from either side of the aisle. And unless she specifically comes right out and says “Yes, I wrote every single word in my book with no help from anyone else whatsoever” — which I’m unaware that she has done — she’s not lying.

Speaking of obtuseness on the part of Easterbrook, his comment that it would take the average writer four years to write a 562-page book is complete and total crap. In four years (1999 through 2002) I wrote three books under my own name (each about 90,000 words, or roughly 300 pages each), and contributed to another three books to the tune of about 60,000 words, or another 200 pages. Currently I’m working on two additional books, one due in September and one in October, both of which will also come out to about 90,000 words, or yet another 300 pages each.

So, in five years, I will have produced five books under my own name and contributed to three other books for a grand total of about 510,000 words and about 1,700 pages. Note this is on top of writing newspaper and magazine columns and articles, corporate writing assignments and writing untold thousands of words here on this site. To put it simply, if I could only produce 560 pages of writing in four years, I would starve. I’m glad the “average” writer can only write that much. It means more work for me. But in fact the “average” writer can write substantially more than Easterbrook (himself an author of three books) claims — as could a working senator, I’m sure, if she put her mind to it.

No matter how you slice it, Easterbrook’s moral outrage concerning Clinton’s book is pretty much bogus. Either he’s obtuse about how publishing works, or he’s misrepresenting what he knows. I’ll assume the former. I would hate to think Mr. Easterbrook has a problem with honesty.

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