Central to contemporary Democrats' self-image is their confidence that they are smarter and more cultured than Republicans. (That, by the way, is why so many millions of Democrats fell so hard after their 2000 and 2004 Presidential defeats for a transparent hoax claiming Blue States have much higher average IQs than Red States.)
Therefore, it ought to be embarrassing to Democrats that the prose style of Bill Clinton's new book Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy is so miserable, especially compared to George W. Bush's recent 2010 bestseller Decision Points. .
On p. 6 of Back to Work, I tripped over a sentence of 85 words. Alerted, I began to keep track of Clinton's XXXL-sized sentences. By page 20, I had found additional leviathans of 91, 105, 110, 98, 118, and a round 200 words. I decided to give up counting. But, then, on pp. 23-24, Clinton lets loose with a blue whale of a sentence comprising 346 words.
As you'll recall from Clinton's interminable State of the Union addresses, his natural rhetorical style is the laundry list. Back to Work appears to consist of Powerpoint bullet points strung together with the favorite punctuation mark of the ex-President (but almost nobody else): the semicolon. That 346-word sentence includes five semicolons.
A main theme of Back to Work is how much better everything was during the Clintonian golden age than during the Bushite age of brass. That shouldn’t too hard of a case to make, but Clinton manages to undermine his plausibility with his weak writing.
It's particularly embarrassing that Bush's 2010 autobiography Decision Points featured much less incompetent prose than Back to Work. Bush's book isn't particularly good, but it's better than he deserves.
Why was Decision Points a decent read? In the acknowledgments, Bush warmly praises the contributions by his young speechwriter Chris Michel. Bush doesn't mention the word "ghostwriter," but his message is clear: if you are an important person who is thinking of emitting a book, don't forget the name “Chris Michel:” he's good.
[In case you're wondering, this is the 346th word, and 20th sentence, of this review.]
In contrast, Clinton asserts that he himself "wrote and rewrote it." He ungraciously implies that his aide Justin Cooper was relegated to helping Clinton "gather and organize materials, doing extra research, fact-checking, and correcting errors, and working with me to make the book clearer as I wrote and rewrote it."
In the past, the Clintons have been notorious for not acknowledging their ghostwriters. For example, Simon & Schuster paid Barbara Feinman $120,000 to write It Takes a Village for Hillary Clinton, but the First Lady refused to mention Feinman’s name.
I've never written a famous person's book myself, but I know several people who have, such as Houston sportswriter Mickey Herskowitz, who was initially signed to write Bush's first memoir back in 1999. (Kathleen Hughes wound up penning A Charge to Keep for Bush.)
When I knew Herskowitz in the 1970s, he was displeased that CBS News talking head Dan Rather was boasting that he’d written his own bestselling life story, The Camera Never Blinks, which Mickey had actually pounded out. (They later made up their feud: Herskowitz's name appears on the cover of Rather's 1995 sequel.)
In contrast, in the 1990s, three generals—Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and Chuck Yeager—released bestselling autobiographies, and they each put their ghostwriters' names on the cover. Generals generally have healthy egos, but claiming to author pageturners isn't crucial to their self-esteem.
As an outsider to the trade, it would seem to me that a celebrity shouldn't have to put his ghost’s name on the cover like these military men did. But it would be gentlemanly to follow two rules of thumb:
First, the celebrity should put the name of his ghost somewhere in the book's acknowledgments so that another celebrity or agent capable of reading between the lines can figure out who did the work in order to hire him.
Robert Harris's novel The Ghostwriter was made into a solid thriller movie in 2010 with Ewan McGregor as the journalist hired to transform the tedious anecdotes of a Tony Blair-like Prime Minister into a manuscript worth his $10 million advance. In it, we learn the hack gets his big payday because the PM's wife had noticed his name in the acknowledgments of the autobiography of an Ozzy Ozbourne-like rock star. She figured that if this ghost could make sense out of a brain-damaged heavy metal singer's recollections, he might be able to make her husband seem less boring.
Second, celebrities should use a ghostwriter. They are busy people and they owe it to the public not to inflict their hypomania on them in book form.
Back to Work's badness, however, suggests that Bill wasn't kidding when he claimed to have written most of it himself.