Blair and Quayle: In Their Own Write

Nearly a quarter century ago, Chatterbox briefly served as a part-time ghostwriter for newly elected Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Chatterbox’s cloak-and-dagger mission: concocting earnest op-ed pieces that appeared under Leahy’s name in the New York Times and Washington Post. Compared to most Washington scandals, Chatterbox’s belated confession inspires a yawning, “So what?” For even in a media environment where everyone gets huffy over plagiarism (Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes publicly apologized last week for having “cannibalized” another writer’s opening paragraph), press-box moralists routinely allow politicians to purchase their words and thoughts in the free market.

As a result of this permissive attitude, there is only one way that a political leader can signal that he actually picked out his own nouns and adverbs–by writing extremely badly. A classic example of this “I really wrote it myself” genre was Tony Blair’s op-ed in Friday’s Times, “It’s Time To Repay America.” Blair cleverly studded his prose with brief sentences of ghastly banality that exude authenticity. Who but a busy PM could publish prose that contains such deadening lines as “It’s not just a question of money” and “This process is only beginning”?

In sharp contrast, consider Dan Quayle’s perfectly polished op-ed in Monday’s Times making the case against congressional censure of Bill Clinton. Not only does Quayle strain credulity with learned references to Supreme Court cases like Morrison v. Olson. But there is also not a single awkward or maladroit sentence in the entire article. (The spelling is also impeccable, but that may merely be a tribute to the Times’ ever-alert copy desk). Chatterbox would be delighted to discover that the former vice president has taken eloquence lessons. But Chatterbox prefers to believe that only a politician as clueless as Quayle would so baldly suggest to the cognoscenti by his out-of-character perfection that he hired a ghostwriter.

That’s why Blair is prime minister, while Quayle remains a former accidental vice president with grandiose dreams of someday being taken seriously as a presidential contender.

Walter Shapiro