Calvin Trillin on Ronald Reagan and "truth" in memoirs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 24 15:49:20 PST 1998

>From "Too Soon to Tell," NY, 1995


November 26, 1990

The fact that Ronald Reagan's memoirs came out just about the time that the singers of Milli Vanilli were exposed as not having done the singing on their album can be used to support the historical theory known to scholars as the Inevitable Confluence of Turkeys. The fact that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan of Milli Vanilli had their Grammy taken away while the ghostwriter and editors who put a number of Ronald Reagan's tired fantasies into complete sentences continue to think of themselves as respectable practitioners of a noble calling is yet another in a series of indications that the world of rock music has higher ethical standards than the publishing industry.

As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in The Nation, the Reagan turkey contains any number of statements and implications about Reagan's life and his presidency that have been disproved in the public press Over and Over again. While Reagan may by now have actually convinced himself, for example, that he was among the returning G.I.'s who fought the Second World War, Hitchens wonders about the culpability of editors and ghostwriters who consciously pass off a lot of this old bushwa as historical fact. Actually, he doesn't wonder much at all: he calls them "accomplices to a fraud."

The publisher of Reagan's memoirs, Simon and Schuster, is known as a publishing house with a particularly strong devotion to the cash register--the unkind in the industry occasionally refer to it as Simon's Shoe Store--but its policies in the practice of ghostwriting are common to the trade. It is not unusual even for people who like to refer to themselves as journalists--people who would presumably enjoy blowing the whistle on some luckless manufacturer who tried to pass off as American something assembled in Taiwan--to sign their names to books they didn't write a word of.

Some of these books carry no hint at all that they were ghostwritten--not even an acknowledgments paragraph from which a reader who knows the code can divine the name of the actual writer. (The Reagan book had one of those, although you'd think all concerned might have craved anonymity.) Publishers, unlike rock producers, are never exposed in the press for presenting someone as the author of a book he didn't write. In publishing, lip-synching is considered perfectly all right.

Several years ago, I had a chat with a man who ran a half-hour book program on radio, interviewing authors who came through his city on promotional tours. He started by asking what I thought about the old gripe among authors that during such tours they are often interviewed by people who haven't read their book. I said that it seems unreasonable to expect, say, a local TV anchor who may interview a different touring author every morning to read five books a week in addition to his other duties. Then the radio man turned to what was for him the real problem: authors who haven't read the book.

"Authors who haven't read the book?" I said. "I don't think I understand."

"Well, more and more books are ghostwritten," he said. "So if I say to the author I'm interviewing on the air, 'You write here at the beginning of chapter nine may turn out that he doesn't know what I'm talking about because he has never read chapter nine. He's never read the book."

"Once again I'm made to feel naive," I said.

"I really don't mind if they didn't write the book," said the radio man, an amiable sort if I ever heard one. "But if they're going to be interviewed on a book program, it seems to me they ought to read it. Just as a matter of professional courtesy.

I would agree. Some years ago, I suggested that the publishing industry might think of complying with basic standards of truth-in-packaging by including with the blurbs it often runs on book jackets ("Hendricks writes like an angel with steel in its guts") the relationship of the person praising the book to the person who (maybe) wrote it: "old college roommate," for instance, or "cousin" or "just a friend returning a favor." That suggestion, I regret to report, was not taken up by the industry. Here's a second chance. Each book could just carry a standard statement, similar to the standard disclaimer in novels about the characters being strictly fictional. It would say, "The publishers certify that the author of this book has read it."

This might be a good way for the publishing industry to start its climb toward the ethical standards of Milli Vanilli. Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, after all, would never have shown up on a tour without having heard the album. In fact, they knew it well enough to lip-synch it.

Louis Proyect (

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