Does integrity require the breaking of promises?

Jim Lindgren thinks that Ted Sorenson’s refusal to claim credit for the authorship of Profiles in Courage reflects his lack of integrity. I would have thought the reverse.

Volokh Conspirator Jim Lindgren thinks that someone who agrees to serve as the uncredited ghostwriter for a politician’s book has a moral obligation to break that agreement by claiming credit, and that failure to do so constitutes a lack of “integrity.”

I would have thought just the opposite: that keeping one’s word was praiseworthy, especially when the beneficiary of the promise is long dead and the book in question an unquestioned classic.

Footnote Nor do think the incident raises doubts about Kennedy’s integrity. He understood that politics, like most of life, is a team sport, and that “John F. Kennedy” was the name of his team. (As President, he liked to say to someone proposing some plan, “I like it. I’ll have to find out what the President thinks.”) On the other hand, the omission from the the “Young Reader’s Edition” of Profiles in Courage of the chapter in praise of Robert Taft’s courage in opposing the Nuremberg Trials was a profile in something less than courage.

Update In comments below I made a sweeping assertion about Presidential speechwriting without adequate forethought or factual basis. Volokh Conspirator Jim Lindgren doubts it, and is blegging for information. It seems that Coolidge was the first President to have an acknowledged speechwriter on his staff, and that TR claimed to write all of his own material.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on “Does integrity require the breaking of promises?”

  1. Actually, there was a threatened lawsuit about this, because Drew Pearson alleged during an interview with Mike Wallace that JFK did not write the book.
    The story's recounted in Clark Clifford's autobiography (as Clifford was Kennedy's attorney during the negotiations with ABC, Wallace's employer), but the net effect was Pearson retracted his statements, and ABC apologized on air.

  2. Also, Sorenson's credited in the book (and got paid from royalties for his work)- so "uncredited" is a bit of a stretch.
    The reason why it was a big to-do is Kennedy could have lost his Pulitzer, and the scandal would have likely torpedoed his presidential ambitions.

  3. Keeping one's word is praiseworthy? What about perpetuating a fraud on the entire American public, a fraud that convinced voters that this lazy, callow boy was a sophisticated historian and philosopher?
    But then, I think that Cyrano played a really disgusting dirty trick on Roxanne when he conned her into letting Christian fuck her.

  4. Would you be offering the same defense if a prominent conservative had "written" a widely-praised book? Or would you be arguing that this is one more piece of evidence of intellectual fraud on the part of the Republican Party?
    I'm a Democrat, but I think ghostwriting is abhorrent no matter who does it. The problem with plagarism is not just that the real author is denied credit. Harm is also done to the reader, who wrongly gives credit to the plagarizer for the language and ideas in the book. This injury is no less real when the plagarized author consents to the plagarism.

  5. I'm not sure why a book is different from a speech. Indeed, by giving a speech a politician claims the words in that speech in a more directly personal way than he does by putting his name on the title page of a book. No American President since Lincoln has written his own speeches; Peggy Noonan openly boasts about having written Reagan's, and no one thinks the less of Reagan as a result.
    As to books, I've always assumed that politicians' books are mostly ghostwritten. Most of them aren't worth claiming credit for. Profiles in Courage was an exception.

  6. Kennedy and Sorenson expressly denied that Sorensen wrote the book. Kennedy, not Sorenson, won the Pulitzer. On the strength of it, Kennedy became the darling of the New York media elite (which in those days counted for a great deal), someone on a par with Stevenson for intellectual firepower. Undoubtedly Kennedy hatched the scheme to have this book written in his name in order to attach himself to the great pillars of integrity of American history. So, in Kennedy's case, apparently "integrity" means "lying to the public for political advantage."

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