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Yikes!

Speech Less: Tales of a White House Survivor

By Matt Latimer
Crown Publishers, 2009

Late in 2008, White House speechwriter Matt Latimer was sitting in his office with a colleague, when fellow scribe Chris Michael walked in:

Chris was usually chipper, except he wasn’t today. At the moment his face was so pale that he had to have been the whitest man in the Bush White House. And that was no small accomplishment.

Chris had just come from a secret meeting in the Oval Office. Without so much as a hello, he placed his notebook down and announced, “Well, the economy is about to completely collapse.”

“You mean the stock market?” I asked.

Chris continued to cushion the blow. “No, I mean the entire U.S. economy,” he replied.

As in the American way of life. As in capitalism as we know it. As in hide your money in your mattress.

Jonathan and I looked at each other. Was this a joke? We looked back at Chris, his face shaken and somber. Nope. Not a joke. Yikes.

This is how Latimer begins Speech Less, a particularly frivolous example of the decline in White House memoir-writing. Dean Acheson and Ted Sorenson may have had axes to grind, but they took their writing seriously. They felt they had an obligation to posterity. Speech Less seems to have been written because it might sell. Latimer’s job as one among many speechwriters didn’t give him much access, but his book was still hyped for its candid revelations – revelations that turn out to be chimerical, as we’ll soon see. It was also touted for its humorous take on the typical idealist-goes-to-Washington storyline. In that vein, Latimer seems to think his job was to entertain, and rarely goes a page without attempting a joke.

Trouble is, he’s not very funny. The jokes are flogged with sophomoric abandon and punch-lines rarely connect. Not long after he hears the above news, Latimer and Chris visit Keith Hennessey, the director of President Bush’s National Economic Council, and a bit of an eccentric:

In the middle of explaining the economic horrors that awaited us, Keith reached for something near his chair. It was a Mouseketeer cap. As in Mickey Mouse. What on earth? I wondered.

Without a word of explanation, he placed the cap on his head. Then he continued talking as if nothing at all strange was happening.

I looked at Chris, who looked at me. Then we stared back at Keith. One of the president’s top economic advisors was describing the end of the world while wearing mouse ears. There had to be a metaphor around here somewhere.

Much of Speech Less is like this, hijinks and slim characterization. It bespeaks a person whose intended audience watches cable news and prime-time television.

In Present at the Creation, a memoir of his time at Truman’s State Department, Dean Acheson wrote this:

“Pen, ink and paper,” John Adams confided to his diary in 1770, “and a sitting posture are great helps to attention and thinking.” I shall need them all in writing this book, which only five years ago I forswore…Yet I do go on. Why? Because I have changed my mind. The experiences of the years since I wrote have brought the country, and particularly its young people, to a mood of depression, disillusion, and withdrawal from the effort to affect the world around us. Today detachment and objectivity seem to me less important that to tell a tale of large conceptions, great achievements, and some failures, the product of enormous will and effort.

The best of these memoirs are supposed to give you a sense of events and the people who use and misuse their power. Acheson understood that. Latimer’s book is populated with sitcom vignettes and cartoon characters, and not a person in it is fleshed out into anything more, save perhaps Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who Latimer is currently helping with his memoirs.

Speech Less is scanty in other ways as well. For a book written in hindsight, there’s a serious paucity of judgment, and Latimer gives the impression that he’s not much of a thinker. After the crisis episode (the hook, apparently), Speech Less begins again with a childhood sketch. Our author was born and raised in Flint, Michigan; he was nerdy and fat; and so he became a Republican. Being overweight taught him self-reliance: someone called him “the fat kid” once, and he “never drank a glass of regular pop again. I started walking and running. I lost thirty pounds over the next two months and I did it completely on my own. I was becoming a believer in the power of self-sufficiency.” Flint was in shambles, and this taught Latimer that government was bad: “I came to the conclusion that government largesse, dependence on handouts, and the noble intentions of liberals had achieved nothing. I didn’t know if any political party had better answers. But we’d tried it the Democrats’ way and got zip. So I looked for something else.” QED.

As a boy, he watched Ronald Reagan and political shows on TV, read Presidential speeches, and searched for like-minded friends. One of the few things Latimer does well is convey his burning desire to belong to the Republican Party (or belong, one suspects, to anything). The turning point came at the 1996 Republican convention, where the ecstatic young college grad, amidst a gaggle of like-minded neophytes, cheered and hounded every visible politician for their autograph (including the dour Bob Dole, an irony he gratefully acknowledges). Thus Latimer was imprinted, like a newborn gosling, with the near-absolute loyalty of a son – or a party hack. After college he went to Washington and worked for a succession of Representatives and Senators, searching for a job or a person that satisfied him, until he landed in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department.

Donald Rumsfeld met the political and personal criteria. He was a member of the right party. He was also exacting, quick-witted, and imposing. In the chapters devoted to his time at the Pentagon, Latimer barely touches on the Secretary’s competence as a leader and policy maker. A man seems impressive and so he is, so long as he’s Republican. When Latimer walked into his job interview Rumsfeld “was at his famous stand-up desk. He was silhouetted against an American flag, and his face glowed in the sunlight that filtered in from the nearby window.” And “he couldn’t have looked more impressive if he had staged it,” in case you missed it. He asked a question “with a boyish look in his eyes.” He “loved having questions lobbed at him, the harder the better. I think it appealed to him from his years as a high school wrestler. He loved being able to grapple with a tough question, twist it as he pleased and pin it to the ground until it begged for mercy” – a remarkably poor choice of words, given Rumsfeld’s role in making people beg for mercy. Latimer worked at the Pentagon for nearly three years in speechwriting and public relations, not in policy but in explaining and defending policy – and spinning it. Abu Ghraib and the disgraceful conduct of two wars are treated as PR problems, which is what problems are if they’re happening to your team. His man-crush – there’s nothing else to call it – for the Defense Secretary is a neat microcosm of party loyalist syndrome: no nuance, no self-reflection, no quarter for the other side and a tendency to be drawn towards personalities (it’s not surprising to read that Latimer loved Sarah Palin’s Republican Convention speech, a textbook exercise in vapid demagoguery).

After Rumsfeld was fired, Latimer decided not to stay on – the new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, wasn’t one of the party faithful – and went back to Congress because “Republicans were always at a disadvantage when it came to communicating in Washington,” an absurd notion to anyone who’s been alive since 1994. Then he moved to the White House. But he wasn’t happy there. Some of this discontent stems from the fact that his dream job, White House speechwriter, was anything but. A year in and

I wasn’t satisfied with my overall experience in the White House. I’d hoped I’d come on board, impress everyone, and craft the great speeches I’d dreamed of since childhood. That wasn’t happening. In fact, the speeches for the most part were disappointing. And the speechwriting process at the White House was nothing like I’d expected it to be.

Speeches were vetted by half a dozen departments and dozens of staffers, a “process that seemed designed to undermine the president and any message he wanted to communicate.” Latimer also didn’t connect with Bush the way he did with Rumsfeld. But what rankled most was that

We didn’t have a boss like Kennedy or Reagan whose oratorical gifts might burn our words into history. Rather, we were kin of sorts to the writers who’d toiled in the administrations of Carter and Ford. Mediocrity was the highest level our words would likely reach.

Which isn’t quite true. Some will live in infamy.

Speech Less is supposed to have an arc – wide-eyed believer comes to Washington, sees how things really work and leaves a disillusioned, albeit wiser citizen – but its shallowness flattens the curve. Latimer lives in a world of reductive platitudes: Democrats wrong, big government bad, tradition good. Give him credit for being bothered by the visceral response among White House staffers to Barack Obama (evil), John McCain (traitor), and Sarah Palin (savior). Then again, it’s hard to take this seriously from a man who thinks moderates like Colin Powell and Olympia Snowe are betraying their party: the former “stayed [Republican] every single day that it suited him” and the latter “adhered to the creed that one’s appearance on national news pages occurred in direct proportion to one’s willingness to turn on the party.” No, what really bothers him is deviation from “conservative” principles.

Towards the end of his presidency, amidst staff shakeups and infighting, the Bush Administration tottered back towards the center of the American political spectrum. There were two big reasons for this. One was his conspicuous record of failure. The other was public opinion: Republicans were trounced in the 2006 midterms. Latimer can’t assemble the puzzle:

I was genuinely confused about who this man was. The leader who’d said that pushing for freedom around the world was the hallmark of his presidency now seemed to be forgetting that calling. Worse, this reversal was only one of many the administration was now undertaking, without any explanation whatsoever. Suddenly, for example, we were willing to talk with Iran, after I’d been told for more than a year to write speeches saying that talking with Iran was like dealing with terrorists. We were supporting a time line for withdrawal from Iraq, though the president’s rhetoric months earlier had been that a time line was the equivalent of surrender. We’d even made a deal with North Korea, though I’d always been told that a similar agreement had been the folly of the Clinton administration…. At this point, I didn’t get what we were doing or why. In a quest to become more popular, the administration had thrown aside its more controversial figures – people who also tended to be a voice for conservatives…having my eyes opened to the president’s willingness to abandon core conservative principles, I realized, sadly, that I didn’t care about the administration anymore.

There’s so much wrong here. Why would the Bush administration keep trying to push for ‘freedom’ by force or arms when they’d failed, twice, so spectacularly? Why would any administration, especially this one, in today’s circus of public discourse, explain a change by admitting failure? Why wouldn’t they talk to Iran if stonewalling got them nowhere? Why doesn’t Latimer realize that manly rhetoric about surrender won’t hold in the face of bloody reality and a sub-30 percent approval rating? Why doesn’t he realize that George Bush was a politician? Even a middling analyst would understand, would feel an obligation to try to go beyond his own ideological predilections, but Latimer doesn’t have the tools. That pleading “I’d been told” – I closed the book feeling pity, among other things.

Annoyance too, on account of the lame jokes (which dwindle near the end as Latimer belatedly attempts gravitas), but mostly because Speech Less brings little to the Bush post-mortem. We learn that the president scheduled speeches near political fundraisers so taxpayers would foot the travel bill, a revelation but a misdemeanor in light of his other offenses. He had a short attention span. Karl Rove was a controlling maniac. Government appointees faced a political litmus test. Dick Cheney exerted enormous influence. We knew all of this already. It holds some corroborative value, but Speech Less, ready made for a cable news audience, was promoted for its scuttlebutt, so the media didn’t pay attention to substantive topics.


Latimer, at left, on CNN

Instead, they pounced on the thing for its slim quiver of gossipy quotations. Running with excerpts published before the book’s release, they produced frothing ad hominem responses by ex-Administration members and Republican drones. Politico, a website that made its name during the 2008 elections, breathlessly reported that Speech Less “has everyone in town talking, thanks to some of its juicy revelations” (a few uncorroborated quotes from Bush, plenty of digs at fellow staffers). “But the Bushies aren’t taking it sitting down.” “Latimer is a pimple on the ass of life,” one luminary said. The Wall Street Journal printed a more considered column by another. And so on. According to Politico, Latimer described Speech Less as “the Washington guy’s version of The Devil Wears Prada”, which nicely sums up the book and the level of discourse that surrounds it.

The boilerplate adorning Matt Latimer’s book claims that it “may be the most deliciously candid memoir ever written about official Washington.” “Memoir” brings to mind something thoughtful and possibly honest. Speech Less is technically a memoir but “Tales” gives a more accurate sense of its clipped one-dimensionality. “Deliciously” means gossip and Speech Less rarely rises above it. “Candid” means revealing but if you don’t have much to say, and if you don’t think long and hard about what you do say, what’s the point?

___
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs. He is Open Letters Monthly’s Politics Editor.

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