I am reading Matt Latimer’s book, just out today, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor. Two things struck me. First is confirmation of the portrait of George W. Bush that I painted in my Impostor book of a bully who cannot stand to be contradicted, who thinks he knows everything despite being grossly ignorant most of the time, and who browbeats those beneath him into agreeing with him.
Second is how different the Bush White House was from the Reagan White House where I worked. Reagan’s WH was a model of thoroughness, adherence to proper procedure, and respect for the office of the president. Bush’s WH seems amazingly slipshod, showing total disregard for all of the things that were important to Reagan in terms of how his administration functioned.
On the first point, I was struck by this paragraph as the author discusses his first session with Bush reviewing a draft speech he had written:
“The president’s editing sessions went like this: he talked, you listened and scribbled furiously whatever he said. On occasion, he might ask a question. But usually he wasn’t too interested in the answer. Sometimes in the middle of your explaining something, if he felt he wasn’t getting what he wanted, he’d interrupt and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we need to do.’ This wasn’t a process that encouraged dialogue or pushback on an important point. This was George W. decisively telling you what he wanted to say, and you writing it down. Got it?”
The problem with such a bullying method is that the president isn’t just some guy expressing a personal opinion when he speaks. If he were, then it would be perfectly appropriate for him to demand that his speechwriters wrote whatever he damn well told them to say. But the president of the United States speaks not just for himself, not just for his administration, but for the country as a whole. His words carry weight. Consequently, it is appalling to see him treating those words in such a cavalier manner.
Ronald Reagan, of course, was a trained actor, accustomed to reading dialogue written for him by others. Consequently, he had respect for those who wrote the words he spoke. Reagan was a great writer himself and would often edit his speeches. But he did it privately with an editing pen and usually for style, not substance. I think every Reagan speechwriter had enormous respect for Reagan’s contributions to his own speeches and, in turn, he respected his speechwriters and didn’t treat them like manual laborers, as Bush seems to have done.
Further evidence of Bush’s disdain for explaining himself in public forums can be found in this quote from Latimer’s book about reviewing Bush’s edits to a speech:
“By about page five or so, the president started to get bored. You could see it in his face. So, naturally, that meant the speech was too long. By page six, without really reading the ending, he decided it needed to be cut down.”
Then, after all this effort, Latimer tells us that Bush completely ignored the speech that had been written for him and ad-libbed some remarks.
One of the things that Latimer talks a lot about is the importance of the president’s mood, which appears to have gyrated wildly. Apparently, the best way to get on his good side was to pretend to be stupid so that Bush would seem like a genius by figuring out some simple point for himself. Latimer says that national security adviser Stephen Hadley was very good at doing this:
“Hadley was a master at handling the president. Though he was a very bright man, he liked to depict himself as the dumbest person in the room. He’d say things like, ‘Oh, Mr. President. I’m sure I’m completely wrong about this, but…’ or ‘I have to apologize, Mr. President, and feel free to calibrate me, but…’ This was the perfect way to talk to George W. Bush.”
Later, Latimer talks about Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee who was in charge of Bush’s communications strategy toward the end of the administration. Latimer explains the way plans for speeches were developed:
“Whenever we talked about an upcoming speech, Ed almost never said, ‘Let me think about it’ or ‘What do you guys think?’ He never said, ‘Let’s figure out what the message of the week is going to be.’ He usually just offered an instant reaction. The whole White House was like that–infatuated with decisiveness, dismissive of deliberation.”
I have highlighted the last sentence because John DiIulio said almost exactly the same thing in a famous memo that formed the basis of an article in Esquire magazine early in the Bush administration. A link to that memo can be found here.
Here are a couple of quotes from the October 24, 2002 memo:
“Besides the tax cut, which was cut-and-dried during the campaign, and the education bill, which was really a Ted Kennedy bill, the administration has not done much, either in absolute terms or in comparison to previous administrations at this stage, on domestic policy. There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism. There is still two years, maybe six, for them to do more and better on domestic policy, and, specifically, on the compassion agenda.”
“They [the White House staff] could stand to find ways of inserting more serious policy fiber into the West Wing diet, and engage much less in on-the-fly policy-making by speech-making. They are almost to an individual nice people, and there are among them several extremely gifted persons who do indeed know — and care — a great deal about actual policy-making, administrative reform, and so forth. But they have been, for whatever reasons, organized in ways that make it hard for policy-minded staff, including colleagues (even secretaries) of cabinet agencies, to get much West Wing traction, or even get a nontrivial hearing.”
“In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, nonstop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff.”
“This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis — staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.”
I continue to believe that a great many of Bush’s screw-ups, most especially on Iraq, resulted from his personal style, which eventually permeated throughout his entire administration. It disdained facts and analysis and glorified decisiveness and action. “Shoot first and ask questions later” could have been its motto.
Update: More Latimer on Bush
I’m continuing to read Matt Latimer’s book and thought I would highlight a few more things that caught my attention.
In chapter 8 Latimer talks about the White House policy of having the president make public comments on at least a daily basis–whether there was anything to say or not. The result was that any special quality that the president has when he speaks was diluted, losing much of its special quality. The quality of the speeches also fell because the speechwriters simply didn’t have anything to say.
I bring this up because we just saw President Obama do five Sunday talk shows the same day plus David Letterman. Personally, I think this is an absurd waste of access to the president that diminishes him and his office. I don’t mean that it is undignified or anything like that. I just mean that the president is a precious resource who needs to be used sparingly. Using him too much frivolously cheapens his value and makes him less valuable in terms of advancing his agenda. Ronald Reagan understood that very well, which is why his speeches were special events that got more attention and were more effective, I think, that those of his successors.
Latimer also notes that many presidential speeches in 2008 were simply excuses to get the taxpayer to pick up the tab for what was really a purely political event. Since the actual speeches on these occasions were peripheral to their purpose, it naturally drained them of any significance. As Latimer writes:
“There was no apparent vision for the president’s communications strategy or, for that matter, even a strategy. Sometimes speeches came about because the president was holding a political event in a particular state and his advisors needed to schedule an official event somewhere nearby so trip costs could be split with the taxpayers. (Speeches, in effect, became Muzak for whatever political event the administration thought important.)”
Latimer notes that the weekly radio address was considered the worst speechwriting job because they just rehashed whatever the president said the previous week. He seems to be unaware of the reason these speeches came into existence under Reagan. Aside from the fact that he was an old radio guy who enjoyed doing them, they performed the important service of creating administration policy. In a way, they were more about Reagan communicating his philosophy to his appointees in government than they were about communicating with the American people.
I know there were many occasions when I worked at the White House when we would run into resistance over administration policy. Sometimes this came from the bureaucracy, other times from Reagan’s own appointees, not all of whom shared his ideology. In these cases, it was extremely valuable to point to a clear statement by the president–not a press release or a government report–stating his position on some issue. It allowed those of us trying to implement his agenda to speak with authority and overcome resistance. It’s too bad that Bush pissed away this resource by treating the radio addresses as chores rather than opportunities.
Those interested in the issue of cap-and-trade may be interested to know that Bush endorsed this policy in a speech (p. 198). But no one knows this because the speechwriters intentionally obfuscated Bush’s endorsement by refusing to use the words cap-and-trade.
On p. 201 we learn of the extreme partisanship and pettiness of Bush’s staff. When, after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, it was suggested that Senator Edward Kennedy be awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom, the idea was rejected out of hand on the grounds that Kennedy was a liberal.
On that same page we get a glimpse of how the Iraq fiasco developed. The president’s chief speechwriter, Marc Thiessen, wanted to say that we were winning the war on terror, but the CIA refused to back him up. “The president wants to say we’re winning!” Thiessen thundered. Latimer’s dead-pan comment: “Just what we needed–another accusation that the Bush White House wanted to politicize intelligence.”
On page 212 we learn that Dan Bartlett (no relation) a senior White House staffer took credit with the president for an idea Latimer had come up with. The picture of Bartlett Latimer presents confirms what I have heard from other White House staffers–he was utterly incompetent but had a knack for getting along with Bush, which was enough to relentlessly push him up the ladder of success from Bush go-fer to one of the most important officials in government. Latimer says there was a whole group of such people in the White House: “These were mostly well-meaning people who rose to the very top because they were likable, not supremely qualified.” That’s an understatement.
Latimer is surprisingly critical of Karl Rove, given that he remains a darling of conservatives. Latimer correctly notes that Bush should have won the 2000 election easily and that it was close only because Rove stupidly wasted millions of campaign dollars in a futile effort to win California in the last days of the campaign instead of shoring up Florida. Latimer also notes that Bush’s re-election should have been a slam-dunk but ended up being close. Thus Latimer thinks that Rove’s reputation as a political genius is totally undeserved. I agree. Here Latimer summarizes his assessment of Rove:
“Karl was not the hero of the Bush White House, the brilliant behind-the scenes strategist. He was what all the liberals said he was: the villain. And to make matters worse, a clumsy one at that. He employed ham-handed tactics, put forward obviously unqualified subordinates, and stubbornly defended them. He’d turned out to be less a Voldemort than a Boris Badenov chasing Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
In the end, Latimer concludes that Bush was never the conservative Latimer thought he was. Bush was just going through the motions to get conservative support and get elected. That’s pretty much what I said in my Impostor book as well.