Matt Latimer, who served George W. Bush as a speechwriter in the waning days of his troubled presidency, claims to be disappointed in the reaction of former colleagues to a book he’s just written about the experience.
But he sure doesn’t sound disappointed.
“What they’re basically saying is: ‘Here is the book the Bush administration doesn’t want you to read!’” He doesn’t bother to suppress a giggle. “I have to say, in their defense, they have not had much experience with successful communications strategies.”
“Without having read a single word, they’ve been on this mission against me—and it’s disappointing,” Latimer tells me in an exclusive interview, having held his tongue until now on orders from his publisher, Crown, which is releasing the book on Tuesday. “What they’re basically saying is: ‘Here is the book the Bush administration doesn’t want you to read!’” He doesn’t bother to suppress a giggle. “I have to say, in their defense, they have not had much experience with successful communications strategies.”
All this past week, the cable TV shows and the conservative blogosphere have been simmering with apparent Republican outrage over Latimer’s memoir, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor—which has been under wraps save for a GQ magazine excerpt larded with impolitic quotes from the 43rd president of the United States.
Inadvertently stoking media interest and driving up its pre-launch Amazon.com ranking, top Bush aides have aggressively dismissed Latimer’s memoir as the work of a clueless and disloyal junior staffer out to make a quick buck. Case in point is former chief speechwriter Bill McGurn, who on Monday night posted a withering personal attack on his former employee on The Wall Street Journal's Web site. Never mind that McGurn was once an enthusiastic admirer of Latimer's work ( see emails here).
Joining Latimer’s detractors from across the aisle is diehard Clintonista James Carville, who went on CNN to opine: “I think this little dweeb needs to be glove-slapped…People that have the honor of working in the White House ought not be going out and publishing this. I don’t give one whit’s damn about this little punk.”
The Bushies are, of course, delighted at the Ragin’ Cajun’s surprising outburst—but they couldn’t possibly be any more delighted than Latimer, who had his publisher rush an advance copy to Carville along with a pair of gloves. “I’m happy to meet him somewhere with gloves in hand,” Latimer says.
According to Latimer, top Bushies Ed Gillespie, Dana Perino, and McGurn—who’d recruited him from the senior staff of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—have been formulating a pre-book launch attack strategy since early summer. “They were talking about my book to friends of mine and trying to find out what it was about,” Latimer says. “I’ve heard from two reporters that Dana is actively trying to keep me off shows…She has relationships with reporters and producers because she used to be White House press secretary, she’s a Fox News contributor, and Washington has a buddy system.”
Gillespie, Bush's presidential counselor, didn’t return my phone calls. But Perino, who was Bush's fourth White House press secretary, stoutly denies them, saying she neither colluded with her associates nor tried to unbook Latimer from television and radio appearances.
“I liked him when he was at the White House,” says Perino, an executive at the corporate communications behemoth Burson Marsteller. “He wasn’t a member of the senior staff and I saw him rarely, but we had a good relationship. That’s what makes this so disappointing. He is a young guy who is not very experienced when dealing with the media.”
Latimer, 38—a year older than Perino—is a member of the Michigan bar, having received his law degree from the University of Michigan, and has a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. In his 12 years in Washington, Latimer has worked for three senators, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (with whom he remains friendly), and a Michigan House member for whom he served as press secretary and campaign manager. He took a substantial pay cut to join the White House speechwriting staff. “Being a White House speechwriter was the dream of my life,” he says. “I was in dozens and dozens of meetings with the president,” he adds, noting that he took detailed notes and kept everything. “I’m a pack rat.”
As countless media outlets have reported, Latimer’s book shares Bush’s unvarnished observations about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Sarah Palin, and others. Some other highlights: Bush had low regard for John McCain’s campaign operation. Informed that a fundraising appearance with the Republican nominee in Phoenix was closed to the press, the president groused: “If he doesn’t want me to go, fine. I’ve got better things to do.” But when told the reason—that the Arizona senator, embarrassingly enough, was having trouble drawing a crowd in his hometown—the president marveled: “He couldn’t get 500 people? I could get that many people in Crawford. This is a five-spiral crash, boys.”
Bush also could be moody and knew it. When presidential counselor Gillespie asked him if he’d let a camera crew follow him around to chronicle his last 100 days, the president demurred, saying, “If I had a camera following me around all day, I’d look like a total asshole.” Especially choice is Bush’s quip about Jimmy Carter’s frequent foreign-policy freelancing: “If I’m ever 82 years old and acting like that, have someone put me away.”
Latimer is especially tough on Karl Rove, whom he accuses of “silly intimidation tactics, boisterous claims that were easily disproved,” and “acting so insufferable that people avoided him…Karl was not the hero of the Bush White House, the brilliant behind-the-scenes strategist. He was what all liberals said he was: the villain…a clumsy one at that.”
Latimer also chronicles the frustrations of writing for a plainspoken, occasionally inarticulate president who often rejected rhetoric that he deemed too elegant or high-flown; in which the speechwriting process became a bureaucratic assembly line, and he ineffectually tried to make sparks amid the dying embers of a spent administration.
“Sometimes I watched the audience erase the speech from their minds as it was being delivered,” Latimer says. “It was depressing. I once went to the Judson Welliver Society Dinner”—ironically named for President Harding’s speechwriter—“and there were people who worked for Kennedy and people who worked for Reagan. But nobody was clamoring to take credit for the second term of the George Bush administration. We were the RC Cola of speechwriters.”
Sometimes Latimer felt a pang of admiration as he watched the campaign speeches of Obama, a politician with a love for the music of words. “Some of the speechwriters and I would copy out his speeches and read them, because they could be quite eloquent,” Latimer says. “I liked his race speech. I liked his convention speech.”
Having managed to obtain a copy of Speech-Less myself, I can report that it is an entertaining read with many laugh-out-loud moments (the author has a finely honed sense of the absurd) and one or two moving ones. With about half of the book devoted to Latimer’s 19 months in the Bush White House, it’s a coming-of-age saga about a shy, overweight boy with thick glasses from Flint, Michigan—the son of staunch Democrats and labor-union loyalists—who slimmed down and somehow morphed into an idealistic conservative, shimmied up Washington’s greasy pole, and lost his innocence in his climb to the top.
Disloyal though it may arguably be, Speech-Less is in a long tradition of insider books by White House aides, from Arthur Schlesinger to George Stephanopoulos, with Don Regan and Peggy Noonan in between. Republican political consultant Mike Turk, one of Latimer’s rare defenders among the Bush veterans, blogged last week: “Do I buy the caricature of Latimer as an opportunist trying to parlay his brush with fame into a financial windfall? Absolutely. Do I also believe that much of what he says is probably exactly as he remembers it? Absolutely. That’s why we need more of these books, not less. We need to be able to compare notes and make our own determination about what happened, who these people were, where they made mistakes and where they proved they were only human.”
Latimer, for his part, says with a sigh: “I don’t think I could be a speechwriter again.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.