Monday, 22 November 2010

“Speech-Less”, by Matthew Latimer (Three Rivers Press)

Latimer-Speech-LessHB Adventures in Washington Speech Writing

Despite being raised by reliably liberal parents, Matt Latimer is, from an early age, lured by the upbeat themes of the Reagan Revolution, and sets off from the Midwest for Washington, DC, determined to “make it”.  In Matt’s glory-filled daydreams, he will champion smaller government and greater self-sufficiency, lower taxes and stronger defence — and, by the force of his youthful passion, eradicate do-nothing boondoggleism and lead America to new heights of greatness.

But first he has to find a job.

Latimer chronicles his descent into Washington-hell, as he snares a series of increasingly lofty — but unsatisfying — jobs with powerful figures on Capitol Hill. One boss can’t remember basic facts. Another appears to hide from his own staff, barricading himself in his office. When Fate offers Matt a job as chief speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Matt finds he actually admires the man (causing his liberal friends to shake their heads in dismay), his youthful passion is renewed. But Rummy soon becomes a piñata for the press, and the Department of Defense is revealed as alarmingly dysfunctional.

Eventually, Matt lands at the White House, his heart aflutter with the hope that, here at last, he can fulfil his dream of penning words that will become part of history — and maybe pick up some cool souvenirs. But reality intrudes once again.

More like The Office than The West Wing, the nation’s most storied office-building is a place where the staffers who run the country are in way over their heads, and almost everything the public has been told about the major players — Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Rove — is wrong…

As always, one approaches a book like Speech-Less with some caution and no preconceived expectations. The synopsis might suggest a tell-all gossip-volume, and given the subject matter – the Bush administration – a reader will probably come to this expecting something lefty and self-righteous. Perhaps something on the lines of Scott McClellan’s What Happened – a tell-all piece from a disgruntled former employee who sees a Bush-critical publishing environment ripe for exploitation. However, Speech-Less is a different type of memoir. For one, Latimer is a proud conservative and Reagan Republican. Speech-Less is also far better written and amusing than most other books written about the Bush years.

Latimer, after a short introduction about the approaching 2008 economic crisis, offers a chapter that explains his Republican coming-of-age story – growing up in the Liberal bastion that is Flint, Michigan, and his attraction to Reagan’s style and approach:

“I found appealing his belief that government was not the solution to our problems. I was attracted to his philosophy of responsibility, accountability, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Yes, government had a certain duty to help those who couldn’t do it for themselves. But as a last resort. I was suspicious of sending more money to government to create bigger programs that didn’t really solve anything.”

For the young Latimer,

“The Republican Party may not have been hip, but they were the responsible, competent grown-ups. At least, that’s what Republicans were supposed to be.”

Unfortunately, as he would come to discover, this was not the case when many of them were elected to office, or ‘doing the work of government’.

The author describes his rather manic time at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. He seems to have been very much a geeky fanboy (the book also contains a couple of Star Trek references), in awe of the politicians he was seeing – in the flesh! – and meeting and getting his photo taken with. It’s an amusing chapter, filled with wry self-deprecation and plenty of amusing comments. There is, however, one rather cutting jab at Colin Powell:

“Colin Powell... had considered a run for the GOP nomination that year but decided against it. He was the most popular man in the country. Why muck that up by governing? That night Powell was proudly Republican—and he stayed that way every single day that it suited him.”

Throughout the book, I was surprised by some of the criticisms Latimer has for some Republicans: for example, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and John McCain, among others – all considered not proper conservatives, and Latimer’s criticism seems to be rooted in their willingness to work with Democrats. This was a little disappointing. His criticisms of Rice do, however, echo those of Scott McClellan – both write about Rice’s incredible ability to deflect blame and responsibility for blunders and poor decisions on to others (particularly when the issues in question were entirely her responsibility).

The Senate & Congress

Latimer’s first job was with a forgettable Michigan Senator, Abraham Spencer, who seemed afraid of not only his constituents but also his own staff. Latimer quickly came to see Spencer as a dead-end employer, and quickly became disillusioned by the work:

“it started to occur to me that my entire job in the Senate was to abet a series of deliberate frauds. We were reading letters the senator never read, writing responses he apparently didn’t review, and now even signing his name. Abraham didn’t even have to buy postage stamps. His signature was all that was required on the top of the envelope. And that signature was printed by some machine too.”

The author’s second job on the Hill, however, proved far more entertaining and long-lasting, if a bit unpredictable: he became Congressman Nick Smith’s press secretary. He writes fondly of the Congressman, sparing few details of the fraught office environment and the unpredictable, unreliable, but completely sincere and well-meaning Congressman. When Latimer was appointed to manage his campaign for re-election, he offers a succinct summary of their strategy that looks as though it would have sufficed for his whole experience: limiting the congressman to “one catastrophic gaffe a week”.

After working for Smith, Latimer was hired as press secretary for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who he clearly respects as one of the few competent members of the upper house. He was working for Kyl on 9/11, and writes glowingly of the Senator’s dedication and poise in the face of not only the September attacks, but also the anthrax scare at the Hart Senate Offices (where Kyl’s office was based) and the botched government response (a funny episode in the book). Indeed, this chapter has a number of funny descriptions and critiques of the Senate and the Senators.

The second senator Latimer worked for was Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, who Latimer still respects as one of the few Senators able to actually govern properly.

“Every day, Andrew and I struggled to get the media’s attention. Senator Kyl didn’t have time for long palling-around sessions with reporters.”

I found Latimer’s comments about the difficulty he had in getting media attention for Senator Kyl particularly interesting, given the media attention Senator Kyl is currently getting thanks to his opposition to the Obama administration’s New START policy with Russia (see here and here, for example).

Ultimately, however, Latimer felt that he was not getting any closer to his dream of becoming a White House speech-writer, and therefore started to look further afield in Washington.

Luckily for Latimer, when his career felt stalled, a speech-writing position at the Department of Defense caught his attention, and he caught the attention of the Secretary of Defense...

The Pentagon

Latimer’s years at the Pentagon were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he was working for Rumsfeld, who he admires. On the other hand, the Pentagon was another dysfunctional workplace, as well as exemplifying the government profligacy that the author opposes. The chapters about his time working for Rumsfeld are certainly interesting. We get to see a different portrayal of the contentious Secretary, and Latimer writes of Rumsfeld fondly. It is clear that he valued the experience, and respects Rumsfeld a great deal. But, ultimately, he was disappointed in the way the Pentagon worked: it was clubby, Machiavellian, posturing, totally lacking in media savvy, and too easily affected by outside political operatives.

In a long, amusing indictment of the Pentagon procurement system, Latimer offers a number of examples of waste. They are almost all absurd, and anyone with even an iota of common sense should understand that this is no way to run anything, let alone the department in charge of the world’s most expensive military machine.

“Our office once ordered a shipment of Hi-Liters. The Pentagon supply store sent us five thousand, and not a single one was yellow. We received boxes and boxes of printer cartridges that didn’t fit any of our printers. And, of course, we never gave anything back. Instead, we lined up the superfluous items along one of the office walls until we could find a way to barter with another office for them.”

Because the Pentagon’s staff was, in part, chosen with the ‘advisement’ of the White House liaison office, it was a victim of politics. This is one area where the ‘cronyism’ that many believe characterised the Bush administration (and, to varying degrees, every administration that preceded it) was most apparent, and also blatant. Writing about his own experiences working for Rumsfeld, the author observed some “extraordinary” criteria for employment:

“They tended to possess one or more of the following characteristics: they were just out of college (usually an evangelical one), they had no relevant work experience, or they had been home-schooled. It made no sense.”

The speechwriting department, Latimer remembers, was “one of the few areas of the department actually trying to help Rumsfeld communicate” but the White House personnel system was “working constantly to deny us what we needed”.

Latimer is quite scathing in his descriptions of the press officers who worked at the Pentagon, laying a lot of the blame for Rumsfeld’s and the Pentagon’s poor reputation firmly at their feet. This was a section of the book that was of particular interest to me, as the subject of how foreign policy decision-making has been effect by the 24-hour news cycle forms a good part of my own research. Rumsfeld, the author tells us, was “determined to fix our public affairs operation”, and particularly disappointed with the Pentagon’s inability to keep up with media outlets (perhaps an outgrowth of the most incredible example of the CNN-Effect, when President George H.W. Bush relied on CNN for news of the the Gulf War’s progress). The Pentagon’s public affairs team was made up of about 30 civil servants who “in a 24/7 world the department too often showed a nine-to-five mentality”.

“At night, that giant room was so deserted that tumbleweeds blew by desks. A sizable number of them lacked any sense of urgency or interest in what the administration was doing. One Pentagon reporter compared prying information from them to going on an Easter egg hunt. Sometimes you’d want to put a mirror under their noses to see if they were breathing.”

After Rumsfeld resigned in the wake of the 2006 midterm elections, Latimer failed to click with his replacement, Bob Gates – who he includes in the ‘not a real Republican/conservative’ box as Powell, Rice and McCain. Thanks to another fortuitous turn of events, a job opportunity opened up in the White House speech-writing staff.

The White House

Finally, Latimer got his childhood wish: becoming a White House speech-writer. His early days were a blur as he admits to being rather swept up by the perks and trappings of working in the West Wing. He is clear that he is proud of the work he did for President Bush, but at the same time, he was not blind to the faults and failings of the system. It is in these chapters that we see the real problems inherent in the Washington and White House systems of ‘getting things done’. Instead of it being the idealistic building of his youthful hopes and dreams, “The Bush White House itself was run like most agencies in the federal government: haphazardly and with inconsistent rules.” It was also a bureaucratic nightmare for the speech-writers, especially one like Latimer, who likes to sprinkle jokes into his writing.

The White House was also, unfortunately, filled with fragile egos. Latimer mentions the “notorious... buddy system” that existed, through which “everyone wanted to be friends with everyone else”. While this first appeared like good team relations, it quickly became clear to Latimer that it was both insincere and also potentially dangerous: in such an environment, “it was hard to know what was really good or helpful to the president and what was just being praised out of politeness.” With all this meaningless, knee-jerk praise, any honest criticism (such as a Condoleezza Rice “Boring” comment on a speech) was met with incredulous offence.

When it was explained to Bush that his concept of the bailout proposal wasn’t accurate, the president was “momentarily speechless”. In frustration, he asked, “Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” Latimer remembers being speechless in response.

Latimer mentions George W Bush’s tendency to bestow nicknames on certain staffers, acquaintances and others in his orbit. However, contrary to some people’s belief, Latimer writes, “President Bush didn’t behave like a deranged frat boy, walking around the White House handing out nicknames to everyone.” While this is undoubtedly true, there is something rather sophomoric about the nicknames he did hand out. I’ll admit I am being a snob here, but it’s not exactly presidential, is it? It would be stupid to assume presidents don’t have a sense of humour (Abraham Lincoln and even ‘Silent’ Calvin Coolidge had quick wit and wielded it openly), or have nicknames for certain prized or favourite staffers and advisors. Perhaps the reason such a negative impression of Bush’s nicknames exists is because it spilled into the official record (who can forget, “heckuva job, Brownie”?). In the stand-out cases given in Speech-Less, a speechwriter is known as “Horny” and a pair who worked together known as “Chi-Chi” and “Choo-Choo”...

In general, Latimer’s portrayal of George W Bush is that of an affable, well-meaning and good-hearted president who was nonetheless a little disengaged and not entirely on the ball, and not considerably interested in getting to know those people who worked for him below the Special Assistant level. Equally, his White House is portrayed as quite a mess of egos and territorialism by the various agencies, councils and advisors who worked in and around the White House. The President also appears to be easily handled by his staffers, who seemed too eager to use their ‘initiative’ when interpreting instructions and orders. This would be particularly problematic in Bush’s final two years in office.

Rove is blamed for a lot of the politics involved in decision-making, as well as hiring (those members of the White House liaison office who made political purity tests part of hiring practices are described as Rove’s “minions”). Despite this, however, in the first six years of the administration, Rove appears to have enough influence and power to say no to Rumsfeld. This won’t exactly assuage the concerns that Rove was some sort of puppet-master, or “Bush’s brain”. Latimer came to the White House expecting Rove to be a political genius, but very quickly he came to a different conclusion:

“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.”

His political ‘genius’ also doesn’t bear scrutiny, when you consider that “after Karl was promoted to run domestic policy in the second term, not a single major bill proposed by the White House passed through a Republican Congress”.

The 2008 Economic Crisis

It’s worth singling out the events surrounding the Wall Street implosion in 2008, and what effects it had on the White House and its staff. This is predominantly dealt with in the first and last chapters of the book, and are quite damning for all concerned – none more so than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Latimer characterises the plan Paulson proposed sceptically:

The plan, like the secretary himself, seemed to have come out of nowhere – as if it had been hastily scribbled on the back of a couple of sheets of paper in the secretary’s car on his way to the White House. Basically, it could be summed up as: Give me hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and then trust me to do the right thing, even though 99.99 percent of you have no idea who I am.”

The real problem in 2008 was not that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. Rather, “It was that the Treasury Secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.” Latimer characterises the bailout plan as a complete deception. Paulson, the author writes, “used scare tactics to get us all to act quickly – and then did exactly nothing with the money he’d said he urgently needed to save the economy”, spending the next few weeks changing priorities and guidelines:

“Incredibly, he’d been given the power to do with that money virtually anything he pleased. All thanks to a president who just wanted to act boldly and a Congress that didn’t stop to think.”

Effectively, the White House ceded all control and input on the bailout plan to the Treasury Secretary, who was ultimately not being wholly forthcoming.

Speech-Less is a rare behind-the-scenes look at the (dys-)functional working environments of Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the George W. Bush White House. The author names many opportunistic and/or feckless scoundrels, and laments the apparent death of the principled conservatism he believes in. Towards the end of the book, he wears his conservatism and Republicanism on his sleeve, but thankfully – and unlike some liberal authors – keeps policy suggestions, explanations and ideological proselytising to an absolute minimum. Latimer is far more interested in getting across a sense of what the environment and denizens of Washington are like, and how idols of all stripes frequently disappoint, rather than ramming policy and politics down our throats. This automatically grants Speech-Less very wide appeal, in an otherwise increasingly-polarised publishing environment. Interestingly, the author also has a conservative’s distrust of the media – they are frequently blamed for Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s poor reputation, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. This, despite the obvious influence that FOX News and conservative talk radio has on the national debate (admittedly, it appears to have increased since Obama won election). In his own words,

“As I knew from my previous tours in Congress, Republicans were always at a disadvantage when it came to communicating in Washington. Most thought, not without justification, that the mainstream media were either frivolous or biased and therefore a waste of their time.”

Over the course of the book, a number of themes reappear, regardless of the department or branch of government about which he is writing. He bemoans the Washington phenomenon he refers to as “recycled losers”, and how for some Washington lifers, “No matter how badly a person screwed up, sooner or later he’d turn up somewhere else, with everything forgiven and forgotten.”

There’s a sense of distaste running throughout the book, aimed at those Republicans who are not considered “true” conservatives; those who have deviated from the sacred texts and positions held by the Gipper (despite the disconnect between a lot of the conservative ideals espoused by Reagan and what his administration actually did) and William F. Buckley. This is strange for two reasons: First, because Latimer’s general demeanour in the book is one of disappointment with how government works, and not a strident political or policy-heavy screed – indeed, the absence of political discussion in the book will no doubt form a great deal of its appeal to a broad audience. Second, it’s peculiar because he strongly criticises the White House liaison office for having a political purity test for aspiring employees. It would seem that he is only comfortable with a certain type of conservative purity, and the Bush administration failed.

Latimer’s conservatism also explains his concerns during the 2008 presidential election. After already becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party, he found the fanfare surrounding McCain’s nomination ludicrous. He was sceptical of Palin (and describes a similar scepticism coming from Bush), as well as the reaction she received, offering this cynical observation:

“The overall reaction to Palin at the White House, however, was almost frenzied. I think what was really going on was that everyone secretly hated themselves for supporting McCain, so they latched on to Palin with over-the-top enthusiasm.”

With the Republican Party effectively in disarray, however, the election season was a very sorry time for the GOP. “All we beleaguered Republicans had left, it seemed, were personal attacks.” For Latimer, a strict fiscal conservative, he also found criticising Obama on policy grounds extremely difficult:

“we’d abandoned our own principles. How... could we credibly claim Obama would be a liberal big spender when we’d spent more than any administration since LBJ’s?

For Latimer,

“The Republican Party I believed in—smaller, smarter government—was unidentifiable. We’d thrown it all away amid excessive spending, corruption, dishonesty, and petty partisanship.”

Understandably, and also rightly, the author is particularly disappointed and even angry about the Washington work-ethic, particularly that of Senators and Congressmen. While he is generalising, his points are well-made and important, and there is ample evidence to support his criticisms. For example,

“The only thing I’d ever seen people in Washington do was spend money. I’d never seen them actually solve a problem in my life.”

And on the tendency of former- and current-officials to shirk responsibilities and hard work, he describes how sometimes their approach can be to “look busy and wait for someone else to do the hard stuff.”

“Professional Republicans no longer cared, it seemed, about supporting candidates who believed in our ideals. They were more interested in keeping their cushy houses in Georgetown or Cleveland Park, and their contracts with the revolving door of Republican bigwigs. It was all about being close to power for the sake of power.”

A speech-writer by trade, it should come as no surprise that Speech-Less is very well written, and the author’s prose flows freely and quickly across the pages. He has also filled the book with a self-deprecating humour and witty and cutting impressions of Washington and those who work there.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a Bush-administration memoir that is a bit lighter and more entertaining, without resorting to the tired and all-too-common Bush-bashing volumes. Latimer’s insights into the broken methodology of the Washington press machine are very useful, intelligent and frequently witty, though his complaints about ‘impure’ conservatives are a little disappointing – not to mention highlight his (self-confessed) naïveté about those who work in Washington.

A good, mostly non-ideological book about Washington, D.C., Speech-Less will make you chuckle, frown, and also disappointed that things still don’t appear to be on the mend in US politics.

Also try: Matt Taibbi, Smells Like Dead Elephants (2006); Charles Peters, How Washington Really Works (199?); Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts (2008); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)

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