StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

Bush from the Inside

22 Sep 2009
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

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. I can't now find a copy of the memo on the web, but here is the article that was based on it:

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.


That was him...

It was always, "Ready, SHOOT, Aim..."

This is almost exactly the

This is almost exactly the quality you want in a good fighter pilot, who, of course, you assiduously train to follow orders and stay on the leash until you let them off. In a president, not so much.

What you want in a good fighter pilot? I dont THINK SO

As the daughter of a fighter pilot, and sister of two flight captains, I have to say shoot first think later is the last thing you want in a fighter pilot. Fighter pilots have to think very strategically, and quickly, sure, but they don't make uneducated snap decisions. They make highly trained, very well educated snap decisions. There is a difference. AND btw Bush junior was never a good fighter pilot. My understanding is, he was a complete coward, and also apparently, a bully. I dont know how the US was fooled by this idiot for two terms.

Just more evidence that the man at the top always matter

It's no surprise that's Bush's style would permeate the whole White House organization. The man at the top sets the tone.

That's why it's encouraging to see Obama's style. Things will continue to improve as his style permeates his White House. Obama seems much more Reagan-like than Bush in style, if not in substance.


Wow. This is the most shocking thing ever. Who would have though an intellectually incurious man who never held a real job until he was 40 would have these traits. A man who failed at everything and had to be bailed out by his father's friends until he was able to use his name to get elected. I haven't been this surprised since I found out Liberace was gay.


It's worth remembering that he won a big libel suit against a British newspaper in the 1950s when it said he was gay. I've always wondered if the paper could have appealed the judgment and sued Liberace's estate after his homosexuality was confirmed.

Well, I guess Liberace's

Well, I guess Liberace's preferred public image is why Robin set the record straight when Liberace appeared on Batman. See Robin's line, referring to character played by Liberace, at 4:34

(I remembered the line from many years ago and found it on YouTube. Gotta love the web.)

These strolls down memory lane are interesting and all, but...

I remember being called a "terrorist-loving-America-hater" for saying this kind of stuff about Bush when he was in office. I read all the stuff coming out now and my thought is, Do you honestly think we didn't know this about that dunderhead?!

The vindication is nice, but it's also irritating considering that maybe he might not have screwed us so deeply if only more people would have stood up to him when it had the chance to ACTUALLY MATTER.

But, whatever. It's all behind us now - thank goodness! Welcome to reality - we've been waiting for you.

(Beckians and Palinites, of course, notwithstanding)

Here's the letter on Esquire

Dilulio has many nice things to say about Bush personally, but went on to say this (letter sent in Oct. 2002):

"In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions... the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking — discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue."


"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."

It's a Harvard MBA trait

I listened to a podcast about MBA training (it was an Australian radio show called Background Briefing) and they said the course Bush went through was all about making quick decisions, going with yer gut, and sticking to it. Sadly for us all, President Bush learned his lessons well.

Americans love "stupid", and you can't fix it

Look at all a guy this dumb managed to "accomplish" with the power of the White House and his merry band of sycophants behind him.

What'll happen if someone with a brain and a plan and actual public servants is allowed to run things?

No wonder the Republicans now let the Baggers and the Christianists run their party: they're the last, fire-breathing breath between them and the state of political oblivion.

What It Takes

Richard Ben Cramer captured George W. Bush's style perfectly almost 20 years ago in the first chapter of his book "What It Takes," his account of the 1988 presidential election. Junior was a shoot-first, ask-questions-later type of guy who was so concerned about people treating him with the respect he felt HE deserved that he had no regard for whether he was showing those around him any respect at all. Anyone who read that book would know he didn't have "what it takes" to be president.

Bush's behavior as pesident

Bush's behavior as pesident was classic alcoholic devoid of a substantive recovery program. Mama and Pape Bush called the wrong Bill, Graham not Wilson, when they'd had enough. We suffered the consequences.

Gimme an effin break

OK, I realize this is a Reagan hagiography site, but seriously:

*Reagan's WH was a model of thoroughness, adherence to proper procedure, and respect for the office of the president.*

Iran-Contra ring a bell, boy-o?

You have to be kidding

The Reagan Administration was about thoroughness and adherence to proper procedure? that whole Iran/Contra thing was....what?

Speechwriter woes

Having worked in the government, I was only mildly sympathetic to Latimer's complaint that Bush would sometimes ignore a speech he had assiduously prepared. Unfortunately being a government scribe often means you labor over a speech, a memo, a cable, a briefing, that is never used and sometimes never read. It comes with the job.

It is however enormously fulfilling when the politicals do read and use what you provided.

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