Bush from the Inside
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.