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.