“In 2007 I finally made it to the Bush White House as a presidential speechwriter. But it was not at all what I envisioned. It was less like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and more like The Office.”
This comes from Matt Latimer, who worked as one of Bush’s speechwriters during the president’s final twenty-two months in office. He’s got a book coming out, the thrust of which is that the Bush White House was just as dysfunctional and, well, stupid as we all imagined it was.
Here’s a significant excerpt about how Bush dealt with his $700 billion bailout proposal toward the end of his presidency, in the wake of the economic recession and Wall Street’s implosion:
We were faced with a dilemma: Should Bush still go out and address the nation, or should he cancel? And if he did go out, what should he say? Ed, typically, told us to write two drafts for the address to the nation—one outlining the proposal as originally announced and another that only discussed the “principles” the legislation needed to incorporate to win the administration’s support. Chris and I looked at each other warily. Two versions of a major prime-time address that may or may not be given hours from now? Sure, no problem. Ultimately, Ed decided to go with the second speech. But he clearly didn’t share his plan with the president. When the president came into the Family Theater to rehearse the speech in front of a teleprompter, he didn’t like the idea of just talking about principles. It sounded like the administration was backing away from its own plan (which it was).
“We can’t even defend our own proposal?” the president asked. “Why did we propose it, then?” This was not bold decision making. There were about a dozen people gathered in the theater to watch him rehearse, and all of us remained silent as the president looked at us for an answer.
The president walked over to sip some water from one of the bottles on the table near his lectern. “This speech is weak,” he said. He looked at me and Chris. “Frankly, I’m surprised, to be honest with you.”
There was more silence.
“Too late to cancel the speech?” the president asked into the air. He was joking…I think. Finally, Ed (who hadn’t exactly rushed to jump into the line of fire) explained that we had to make this change to the address because the proposal the president liked might not end up being the one he had to agree to. “Then why the hell did I support it if I didn’t believe it would pass?” he snapped. There was yet another uncomfortable silence.
Finally, the president directed us to try to put elements of his proposal back into the text. He wanted to explain what he was seeking and to defend it. He especially wanted Americans to know that his plan would likely see a return on the taxpayers’ investment. Under his proposal, he said, the federal government would buy troubled mortgages on the cheap and then resell them at a higher price when the market for them stabilized.
“We’re buying low and selling high,” he kept saying.
The problem was that his proposal didn’t work like that. One of the president’s staff members anxiously pulled a few of us aside. “The president is misunderstanding this proposal,” he warned. “He has the wrong idea in his head.” As it turned out, the plan wasn’t to buy low and sell high. In some cases, in fact, Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth in order to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president’s proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. It wasn’t that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.
As Chris and I were in our office in the EEOB trying to put in the latest of the president’s edits, there was a steady flow of people coming into the room. The economic team came in. Ed Gillespie, the president’s top communications adviser, came in. Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary, was there. At one point there were twelve people crowded around our computer, trying to explain how the proposal worked. The economic advisers were disagreeing with each other.
There was total confusion. It was 5:30 p.m. The speech was in three and a half hours.
After finally getting the speech draft turned around and sent back to the teleprompter technicians, we trudged back to the Family Theater, where the president rehearsed. In the theater, the president was clearly confused about how the government would buy these securities. He repeated his belief that the government was going to “buy low and sell high,” and he still didn’t understand why we hadn’t put that into the speech like he’d asked us to. When it was explained to him that his concept of the bailout proposal wasn’t correct, the president was momentarily speechless. He threw up his hands in frustration.
“Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” he asked.
Not the best and the brightest.
Here’s some more about the mindset of the Bush White House. It’s telling that the only person (apart from the author) who seemed to have a grasp of reality about Sarah Palin was, incredibly, George Bush himself.
The instantaneous 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 onto Palin with over-the-top enthusiasm. Even the normally levelheaded Raul Yanes, the president’s staff secretary, was overtaken by Palin mania. He’d been slightly annoyed with me for not jumping on the McCain bandwagon and for saying aloud that I thought McCain would lose. Now, of course, I had to be enthusiastic about the ticket. “You still think we’re going to lose?” he asked me laughingly.
“Yep,” I replied.
Raul looked incredulous. “Well, you obviously don’t believe in facts!”
I was about to be engulfed by a tidal wave of Palin euphoria when someone—someone I didn’t expect—planted my feet back on the ground. After Palin’s selection was announced, the same people who demanded I acknowledge the brilliance of McCain’s choice expected the president to join them in their high-fiving tizzy. It was clear, though, that the president, ever the skilled politician, had concerns about the choice of Palin, which he called “interesting.” That was the equivalent of calling a fireworks display “satisfactory.”
“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”
Everyone in the room seemed to look at him in horror, their mouths agape. When Ed told him that conservatives were greeting the choice enthusiastically, he replied, “Look, I’m a team player, I’m on board.” He thought about it for a minute. “She’s interesting,” he said again. “You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off the rose.” Then he made a very smart assessment.
“This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.” It was a rare dose of reality in a White House that liked to believe every decision was great, every Republican was a genius, and McCain was the hope of the world because, well, because he chose to be a member of our party.