Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Being Gerson"

The Atlantic Monthly is just the sort of magazine to publish highly detailed accounts by current and former political insiders, so I wasn't all that surprised to see a piece by former Bush speech-writer Matthew Scully, writing about his time at the White House. I was a little surprised to find that the lengthy article is mostly a hit piece on Michael Gerson, whose self-aggrandizement is recounted in great detail by Scully. Some examples:

The president’s little tribute, however, would much better describe what happened after this incident, when the story of “Gerson being Gerson” found its way into a Washington Whispers item by a friend of Mike’s at U.S. News & World Report. Someone had to tell the reporter about this inspiring moment, and I have a feeling it wasn’t the keepers of the budget. It was always like this, working with Mike. No good deed went unreported, and many things that never happened were reported as fact. For all of our chief speechwriter’s finer qualities, the firm adherence to factual narrative is not a strong point. He has chosen the perfect title for his book, because in his telling of a White House story, things often sound a lot more heroic than they actually were.

My favorite example came in a piece by Bob Woodward and two other Washington Post reporters. The writer’s writer and the reporter’s reporter spent a lot of time together, and whatever Bob got out of the deal you could always find Mike’s reward in print. There had been a September 13, 2001, Oval Office meeting attended by adviser Karen Hughes and three speechwriters—Mike, John McConnell, and me. Early in the meeting President Bush said to us, “We’re at war”—an exact quote, and not the sort of moment easily forgotten. In The Washington Post account, however, the rest of us have vanished, and the president declares, “Mike, we’re at war.”

Then there was Mike’s Newsweek account last year of the high drama he experienced trying to get into Washington on September 11, while “my evacuated staff” near the White House was doing, well, whatever. (That would be us, his colleagues, who contributed the sole line in that evening’s address, drafted by Karen Hughes, that anyone remembers: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”) Mike never made it into town that day, but that doesn’t prevent him, in his own version, from staying at the center of events—a position from which even the president, as Mike put it in Newsweek, looked “stiff and small.”

Ouch. I would like to give Scully more credit, but this sounds pretty much just like sour grapes. Of course, it is also a pretty interesting portrait of White House speech-writing at work...and of the profound disconnect between some of the speeches they wrote and the real world. Here's an example:

For a time, I congratulated myself on at least preventing the even more melodramatic “axis of hatred” from marching into history—though, looking back, I suppose “axis of evil” was a case of how the very intensity of these speeches could sometimes give events a false momentum and fill the air with needless drama.

Well, congratulations there Scully. Scully supposes "axis of evil" was a little melodramatic. The phrase was actually completely out of touch with reality, and needlessly offensive to the Iranians who it must be remembered were aiding us against al Qaeda at the time, but apparently it wasn't Scully or Gerson's or their comrade John McConnell's job to worry about the consequences or applicability of the words they were writing. Here's another example of this:

As John and I sat down to get started, in marched Mike with a muffin in one hand and Douglas MacArthur’s “the guns are silent” speech—delivered on the deck of the USS Missouri at the end of World War II—in the other. And this time Mike had worked up his own memorable variation: “The sirens of Baghdad are quiet. The desert has returned to silence. The Battle of Iraq is over, and the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Much as I’d like to record that I had the good sense to object, I think I even added my own touches to the glory of the moment. The honored role here in averting rhetorical disaster was assumed by Donald Rumsfeld, who expressed alarm at this overreach, and by Karen Hughes, who often checked our more blustery outbursts. “These are beautiful sentences,” she wrote on draft three, “but may overstate the case—there is still shooting going on.”

I'm starting to think that maybe Scully, Gerson and McConnell hung the "Mission Accomplished" banner themselves. Scully writes that this effort seems "ludicrous only in retrospect" when it should have seemed ludicrous at the time, or would have had the three spent lest time in an office crafting rhetoric and any time at all watching CNN (or Fox News) reports of scattered fighting.

But at least Scully learned something from his time in the White House:

Six years later, with all that has gone wrong in Iraq, I know one is now supposed to sigh with regret at how mistaken we all were about Bush in those days, how foolish of us to think the man had greatness in him. As Jonathan Rauch reflected a year ago in these pages, Americans “thought they saw a Churchill,” but all that’s gone and now we know better. And yet I think I recognize greatness when it steps before me, and the sight of George W. Bush in those days left an impression that has never worn off.

It was apparent when he stood on the ruins of the World Trade Center, and again in his “I’m a loving guy” moment in the Oval Office. And we speechwriters saw his qualities of character just as vividly when the cameras were withdrawn. In hundreds of pre-9/11 speeches, we had been straining for the unforgettable turn of phrase, the noble sentiment, the heroic gesture. Now, nobility and heroism were actually on display, and it turned out he could do it without us.

Or not.

No comments: