Matt Latimer was deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush during the latter part of his presidency. Before that, Matt was the principal speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
Matt has written a book called Speech*Less about his time in Washington, which also encompassed working for three Republican members of Congress. The book has received mixed reviews. For example, Ann Coulter raves about it, but Matt’s former boss at the White House, Bill McGurn, panned the book in the Wall Street Journal (Matt responded here). My view, which I hope to express in a later post, falls somewhere in between.
A mutual friend introduced me to Matt and, in the interest of promoting debate among conservatives, I asked Matt to write something about his book for Power Line. He agreed and has graciously provided me with the following:
The editors of Power Line graciously have given me this opportunity to discuss my book, SPEECH*LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. I am deeply appreciative, but I hope you’ll bear with me while I discuss a little bit of breaking news – news which, unfortunately, makes my book an even more urgent read than it might have been before.
For several years, Republican elites in the Bush White House urged conservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney to refrain from engaging the media (while they generously leaked to the press against people like … well, Dick Cheney.) Now elements from this same group – led by Ed Gillespie and other former Karl Rove operatives – are telling talk-radio hosts, tea party attendees and other activists to shut up too.
The strategists and pundits at the top of the GOP and their allies in the media think they have figured out the problem with the lowly state of their party. It’s the conservatives’ fault. They are worried, as Politico recently reported, “that the party’s chances for reversing its electoral routs of 2006 and 2008 are being wounded by the flamboyant rhetoric and angry tone of conservative activists and media personalities.” (Did you ever notice that “angry” is a word the media loves to apply to conservatives – we are always scowling or furious, “the angry white male.”)
At first I couldn’t imagine what conservatives could be so “angry” about. Maybe it’s because their leaders ignored them for years and then sent the Republican Party into an identity crisis so severe that it made Michael Jackson look well adjusted. Yes, I suppose that might cause a slight rise in agitation levels. Or perhaps it’s these same leaders telling conservatives on whose votes they’ve depended to drop dead for good measure. Yes, I suppose that, too, might cause conservatives to be a tad peeved.
So now we are supposed to GAG RUSH, BECK, SAVAGE AND LAURA AND hide THEM in a corner somewhere while the “pragmatists” guide us to victory. Maybe it’s just me, but I think I’ll pass on taking advice from the group that guided President Bush to a 22 percent approval rating and aided the rise of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama.
But alas, even our beloved National Review, under the leadership of Gillespie friend Rich Lowry, has joined in. The magazine that was formerly the standard-bearer of the conservative movement recently published an article expressing admiration for a gubernatorial candidate who was “soft pedaling” his conservative beliefs. I never thought I’d see the day that National Review applauded a “non-ideological campaign.” As a longtime friend of William F. Buckley recently told me, “Republicans win when they are conservatives. And Democrats win when they are conservatives.” That, he assured me, was all the political advice one needs.
You may have missed it, but I received a generous share of harrumphing from Republican elites over my recent book, SPEECH*LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. And wouldn’t you know it, the harrumphs came from the very same people who want conservatives to take the proverbial long walk off a short pier.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t mind the harrumphing when my book came out. It helped make SPEECH*LESS a New York Times bestseller (for which I’m understandably grateful). Although these critics guised their fulminating against me by claiming they were defending President George W. Bush – who comes out just fine in the book’s pages, by the way – what these folks really didn’t like was the fact that I exposed what they did to the conservative movement. I also named names. (Understandably, those named didn’t like that very much at all.)
Well, the reasons for writing my book, I’m sorry to say, are piling up with every passing day. For the same people who I watched turn the Bush administration into incomprehensible political mush – reversing its positions on climate change, immigration, overtures to Iran and Korea, and even coming out in favor of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq (except don’t call it a “timetable”) – are still holding onto the party’s car keys, waiting to put their driving glasses back so they can motor us off another electoral cliff. This is why prominent conservatives from Ann Coulter to Stephen Hayes to Laura Ingraham to Jed Babbin of Human Events and many others have commented favorably on my book. It is our roadmap to a post-Bush conservative resurgence.
The Republican elites have their own road map, of course, the same one that detoured us over that cliff a few years back. Their plan goes roughly like this. Vote for Charlie Crist in Florida over conservative Mario Rubio. Unseat the conservative governor in Texas in favor of someone more moderate like Kay Bailey Hutchison. Raise money and campaign for a Congressional candidate in New York State who is more liberal than the Democrat in the race.
Let John “the media is my base” McCain redefine the Republican Party in his image (how many electoral votes did he win again, against a relative novice?). Oh, and turn the other way while Senator Lindsey Graham, who told us he was “Mr. Conservative” to get elected, works on a climate change bill with John Kerry (D-France). We need to do these things, our strategists tell us, in order to win an election. Then once we’re back in power, we’ll be conservatives again, they promise. Where have we heard that before?
The Republican Party may indeed be making some gains against the Obama Democrats, but that’s not because we suddenly became geniuses. And it’s not because we are hiding our conservative lights under bushels. If we are pulling ahead it’s because the Democrats are in charge now, and their failings – currently at least – are more pronounced than our own.
Counting on the other side to fail is not a recipe for a long-term victory. And sacrificing principles for percentages and votes is what got conservatives into our current mess in the first place. How are voters supposed to understand what the Republican Party represents when we don’t understand it ourselves? (Perhaps that’s why the number of those identifying with the party is at its lowest point EVER.)
Which brings me back to my book. For more than a decade as a young conservative, I worked my way up the rungs of power of Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the Bush White House. And I chronicled that time for other conservatives to see. I watched as the Republican Party forgot what it stood for – and lost control of Congress, the White House, as well as the support of the public. And I saw good conservatives constantly pushed aside in favor of power-hungry strategists or media-friendly “mavericks” who could never win the war for conservative ideas because they either didn’t believe in them or didn’t understand them.
Ever wonder why conservatives on Capitol Hill failed time and again to pass landmark legislation – on Social Security reform, for example – even when we had a Congressional majority? And yet we passed McCain-Feingold in a Republican Congress? In fact as my book recounts, conservatives never really had a majority in the party. A merry band of heroes – the Mitch McConnells, Jon Kyls, Tom Coburns, Jeff Sessionses, Jim DeMints and John Cornyns — routinely were outnumbered by what the media considers principled Republicans – principled whenever they stood against conservatives. Then there were others who let power and privilege get the best of them – like one U.S. Senator who had staff members carry her purse around Capitol Hill.
Equally troubling was the endless inability by Republicans to seize communications opportunities – even on small, but delightful matters such as when one Democrat Chuck Schumer admitted talking to an imaginary family he invented to decide how to craft legislation or when Majority Leader Harry Reid revealed his contempt for voters by commenting on their smell when they toured Capitol Hill.
As a member of the Bush administration, I saw firsthand how the Secretary of Defense confronted a Pentagon communications bureaucracy that through inertia or well-intentioned foolishness failed to articulate most of the administration’s priorities in the war on terror. I detail a bizarre plan to have Secretary Rumsfeld claim that WMD were found in Iraq – an idea that Rumsfeld knew nothing about but which still made its way to the White House. And I talk about a media world where leakers like Condi Rice and Colin Powell helped demonize those who didn’t leak, like Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. People forget these days that Cheney and Rumsfeld, though traditional conservatives, were once widely-admired senior statesmen who received bipartisan acclaim. That was before BushWorld got hold of them.
And at the Bush White House itself, I recount an administration that drifted away from conservative principles by handing the reins over to “pragmatists” and strategists instead of people who believed in communicating concepts and ideals. President Bush was an honorable man – smart, funny, dogged, sometimes overly blunt – who accomplished much. But it does not diminish those achievements to acknowledge where the administration departed from the conservative path.
I believed readers were entitled to know, for example, that the administration planned to come out for a cap-and-trade plan on global warming until conservatives caught wind of it and stopped it at the last minute. That we ended up supporting a tax increase. That we turned the struggle against tyranny into something more “popular” like the fight against diseases such as river blindness in Botswana.
And conservatives should know as well what President Bush meant when he dismissed the Buckley-Reagan conservative movement as a relic of the past. “I redefined the Republican Party,” he told me. For conservatives wondering what happened in the final years of the Bush administration that explains a lot. The record of overspending, government bailouts and reversals on key foreign policy issues crippled us in the campaign against the Obama Democrats. It’s a lesson worth remembering as we look to people promising to carry the conservative banner forward in 2012.
Ever since I was a kid growing up in Michigan, the conservative son of liberal parents, I dreamed of going to Washington to advance the principles I believed in. As I left in my old maroon Dodge Dynasty, my parents looking at me wistfully, like I was Anakin Skywalker going off to join the Dark Side.
Throughout my time as a conservative in DC, I had one wonderful, frustrating, fascinating, sometimes wacky ride. I made many mistakes, but I learned some important things along the way – things that I hope other idealistic conservatives might benefit from. One conservative radio host recently summed SPEECH-LESS up as follows: “It is the saddest and the funniest book I’ve ever read about Washington, D.C.” That, of course, was a wonderful compliment, one that sums up my view of our nation’s capital – the saddest, but funniest, place in the world.
It’s time for conservatives to see what has happened there, so we can get to the work of fixing it.