The limits of a politics of disillusionment

Yesterday, we posted a piece by Matt Latimer about his provocative new book Speech*Less. Here, as promised, is my mixed review of the book.
It’s easy to criticize obscure White House staffers who write kiss-and-tell books. But depending on how the book is executed, and assuming the administration is no longer in power, these books can be worthwhile. I recall reading two of them after George H.W. Bush left office, including one by John Podhoretz who was a speechwriter in that White House, and I thought they contributed to my understanding of the presidency they described.
Matt’s book falls within this tradition and is, I think, also worthwhile. Indeed, his main complaint about the White House in which he worked is similar to Podhoretz’s (if memory serves) — that pragmatism too often triumphed over principle.
The debate between the “pragmatists” and the “ideologues” can sometimes be more complex than Matt seems to allow. However, I have little doubt that the pragmatists too often had their way in 2007 and 2008 when Matt was at the White House. Indeed, on some fronts they had it too much their way from the beginning. A friend of mine held relatively low positions on the domestic side of the administration during Bush’s first term. He has told me how his suggestions for conservative reform were dismissed out of hand based on fear of how the media would portray them. Matt’s disillusionment with this sort of “preemptive surrender” at the policy level seems well-founded, and he has performed a service by reporting it.
Matt’s book also falls within an older, and related, tradition — the novel about the young man from the “provinces” who comes to the big city, crashes its inner circle, and is both amused and appalled by its mores. At their best, these novels are “political,” but not expressly so. They focus more on manners and interpersonal relationships.
It is this side of Matt’s book that Ann Coulter (who worked with Matt on Sen. Spencer Abraham’s staff) raved about:

If P.G. Wodehouse had gone to Washington and worked for senators, . . . Donald Rumsfeld and, . . . George W. Bush, this is the book he would have written. Matt Latimer’s hilarious account reads like political satire, except it’s all true . . . Others have written well on ‘what it takes’ to get to the White House. Speech-less nails the awful, bizarrely riveting comedy of what it’s like when you get there. Although the general plotline is: Exuberant young conservative goes to Washington, becomes disillusioned, leaves the political world forever — I think Latimer will have to keep one foot in politics, if only for the material.

Coulter’s comment is astute, of course, but it also highlights what I happened not to like about the book: portions of Matt’s critique of Republican Washington, DC have nothing to do with the betrayal of conservatism or any such lofty theme; they involve instead ridiculing the personal quirks and characteristics of Washington, DC Republicans.
I suppose my objection is, in part, a matter of taste, but I find it neither disillusioning nor amusing that people working in stressful jobs at the White House sometimes display quirky behavior. And, beyond the laughs, I don’t know what purpose is served by writing about such displays.
Consider Matt’s treatment of Spencer Abraham. It was Abraham who gave Matt his first job on Capitol Hill. And Matt acknowledges that Abraham was a knowledgeable, hard-working, conservative Senator. He finds fault with Abraham for being too much of a policy wonk and not enough of a politican, and for being remote from his staff. And he concludes that he’s not sure he would have voted to re-elect Abraham in 2000 in his race against his Democratic opponent, Deborah Stabenow.
I have no knowledge one way or another about the merits of Matt’s criticism of Abraham as a politician (it may be worth noting, however, that in the very blue state of Michigan, Abraham outpolled his Democratic opponent by nine percentage points in 1994 and lost to Stabenow by only 1.5 points in 2000). But assuming its accuracy, the criticism hardly seem like grounds for a conservative to consider not voting for Abraham in his race against Stabenow.
It is one thing to be indifferent to the demise of RINOs, although even here I think caution may be advisable. It is quite another to be indifferent to the demise, at the hands of liberal Democrats, of quirky conservative Republicans.
Like any movement, the American conservative movement is populated by people who are less than perfect. Some of its leaders and representatives will be strong on policy and not so good on retail politics, or the other way around. Some will have personality tics. For that matter, some will be more pragmatic than others. There’s nothing that should be disillusioning about any of this.
In sum, I would have been happier to read more about conduct that arguably betrayed conservative principles and less about idiosyncratic behavior.
But this was Matt’s story to tell, and he tells it well. There is much to like about the book, and I suspect some readers will enjoy it as much as Ann Coulter did.


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