An Interview with "Speech-Less" Author Matt Latimer

From the diaries by Erick.

“The president was clearly frustrated with what was going on, but there was little he could do at this late hour. He went up to take a nap, saying he was beat. He looked it. I’d never seen him more exhausted. His hair was out of place and shaggy. His face looked drained and pale. Most alarming of all, he was wearing Crocs.”

So reads former presidential speechwriter Matt Latimer’s tongue-in-cheek description of President Bush hours before giving a national address to explain his Treasury secretary’s plan to save the country’s economy and banking sector from total collapse.  Crocs cracks aside, that the president had no idea how the financial plan actually worked is even more disturbing.  “Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” Bush asked.  Good question.  Unfortunately, many of the former aides named in Latimer’s book have proven themselves far more likely to attack the book and its author than provide any real answers.

Released last week by Crown Publishing, Speech-Less details the rise of a native of Flint, Michigan (the inspiration for Michael Moore’s Roger and Me)  to the floor of a national political convention, to the halls of Congress, to the Pentagon, and, finally, to the Oval Office.  Latimer pulls no punches.  And although less than half the book centers around his time in the White House, the bulk of the rage directed toward the book has come from former White House staffers aghast at the audacity of someone airing their antics.

“I’m pretty sure that almost everyone who worked in the White House could not pick Matt [Latimer] out of a lineup,” wrote Dana Perino, a former White House press secretary known primarily for not being as good as Ari Fleischer and being just marginally less awful than Scott McClellan.  And so began the parade of personal attacks bereft of any substantive challenge to Latimer’s rendering of events.

“He needs to read his Dante,” author and radio commentator Bill Bennett told CNN.  “The lowest circle of Hell [is] for people who are disloyal in the way this guy is disloyal and [at] the very lowest point Satan chews on their bodies.”  According to Dante, Bennett, a gambler who admittedly lost millions in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, would end up in the fourth circle of Hell with the other squanderers and hoarders of wealth (I greatly admire Bennett and his many contributions to the conservative cause, but his comments were indefensible).  Bennett’s remarks on CNN were circulated online by Peter Wehner, another former Bush administration alumnus.

I spoke with Latimer last Wednesday evening to get his response to the attacks against him and his book.  “I like the president, I respect him, he did a lot of good things, and I never said otherwise,” Latimer told me.   “The fact is that appallingly bad communications strategies crippled the president, and the people attacking me were the ones responsible for it.”

Latimer’s book, which just earned a spot on the New York Times best-seller list, also confirmed a long-held suspicion I developed as a congressional staffer during Bush’s tenure – that blind loyalty to Bush the person compromised the ability of many of his staff to counsel and challenge Bush the president.  Unlike the loyalty toward Reagan, which was based almost entirely on his vision for limited government and a strong national defense, the loyalty reportedly demanded by President Bush was personal and not based on an over-arching vision of governance.

“The self-appointed loyalty enforcers don’t like that I had any principled criticisms of the White House from the Right,” Latimer said.  “It’s not helpful to any party to have a bunch of personal groupies running the country.”  His point is amplified by the fact that the only oath sworn by senior presidential staffers is to the United States Constitution, not to the president or any other individual.

More than anything, the kerfuffle over Speech-Less represents just the latest battle in an ongoing war for the soul of the G.O.P.  As Latimer told me, “These people still want to run the party and will run it into the ground again if given another chance.”

It is hard to quibble with his assertion.  Before Bush became president, Republicans held solid majorities in both houses of Congress.  By the time he left, Democrats had crushed the Republican revolution and taken complete control of Congress and the White House.  When Bush took office, the Republican party was known as the party of limited government.  When he left, it was the party of earmarks and the Bridge to Nowhere.

Can the party save itself from extinction?  If its “self-appointed loyalty enforcers” continue to marginalize the dissent of those like Latimer who believe the Bush administration represented a departure from, and not a return to, Reagan’s legacy of limited government, then probably not.

Cross-published at the Wharton Journal .