Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Oval Office Confidential

by Christopher Buckley
Where was I? Oh yes, trying to make Joe Scarborough into the GOP ‘It’ Guy. To be continued. Meanwhile…

… in a recent column Maureen Dowd quoted something Bill Bennett said to Wolf Blitzer, about a young man named Matt Latimer, author of a new book called Speech-less, an account of his adventures as a speechwriter for Don Rumsfeld and George W. Bush:

“The guy is a worm … He needs to read his Dante. He probably hasn’t read ‘The Inferno.’ The lowest circles of hell are for people who are disloyal in the way this guy is disloyal, and at the very lowest point Satan chews on their bodies.”

As Bertie Wooster might say, a bit much to spring on a lad with a morning head.

I hadn’t read Mr. Latimer’s book, but I immediately rushed out to buy it. Bill Bennett is arguably—no, make that inarguably—the most pompous, self-righteous ass in Christendom, so when he invokes Dante and casts a thirty-something kid speechwriter into the bowels of hell to have his flesh chewed along with Brutus, Cassius and Judas—honestly—well I flew to the nearest bookstore and said, ‘I wish to buy all your copies of Speech-less.’ Thank heavens they had only one left. But I’m going to go on Amazon and send it to everyone I know for Christmas.

I confess a(nother) bias here (you already know where I stand on Mr. Bennett): I’m a sucker for White House memoirs. I worked there for a time and once wrote a novel-length parody of the genre. They must, to be sure, be approached with caution, but a discriminating ear will easily detect the sound of knives being ground, and proceed accordingly.

• Lloyd Grove interviews Matt Latimer This is an old genre: What the Butler Saw. You can huff and puff (along with Bill Bennett) and be shocked—shocked—that people write these books; but like them or not, they are the records of eyewitnesses to power. The laws have become so straight-jacketing that presidents and their aides dare not keep journals or diaries, lest they be subpoenaed by avid special prosecutors. The late Cap Weinberger nearly went to jail for having kept a journal. Bill Clinton and his friend Taylor Branch hit on a rather brilliant solution, witness Branch’s fascinating new book, The Clinton Tapes. So in the absence of White House secret tape recordings—oh, for the good old days—and diaries and such, these memoirs by the butlers are valuable—to say nothing of high entertainment.

Mr. Latimer comes across as an honest, if perhaps an occasionally naïve and dewy-eyed observer. He’s a deft writer, and has a good eye and a nice turn of phrase. You may find yourself surprised by what he has to report. I was. (Though as one Republican president used to say: Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not endorsing Mr. Latimer’s observations, merely remarking on them.)

Don Rumsfeld comes across not at all as the arrogant monster he has been everywhere depicted. In one instance, he talks Time magazine out of making him its Man of the Year (does anyone care about Time’s Man of the Year anymore?) and counter-proposes The American Soldier. In Latimer’s telling, he is smart and demanding, but fair and courteous and good-hearted. Latimer also reveals that the famous “Old Europe” snarky comment was a slip of the tongue. Rumsfeld had meant to say “Old NATO.” (More tightly focused snark.) He tried repeatedly to resign over Abu Ghraib, and took full responsibility for it. Americans admire stepping up to the plate (see Clarke, Richard, and Letterman, David), but Rumsfeld’s mea culpa fell on already hardened ears. But one can condemn the Iraq War (as I do) without unfairly demonizing one of its architects. Well, we’ll be hearing more from Rumsfeld and Latimer on this score; Mr. Latimer is assisting Mr. Rumsfeld with his memoir. I wonder if Bill Bennett has reserved a copy…

Another who comes in here for surprisingly objective treatment is—brace yourselves—Dick Cheney. Cheney shares with his erstwhile patron Rumsfeld a rare, indeed almost unheard-of quality in Washington: an utter lack of concern for the press’ opinion of him; indeed, contempt for the press, generally. I personally like the press; they are my brothers and sisters, but the older I get, the more I admire this kind of blitheness in a politician. Reagan had it. He just didn’t care what the New York Times said about him. Anyway, one can detest Cheney’s policies—fair enough—without indulging in the kinds of no-holds-barred contumely that occludes fair and considered judgment.

Well, I’m starting to sound as pompous as Bill Bennett, so let me simply admit to having been darned well entertained by Speech-less. There are some excellent moments here: Karl Rove behaving like a lunatic; Latimer not daring to return a phone call from Richard Gere about the Dalai Lama for fear that the press will say that the President was consulting with an actor; George W., worn down by crisis, growling about Hillary: “Wait till her fat bottom is sitting at this desk;” and about Obama: “This is a dangerous world and this cat isn’t remotely qualified to handle it. This guy has no clue, I promise you;” W. on the recently nominated Sarah Palin: “What is she the governor of—Guam?”

Latimer ends up, as most White House staffers do, disillusioned and disappointed. What a surprise. Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw at the Revolution is like most of these books, a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. She made her memoir problematic by dissing her beloved Ronald Reagan with the remark that never had so many battled for such barren terrain as Ronald Reagan’s mind. In light of the scholarship that has appeared since her book came out in 1990, Ronald Reagan’s mind has been revealed to be far more supple than Ms. Noonan had supposed. Despite, her book remains the gold standard and her ultimate conclusion the most enduringly true, namely, Don’t work for a politician—they’ll break your heart in the end. But Mr. Latimer’s contribution to the shelf is welcome, and worthy.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.

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