Thursday, August 09, 2007

Misquoted in his Autobiography

I just read the new Matthew Scully piece in The Atlantic debunking the myth of Michael Gerson. (That would be the dual myth that Gerson is a singularly brilliant speechwriter as well as a nice, selfless guy.) It's a guiltily pleasurable read. Whenever I am tempted to sneer at people who follow the gossip-column exploits of Britney or Lindsay, I try to remember that I enjoy reading gossip as well, only I incline toward gossip about politicians or writers. I don't think Scully has contributed much to historical understanding of the Bush Administration with this article, it's just amusing to watch one right-wing Niedermeyer shooting spitballs at another. We get a little insight into how presidential speechwriters do their work, but not much more than an episode of The West Wing gave us. It's basically a petty-office-politics soap opera.

One remarkable thing is that, in Scully's topsy-turvy view, Michael Gerson is vain and presumptuous, but George W. Bush is modest:

Above all, we shared a respect and affectionate regard for George W., the straight-up guy we’d come to know in Austin. Though our rhetoric did have a way of overdoing the drama sometimes, none of that was ever to be confused with the personal qualities of the man we served, who in the opinion of those who worked there was the actual conscience of the White House. I have never encountered a politician less impressed with himself. There was no surer way to get a laugh out of Bush than with some personally grandiose sentiment, or even an excessive use of “I.” He paused once during the rehearsal of a speech when we’d gone overboard with the global-freedom-agenda rhetoric: “What is this stuff? I sound like Spartacus or someone.” A similarly overwrought speech inspired him to rise and read it aloud with the exaggerated solemnity of Edward Everett Hale or some other 19th-century orator, to laughter all around. Modesty is a very becoming quality in people of his standing. There are CEOs and Washington bureau chiefs who carry themselves with a greater sense of their own importance than this president of the United States ever has.

Excuse me, but I don't buy it. There's a difference between having camaraderie with your hand-picked retinue, your fellow insiders, and being genuinely down to earth. With outsiders Bush has been known to go out of his way to sound like Spartacus.

This is a good time for me to air a rant I have made privately but never on the blog. Back in 2003 the Uranium From Africa story fell apart. This was a significant part of the hype for why the U.S. had to invade Iraq and remove Saddam--so significant that Bush had made the claim in the 2003 State of the Union address. (Some of the shady innuendo they left in the mouths of Cheney or Condi Rice; this bit came from the Commander Guy hissownself.) We're all aware that politicians have speechwriters, but I always assumed we held the politician accountable for the words he spoke from the podium. And here we had the President making a flatly false statement in a major nationally-televised speech, as part of the rationale for launching a not-strictly-mandatory war. This struck me as a big deal that ought to get said President into hot water up to his ears. Not in this case. A few of us dirty hippies expressed outrage that Bush Lied, but the mainstream discourse quickly turned to which administration official had "allowed" the false statement to get into the speech. (Apparently lies will creep into a speech all by themselves, the same way crabgrass creeps into your lawn if you, or the household help, are not diligent.) In this way the President of the United States benefited from being known as a mental lightweight. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Scully gives behind-the-scenes glimpses of the making of the phrase "Axis of Evil" as well as of the "Mission Accomplished" speech (he's somewhat less chagrined about these than I would like for him to be, but hey) but he won't touch Uranium From Africa with a ten-foot pole. The last part of Scully's article talks about how the President's speechwriters should be invisible; that it is proper that we should remember JFK rather than Ted Sorensen. On the contrary, I think Bush should thank his lucky stars that speechwriters aren't invisible.