Not since John Podhoretz’s 1993 Hell of a Ride, a hilarious yet depressing account of working in the George H.W. Bush administration, has an insider political book satisfied as much as does Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor (Crown Publishers), Matt Latimer’s new, screamingly funny memoir of working as a congressional staffer and then as a speechwriter, first for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and later for President George W. Bush.
Latimer went to Washington as an idealistic and perhaps naïve young conservative only to have his eyes opened and his heart broken by the cynicism, cronyism and outright idiocy that pervade the nation’s capital. While there are a few notables – Rumsfeld in particular – who come off well in Latimer’s telling, just about everyone else, household name or not, comes in for an a well-earned skewering.
A reader quickly gets a taste from the book’s introduction of the fun to come, as Latimer writes about the day, in the fall of 2008, he learned of the economic crisis that was about to engulf the country. Keith Hennessey, director of the National Economic Council, was outlining the truly gloomy situation to Latimer and a speechwriting colleague when – well, here’s how Latimer describes it:
“In the middle of explaining the economic horrors that awaited us, Keith reached for something near his chair. It was a Mouseketeer cap. As in Mickey Mouse. What on earth? I wondered.
“Without a word of explanation, he placed the cap on his head. Then he continued talking as if nothing at all strange was happening…. One of the president’s top economic advisors was describing the end of the world while wearing mouse ears. There had to be a metaphor around here somewhere.”
Just a few pages later we come to Latimer’s evisceration of Spence Abraham, the former Michigan senator for whom he worked briefly as a special assistant, only a small part of which follows:
“Our office would have staff meetings that nearly everyone attended – except [the senator]. Senator Abraham had two assistants posted just outside his office door, apparently to prevent any ‘incidents’ from taking place, such as the senator accidentally bumping into someone who worked for him…. As special assistants, we also answered most of the letters people sent in. Sometimes they included moving stories, with a plea to the senator for help. I don’t know if he read a single letter.”
Of the many witty asides and sharp observations sprinkled throughout the book, here are two concerning New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, and former New York senator and current secretary of state Hillary Clinton:
“Schumer loved media attention so much that I was half-convinced he slept every night in a suit and tie and full TV makeup.”
“Hillary Clinton was also a familiar sight. She’d run for the New York Senate seat about thirty seconds after applying for a state driver’s license and was now surrounded by a retinue of aides with nasty eyes.”
Latimer puts much of the blame for the Bush administration’s shortcomings on the shoulders of Karl Rove, who was hailed as some sort of political genius during Bush’s first term before reality caught up with him.
Rove, he writes, “had promised a golden age of Republican domination, but the truth is that while Karl was running political affairs, the Republican president’s approval rating had plummeted to an improbable low. The truth is that after Karl was promoted to run domestic policy in the second term, not a single major bill proposed by the White House passed through a Republican Congress. And the truth is that Karl oversaw an army of personnel directors who hired hacks, fired qualified public servants, blackballed others, and promoted incompetent partisans who disserved the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, federal prosecutors at the Department of Justice, and the president whom Karl was supposed to serve.”
As the Bush era drew to a close, Latimer was completely disillusioned with the political process and with politicians from both side of the aisle. By Election Day 2008, he’d reached the point where, despite having “voted happily and proudly for every Republican who ever ran for everything…. I’d lost so much faith in my party that I wasn’t even sure I was a Republican anymore.”
So, did he give in to habit and party loyalty and vote for Republican John McCain, of whom he has little good to write about in the book? Latimer doesn’t come right out and say it, but his tantalizing description of the doubt and hesitation that plagued him in the voting booth would seem to indicate the answer is no.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org