Is Mike Gerson a Glory Hog?
Or is his former colleague, Matthew Scully, just unhinged?
An Aug. 11 Page One article about the Atlantic piece by the Washington Post's Peter Baker observes that Gerson is "that rare figure who emerged from service to Bush with his reputation enhanced." Baker quotes Gerson, in a voice "filled with emotion," saying, "I feel heartsick" about Scully's piece. Gerson tells Baker that he doesn't remember some of the incidents Scully described, including the one where he ordered that a speech not be cc'd to Scully and O'Connell, but that the White House tried to restrict the number of speech copies available. In a rebuttal to the Atlantic piece posted on National Review Online, Peter Wehner, who served as Gerson's deputy from 2001 and 2002, calls Scully's version of the facts "deeply unfair to Mike" and "misleading." Wehner cites counterexamples from the press and from Gerson's book in which Gerson gives Scully and McConnell full credit. "For seven years," Gerson wrote in Heroic Conservatism, "these two speechwriters would be my friends and partners, and hardly a cross word ever passed between us."
Perhaps Scully should have stilled his pen until he had a chance to read Gerson's entire book. On the other hand, if Gerson had such high regard for Scully, why didn't he ask Scully to review the manuscript, which presumably recounts many events in which Scully played a crucial role? Might Gerson have had some inkling of the depth of Scully's resentment? If so, could Gerson guess its source?
Far be it for me to referee this pissing match. To repeat, I've never met Scully. I did know Gerson slightly a decade ago when the two of us worked at U.S. News and World Report. One of my duties was to write the "Washington Whispers" column. Every week I'd make the rounds to the magazine's political reporters seeking fresh gossip. Stopping at Gerson's door, I'd say, "Hey Mike, got anything for me? I know you're well-sourced with the GOP." (Gerson had previously been a speechwriter on Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and an aide to Sen. Dan Coats, R.-Ind.) Every week Gerson would greet my query with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze and a nervous shrug. After awhile I felt sorry for him and stopped asking. He seemed like a nice fellow, perhaps a little too nice for his new profession, and I wasn't surprised a couple of years later to hear that he'd gone back to speechwriting, a job in which he could apply his considerable writing talents without having to betray friends.
Scully, of course, would say I got that last part wrong. In his piece, Scully relates an anecdote about Bush praising Gerson for speaking truth to power in an Oval Office meeting. "That's Gerson being Gerson!" the president told some budget officials with whom Gerson had argued. The anecdote, Scully writes, "found its way into a Washington Whispers item by a friend of Mike's at U.S. News & World Report," and "I have a feeling it wasn't the keepers of the budget" who conveyed it there. The friend wasn't me; I'd left U.S. News years earlier. But it occurs to me now that if Scully's guess is correct, then Gerson refused to leak to Washington Whispers when he was paid to do so, but gladly leaked to Washington Whispers when he was paid not to do so. That thought inspires in me a mild vestigial pique. Maybe there's a little Matthew Scully in all of us.
[Update, July 13: Peter Baker reports in today's Washington Post that Scully has a history of accusing White House colleagues of self-aggrandizement. On Jan. 17, 1993, Scully published a piece in the Post "Outlook" section headlined "Bush League of Their Own; An Inside Story of Self-Promotion." (The Bush here was the current president's father; Scully was a speechwriter to Vice President Dan Quayle.) In this earlier instance Scully swatted Richard Darman, Jim Pinkerton, Torie Clarke, Mary Matalin, and John Frohnmayer, and various anonymous arrivistes. The Bush administration, Scully wrote, was plagued with "a staff of self-promoters" engaged in "sycophancy and self-aggrandizement." Forbearance, clearly, is not Scully's strong suit. I must say that after reading this earlier screed I have a much harder time taking seriously his hatchet job on Gerson. Scully appears to be a guy who likes to establish his own moral superiority by trashing his colleagues.]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush, and Karen Hughes by Eric Draper/White House/AFP Photo.