Bush's unreliable speechwriter.

Policy made plain.
Aug. 24 2007 4:15 PM

Ghost Wars

Bush's unreliable speechwriter.

(Continued from Page 1)

Yes, of course, self-effacement is supposed to be the  speechwriter's creed. But Scully writes as if he hasn't noticed developments in the past millennium or so—such as the invention of the Washington Post Style section four decades ago—that have pretty thoroughly undermined that creed. Who is the last chief presidential speechwriter who wasn't the subject of a profile or 12? And, apparently driven to distraction by his colleague's presumption, Scully pretty much abandons self-effacement himself, quarreling over credit for this turn of phrase or that. He reveals that Bush's speeches were actually composed collaboratively, in an atmosphere of jollity that seems chilling when you know that Gerson, at any moment, will step outside the scene like Richard III to deliver a soliloquy about how he is actually plotting the murder of all the other participants. "It was a rare day when Karl Rove, Josh Bolten, Dan Bartlett, or someone else didn't open the door to see what we were all howling about, or to add to the fun with their own routines and Hill Country antics," Scully rhapsodizes. What a blast! Last one in the pool's a rotten egg. Or were they howling because Gerson had them chained to the wall and was beating them to extract eloquent phrases that he could put into Bush's mouth and then take credit for?

Scully states "without fear of contradiction" that "Michael Gerson never wrote a single speech by himself for President Bush." And "at best a third" of the speeches Woodward gives Gerson credit for were written by Gerson alone. I don't read the Woodward passage he cites as necessarily saying that Gerson wrote all these speeches alone. Bob Woodward is probably aware of the existence of the White House speechwriters office and even aware that it employs more than one speechwriter. It does seem that Woodward may have exaggerated Gerson's role, and Gerson may have accommodated him in this. But this is a far cry from what Scully is implying (though he doesn't quite say it): that Gerson was the equivalent of a plagiarist, taking other people's writing for his own.

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Scully lathers up to a Pecksniffian conclusion in which he discusses the origin of the line that he feels captures Bush's greatness: "We have found our mission and our moment." You, of course, like everyone in the world, remember this line vividly. And you no doubt believe that Mike Gerson wrote it. Wrong! It was "inspired by my observation" of George W. Bush in the days after 9/11. "I think I recognize greatness when it steps before me." He implies that only he recognized this greatness—a claim I am prepared to believe, actually. Scully then adopts the speechwriter's standard finger-crossing, claiming that Bush's speeches were "just slightly polished versions of what Bush himself had told us." But he offers no example of Bush's words before and after "polishing." For that matter, he doesn't even actually deny point-blank that Gerson came up with the actual words.

Scully apparently spent years seething with envy about Gerson's good press. The Atlantic article is obsessional, and many of his stories have a "you had to be there" quality. From some experience (though with no proof), I also detect the evidence of heavy editing—primarily a jumpy quality that suggests we may be reading the distillation of a much longer manuscript. The general impression is of Scully, after 14-hour days spent transcribing the natural eloquence of President Bush (as he describes his job), pulling a greasy, battered notebook  and a nub of a pencil out of his bottom desk drawer when no one is looking, and recording in a tiny, mad scribble about how "Gerson left his cafeteria tray on someone else's desk AGAIN TODAY!!! What an asshole."

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.

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