Late as usual, I have finally read Matthew Scully's slice-up of his former boss, Mike Gerson, in the September Atlantic (subscription required), and I'm flabbergasted. Everyone in Washington is talking about how devastating this article is. Slate's own Jack Shafer, no mean talent with a knife himself, e-mailed me excitedly that it left Gerson for dead. (Although Slate's Tim Noah expressed skepticism.) What a disappointment! If this is the best the Bush administration can do when attacking one another, no wonder they can't win the war in Iraq.
Gerson was President Bush's chief speechwriter until recently, and Scully was a speechwriter for several years. (And, in case you're wondering, I don't know either one.) Scully's memoir of working under Gerson is venemous. Nothing wrong with that! In Washington, we love a good hatchet job. The display of disloyalty is a nice bonus. And evidence that another administration is melting into a puddle of recriminations is always welcome.
Scully actually notes the Washington tradition of disloyalty. He says of Gerson that "no man I have ever encountered was truer to the saying that, in Washington, one should never take friendship personally." How should Scully's friends in the White House take Scully's friendship? Even President Bush, whom he claims to revere? This article will cause them more pain than anything he reports Gerson as doing. Nothing wrong with that, either. The problem is that, while Scully is very, very hurt and angry at Gerson, his anecdotes fail to explain why. This drives us to psychology for an explanation—and you don't have to drive very far.
Scully's complaint, in a nutshell, is: 1) Gerson is a publicity hound; 2) he took credit for words he didn't write; and 3) he makes stuff up. (Or, as Scully puts it archly: "For all of our chief speechwriter's finer qualities, the firm adherence to factual narrative is not a strong point." Meow.) Opening anecdote: Some nice words from Bush about Gerson appear in the Washington Whispers column of U.S. News, written "by a friend of Mike's." Scully plausibly suspects that Gerson may have leaked this anecdote. He doesn't allege that it isn't true. Furthermore, while certainly flattering to Gerson, it does not diss any of his colleagues. U.S. News' hoary Washington Whispers column is nothing but wan anecdotes like this. It gets filled up every week. How shocking can it be that people slip it self-interested anecdotes? Especially ones that do no one else (or no one else not crippled by envy) any harm?
"My favorite example" of Gerson's perfidy, Scully says, is that President Bush, in an Oval Office meeting two days after 9/11, said, "We're at war," but that when the Bob Woodward version of that meeting was published, it became, "Mike, we're at war." Scully comments in disgust, "One word, and history has changed," which seems a tad overwrought. His impassioned deconstruction of this one word and its full implications does nothing to mitigate that impression.
Scully objects to the "scores of media profiles ... that Mike sat for over the years," and notes that they usually credited Gerson as, for example, "the man whose words helped steady the nation" after 9/11, or the fellow who "filled George Bush's mouth with golden phrases." It's certainly true that Gerson had about the best press in the Bush administration. It's also true that media profiles in the age of Google and Nexis can get comically (or, in Scully's case, enragingly) repetitious. And it's even true that exaggeration is almost built into the form. But none of this is Gerson's fault. And, from the administration's perspective, fault is hardly the word: All those puff pieces on Gerson were a plus.