Bush's unreliable speechwriter.

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

Ghost Wars

Bush's unreliable speechwriter.

Mike Gerson and George Bush. Click image to expand.
Michael Gerson with President Bush

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.