Hot potato.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Aug. 31 2007 5:57 PM

Hot Potato

Republicans can't drop Larry Craig fast enough.

80_thehasbeen
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The salad days of compassionate conservatism are over. Welcome to the Romney era: If you act like a dog, get ready for a long, cold ride on the roof.

Maybe Tim Noah is right that Scully protesteth too much. But most kiss-and-tell tales are easy to dismiss because they serve one purpose – self-promotion. In this case, that's the very sin for which Gerson stands indicted. Scully seems less interested in seeking his share of the credit than in outing Gerson for taking more credit than he deserved.

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While it's hard for outsiders to know the truth in family feuds, that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them. Scully's piece is one of the juiciest hatchet jobs in memory. In brutal detail, he recounts Gerson's meticulous "credit-hounding" inside the White House and with the outside world. According to Scully, Gerson took all the bows but did little of the actual writing.

Although every major Bush speech was a collaboration—usually written on the computer of a third speechwriter, John McConnell—Scully says Gerson led the senior staff and countless profile writers to believe that all the best lines were his own. Reporters and authors routinely gave Gerson credit for words that weren't his and for speeches others wrote.

By Scully's account, Gerson's oft-reported ritual of secluding himself in a nearby Starbucks produced plenty of self-serving profiles but no speeches. The Gerson legend sounds like many an address he claimed to write for Bush—it sounds better because it's made up. Scully writes:

"The narrative that Mike Gerson presented to the world is a story of extravagant falsehood. He has been held up for us in six years' worth of coddling profiles as the great, inspiring, and idealistic exception of the Bush White House. In reality, Mike's conduct is just the most familiar and depressing of Washington stories—a history of self-seeking and media manipulation that is only more distasteful for being cast in such lofty terms."

Scully's tale will be seen as the worst breach yet in the famed Bush White House discipline. With the Bush presidency in ruins, those who once served him are forced to fight for scraps on the dustbin of history.

The piece is a telling indictment of this White House, and of a classic office archetype, the climber. But it is an even more revealing portrait of speechwriting, perhaps the most awkward profession in politics.

I spent five years as a speechwriter, and two terms in the White House as an occasional collaborator. I went to Starbucks every day, but no camera crews followed.

For me, the poignancy of Scully's story is that speechwriting is supposed to be the opposite of what Gerson stands accused of doing. By definition, it's a profession based on self-denial, not self-promotion. Far from taking credit for the work of others, a speechwriter's job is to write words that others can stand to claim as their own. Most speechwriters soon learn the basic pleasure-pain principle of the craft: Satisfaction comes from finding words the boss can use, but taking credit for those words can only embarrass the very person you're supposed to be helping.

At times, it can feel slightly disingenuous to write words for someone else to deliver. But more often, the person you're writing for gives a far better speech than you wrote. For the speechwriter or any other White House aide, it is truly dishonorable to look for credit – even for words which (unlike Gerson) one has actually written.