Ghost Wars

Bush’s unreliable speechwriter.

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.

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.

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.

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.”