by Robert Schlesinger

The growing frequency of presidential speeches has necessitated staffs of White House writers to help presidents craft their messages. For Matt Latimer, writing speeches for President George W. Bush during the last two years of his administration was an exercise in disillusionment, as he recounts in Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor. Latimer, who had previously worked as a press secretary and speechwriter on Capitol Hill and spent three years writing speeches for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before joining the White House, recently spoke with Robert Schlesinger about Bush's speeches, Karl Rove, and the future of the GOP. Excerpts:

You say that you found out why President Bush's speeches were often not very good.

My first day at the White House, they told me about the Yale school of speechwriting. The president had a class at Yale, and there is a very organized, logical, rigid structure to every speech, which is always short, always maybe one joke at the top; then you have "Here's my thesis of why I'm here": point A, point B, point C. They're always the same thing. Then you have your peroration, your summary--I didn't even know what a peroration was--and then your conclusion. And I said, "But that sounds like if you keep doing that for every speech"--which is what we were told we were supposed to do--"that's going to make a pretty bland speech." And they told me, "Oh, the president would prefer this organization to a good speech."

Does that say more about Bush or his staff?

It's a disservice to the president to say that was his fault. Especially as you get toward the end, the whole focus in the White House is to just not disrupt the flow and not do anything that might be upsetting. "Let's just not cause any problems. Let's just do the speech the way he likes it." So I think it's more the staff as opposed to the president, because if you look at some of the president's better speeches, especially early on, they didn't follow the Yale system.

How involved was he in speechwriting?

When he was interested in a speech, he had a lot of edits. He would call the speechwriters in and go through line by line if necessary. He was comfortable with certain turns of phrase that he liked to use repeatedly: "We have to fight them there so they do not fight us here at home." He would ask us to insert that if it wasn't in there. He loved to talk about the "gift of freedom to all mankind" kind of stuff. But there wasn't a lot of--at least from my experience--a lot of give-and-take. It was, he gave us instructions, and then he told us what he didn't like.

You say that the media would often see grand strategy where it didn't exist.

There's very little, in my estimation, of strategy behind most of the speeches. It wasn't really "Here's what our goal is with this speech, and here's what we're trying to accomplish, and here's how this adds to our broader message." It was just sort of "The speech is coming up. Let's just say something." So that leaves you a hostage to whatever the media decided you were trying to do.

Is Karl Rove the supergenius villain that many people think he is?

I so wanted him to be the evil genius everybody said he was, because he was our evil genius. I wanted that evil genius. I found him to be in a lot of ways someone who maybe was overstaying his welcome. He was in feuds with a lot of people at the White House, senior officials. I don't think he ever quite recovered from the 2006 election, where he confidently told everybody that we were going to hold the House and Senate or at least one of them. If you look at personnel and if you look at politics and if you look at policy--which he was in charge of, all of these operations at some level--the Republican Party and the conservative movement were worse off. And looking at policy, for example, we failed to pass any conservative legislation through a Republican Congress. So I found him disappointing.

Rove thought the president should be speaking every day. President Obama is criticized for speaking too much. How much of a danger is that for a president?

Presidents now--President Bush had to do this, and President Obama has to do it--have to go out, or at least are being pushed and pressured to go out every single day to talk about all the big issues. I've heardPresident Obama talk about a new, shocking, alarming, or fascinating speech on healthcare that was going to come. This is going to be a brand-new speech--and it isn't. It's the same speech over and over again. So people have just stopped listening. And it's a real problem when the presidential voice is diminished like that.

Why should Obama read your book?

One of the lessons of the book, I hope, is: Here's what happens when people go to Washington. They all come thinking they're going to make a difference and they're going to change everything, and they're not going to be the same old Washington crowd. And they're not going to get into the power games and all this stuff. And then everybody goes to Washington saying they're not going to change, and then they all change.

Where does the GOP go now?

What the GOP needs is a cleansing. We have the same crowd at the top; they have their club in Washington, their buddy system. They all pat themselves on the back, even when they lose elections. What we've got now in 2012 is not a particularly impressive roster of candidates if you're talking about authentic conservatives. The Republican Party remains a largely conservative party, and we're just sort of putting people in who say things that people want to hear, and people have caught on to that. The party really needs a top-down [change], bringing in fresh faces, new people, voting out people who have just become addicted to the power and the privileges and raising money and all of that stuff. Hopefully, they'll get their act together before the next election, but maybe they won't.

What's next for you?

I'm thinking I'm going to write more. I like to say that I'm completely disillusioned with politics, but I'm not. The reason why the book came across as disillusioning at the end was because I was so hopeful, and I suppose I still am.

Available at Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor


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