Passive Instruments and Fine China

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:47 pm September 14, 2007

As most of you know, I worked in the White House Speechwriting Office during the summer of 2002 as an intern – doing research, acting as support staff for the lead speechwriters, and contributing here and there – prior to joining the Administration as a speechwriter for Tommy Thompson in the fall. So at first, I foolishly thought Matt Scully’s article in The Atlantic about the inner workings of the office under Mike Gerson was a bit too insider-focused to get a lot of attention – who wants to read that kind of office gossip, after all? Just a bit of bad blood between coworkers, nothing particularly glamorous or tawdry about it.

Peter Baker’s A1 followup story in The Washington Post over the weekend shows how wrong I was. Apparently the squabble over Matt’s depiction of the oft-profiled Mike as a attention-loving scribe has just enough rancorous appeal in it to satisfy readers during the long hot gossip-starved DC summer. Vitter’s old news, so a sniping match between wonks will have to suffice.

Good speechwriting breeds a particular kind of personality. Few successful speechwriters are particularly egotistical. You have to lack the desire for ownership of your best writing, yet be a skilled enough writer to quiet your own voice, and instead adopt the vocabulary and tone of a political leader with whom you may have nothing in common, not even policy views.

Yet there’s another facet of personality there, as well – one that Henry Kissinger described eloquently in a brief paragraph in his memoirs which speaks of a long history of internal strife over remarks:

The choice of speechwriters always determined the tone and not infrequently the substance of a Presidential speech. The common conception is that speechwriters are passive instruments who docilely craft into elegant prose the policy thought of their principals. On the contrary, the vast majority of them are frustrated principals themselves who seek to use their privileged position to put over their own ideas.

There’s a lot of truth in that. And it’s one of the reasons that, for years, it was part of the unwritten speechwriter code that you 1) never publicly take credit for a line someone else delivered, 2) never let yourself become a story, and 3) you all rise and sink together as a team. That’s just part of what it means to be one of the people sitting behind the decisionmakers, the men and women who actually sit at the table.

The speechwriting process just helps bolster those rules. The speeches I contributed to in 2002 were really just anecdotes or lines here and there in relatively unimportant addresses – and on the rare occasion where a significant amount of material that I gave to the writers to put in a first draft actually made it through, I was just happy to have contributed. I’d occasionally tell friends to turn on C-SPAN or read a transcript where I’d contributed a key anecdote or thought there were some particularly excellent lines – the lovely Kristen Mugford (now the lovely Kristen Hayner ) and I spent many hours putting together some great stuff for the Ohio State Commencement address – but that was all.

There wasn’t a single speech that went through that wasn’t a group effort, and we understood that we were just a small part of a hard working team. That was the same rationale that informed my later speechwriting work. My attitude was always that if a line went over well, it was just inspired by the boss. If it didn’t, or if it got flack or became controversial, then hey, that was from me. That, I think, is the proper attitude of any staffer.

Personally, were I in Matt’s position, I’d probably have let Gerson keep going with his profiles and basking in praise without offering a public response (the same choice John McConnell has apparently made). It just seems petty to get into squabbles about such things after the fact. But then, I’ve never had Gerson do the kind of petty things he evidently did…according to that article, the credit-claiming internally was far worse than I ever thought or witnessed. From Matt’s perspective, it seems that Mike had a tendency to confuse himself with the man at the table. Everyone’s heard the “fine China” line already, but this is the one portion that seemed particularly bad to me:

I happened to be sitting at Mike’s laptop when it came time for us to send the very last draft to senior staff, and Mike, noticing that I had cc’d John and myself, stopped me: “Don’t do that! You can print copies from here!” I said, “Michael, why can’t I copy John and me?” This brought a frantic admission: “Because they don’t know you’re involved!” “And why is it a secret that we’re doing this together?” Because it was all very confidential, Mike explained as he rushed off—senior staff didn’t want anything leaking out. This performance was repeated at the White House, when Mike insisted that the usual author identifications not appear on drafts going to the president, or pouted when our department secretary put all three names there anyway. He seemed to think this was standard practice—just “the way it’s done” in Washington.

Matt was, and is, a brilliant and quirky man, and a very personable guy. He liked to sit in his office and eat his odd-smelling vegan food, but other than that, he was always circulating in the offices, joking, charming, laughing. He was an odd cat, but he was very fun to be around, and he kept people from stressing out too much in a very stressful time. He was fit and happy. He and John – two people who couldn’t be more unalike in lifestyle – would shoot the breeze for hours, having epic, hilarious conversations around speechmaking. Being in the room with them for just a few minutes could teach you more about speechwriting than years of classes. The most enjoyable part of my job was bringing them research for a minor speech, or an anecdote for a bigger one, and start them riffing on some historical figure or a ridiculous story from their long history of speechwriting.

[A side note: in my opinion, John was the most talented of the bunch, and the writer who got the President’s voice the best. I didn’t know it at the time, but the article seems to indicate that Matt agrees. In response to Ramesh’s point, let me just say that JPod is absolutely correct. You could go through your entire life as a political insider without hearing about John McConnell, but if you saw his work laid out end to end on a page, you’d be shocked at how much exceptional material he’s created, and how much you recognize. But John being John, you never will.]

The office was really quite enjoyable when I was there. Junior writer Ed Walsh was hilarious. The quiet, retiring Joe Shattan was a pleasure to work with, neurotic, shy, yet very endearing. Pete Wehner is a policy nerd’s nerd, but he embraces it – steady and responsible, he was like the MiniMe version of Bill Bennett in many ways (he’d written for Bennett for years prior). Working with Pete for several months illustrated that he was (and is) truly unique in Washington circles: he had no apparent vices, at all. And loyal to a fault, constant as the northern star. I am not at all surprised that Pete is siding with Mike in this.

Gerson, on the other hand, came across as a bit of a loner, the least interested in others. He never seemed to want to be in the office, and wasn’t the kind of person to say hello to you in the halls of the EEOB. He didn’t bother to learn people’s names if you weren’t important to him. I was lucky enough to have lunch with him in the White House Mess one day, and it was ridiculously, disappointingly dull. He’s clearly a genius for words, and a very good speechwriter, but he gave the impression of not having time for anything except sharing his brilliance. Privately, my friends and I compared him to Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan – the kind of fellow who thought of himself as a normal all-American guy, but if you pushed him to talk about what he really valued, he’d start with Willie Mays and quickly end up at “Sentimental Education by Flaubert.”

The only time I saw Mike brighten up to a significant degree was when a group of Wheaton kids came in at one point, and he shared stories about his experiences working for the President over the past several years. His respect for POTUS was demonstrable and real, and he was emphatically supportive of the mission of the White House. He liked being in that role, and it seemed to bring out the best in him. Thinking back, it makes me wonder if the bulk of the praising profiles of Mike that so irked Matt weren’t motivated by a similar rationale; not so much that Mike wanted to shine, but that he thought being more public about the reasoning behind remarks would illustrate how seriously the White House took the issues they were addressing.

Or perhaps this is just Kissinger’s line coming true once again. We can’t know motivations, after all. I prefer to assume the best in this circumstance.

Mike, Matt and John were given more access to the President than any previous Republican speechwriting team (infamously, Noonan had never met Reagan when she became a speechwriter for him, and didn’t meet with him frequently even after coming on staff). They did exceptional work for him as a team. I was proud, for a short time and in very small ways, to contribute to that team effort. And it will be very sad if, years from now, people remember this speechwriters’ spat instead of the eloquent, inspiring, and meaningful work that the whole of the team did, when the country needed it so.

(Originally posted by Ben on August 13, 2007)

Previous post:

Next post: