Last week, I had an opportunity to interview former Bush speech writer Matt Latimer about his new book Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor.
This actually seems like a bombshell of a book and I’m surprised it’s not getting a lot more attention. Personally, I enjoyed Matt’s insight into what was going on and after interviewing him, I invited him to blog at Right Wing News. You can read his first post here.
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the interview. Enjoy!
Karl Rove is definitely a smart guy, no question about it. That being said, you argue in the book that he’s highly overrated as a strategist. Can you talk about that a bit?
Sure. If you think about it, Karl Rove came into power promising the great Republican realignment. In fact, what actually ended up happening, of course, is Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and President Obama.
First of all, in 2000, President Bush didn’t win if you talk about who won the most votes – but he did win, of course, fair and square electorally. Then in 2004, he barely beat a candidate that Republicans used to beat with one hand tied behind their back. You know, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts who also happened to be a millionaire elitist. This should have been somebody we would have beat easily and we barely squeaked by. But then, of course, he lost the House and Senate in 2006.
After the 2004 election Karl Rove was put in charge of policy, personnel and political affairs. In every one of those instances, I found him disappointing. Politically, of course, we lost the House, the Senate and then ultimately, the White House. In the policy area, we failed to pass any single significant piece of conservative legislation when he was in charge of policy. He got us involved in a bitter, divisive fight over immigration to the point where President Bush told conservatives who didn’t agree with his immigration position that they didn’t have the courage to do what was right for their country — which is the wrong message to send to our fellow conservatives.
Then in personnel issues, I felt good conservatives and Republicans who wanted to help the president were being blocked for no other reason than young people with thin qualifications had the power to block people who weren’t on their lists. So a lot of conservatives were being blocked who wanted to help the President. We saw that in the Justice Department, but I saw it at the Pentagon.
There is a feeling that people in D.C. are in a bubble that often insulates them from the opinions of conservatives, constituents, and political reality. You’ve been inside the “bubble” in D.C. Can you talk about that? Is that perception correct? And if so, why does it happen?
It is absolutely true. I mean the most obvious, recent evidence of the bubble is these senators just being shocked and horrified by people going to these Town Halls and actually complaining to them about their health care plan. They cannot imagine their constituents actually having criticisms of them. It’s just that they live in this bubble with staffers telling them how great they are and they just aren’t used to any kind of objections. It’s people like Blanche Lincoln or Arlen Specter lashing out at their own constituents because they dared to have a difference of opinion on health care.
I also saw this in the Bush White House. You know, we had a lot of staffers who were devoutly supportive of President Bush to the point where they didn’t even understand conservative misgivings about the Bush Administration’s drift on financial issues, fiscal issues and on a lot of other issues.
One instance that I talk about in my book is this big effort to try to compare President Bush’s legacy to Thomas Jefferson’s. Now, I actually respect President Bush, liked him, and I was honored to serve him, but when you have a 30% approval rating, you don’t want to go around saying you’re the second coming of Thomas Jefferson. It seems like a strange thing to do.
There is also a perception by grassroots conservatives across the country, and it’s one that endures today, that Republicans in D.C. may need them to get elected but they don’t like them, don’t respect their opinions, and they’re kind of embarrassed by them. Do you think there is something to that?
I think there is absolutely something to that and there is no better evidence for that than an article in the Politico about the elite in the Republican Party who run the show in Washington, D.C. telling conservatives to shut up and be quiet.
When I was in the White House, the top advisors of President Bush told Vice President Cheney, who was a good conservative, to be quiet and not to defend himself against press attacks. Meanwhile they leaked against Vice President Cheney and dumped all over him, blaming him for everything that happened in the Bush administration…
…Let me ask you — this was going to be one of my other questions: In your book, you do talk about how Dick Cheney was undermined to the press by people in the administration and then told to keep quiet about it because to do otherwise would displease President Bush. Can you talk about that in a little more detail? And how it may be driving him to speak up now?
…The people who became in charge of the Bush White House, especially after the 2006 election, decided that the way to make the president more popular was to move him to the left and to the center.
Then suddenly we started supporting a timeline for withdrawal in Iraq, started supporting negotiating with Iran and North Korea, and we were trying to be nice to the Russians and the Chinese. We changed our position on climate change — in fact, the Bush administration, as I talk about in my book, came out in favor of a cap and trade plan. The only reason that people don’t know that is because conservatives caught wind of it at the last minute and stopped it from happening.
Vice President Cheney opposed all of these things and as a speechwriter, I saw this. The Vice President’s office would offer all kinds of objections and suggestions for speeches. They would all be ignored or sort of laughed at or mocked because he had no power anymore. The people who had power were people like Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Condie Rice, who was very close to President Bush, and other people who are not ideological at all. These people are still running the Republican Party and they’re going to run it into a ditch just like they did last time.
What you just described there is a heck of a difference between how the Left perceives the Bush Administration, with mean old “Darth Vader” Dick Cheney behind the scenes pulling all the strings, and George Bush being kind of a little puppet on his hand. What you’re basically saying is the exact opposite was true: Dick Cheney had no real power at all, then?
That is exactly what I observed. Vice President Cheney may have had a lot more influence early on in the administration, but towards the end, from my perspective anyway, he tended to be cut off and overruled on a lot of things. I think we saw what happened when the middle-of-the-roaders took charge. The President got even less popular because nobody understood what he believed in anymore.
One of the things I talk about in my book as well, is that I wrote Bush’s speech for CPAC. It was the first speech the President had given to CPAC in, I think, 8 years.
I was there for that speech, by the way. (Hawkins’ Note: What immediately follows is a mash-up video of the speech referenced here that I shot at CPAC.)
Yeah, I wrote that speech and we had to be very careful to write it in a way that did not affect John McCain. There was a lot of pressure on the President to endorse John McCain, but Mitt Romney and Governor Huckabee were still in the race as I recall.
I started that speech by talking about the origins of CPAC and the conservative movement. I was in the Oval Office one day and the President said to me, “What’s all this movement stuff you have in here?”
I said, “Well, Mr. President, it’s the whole Buckley/Goldwater/Reagan tradition.”
He said, “Take all that stuff out. I mean, that movement’s over. I know it’s arrogant for me to say, but I redefined the Republican Party.”
What he meant was that when he talked about compassionate conservatism in 2000, a lot of conservatives like me thought that’s just a nice gimmick that sounds nice to people. But, he actually meant it. It didn’t mean he was a bad person and it didn’t even necessarily mean he was a bad President in a lot of respects. But, he wasn’t a traditional conservative and people need to know that.
I just want to ask you a follow-up on that, because that sounds loopy. I mean at the point you’re talking about, I believe he had an approval rating of about 30%.
…And there weren’t a lot of conservatives or Republicans in the country hitching their wagon to George Bush’s version of compassionate conservatism. It was a dirty word in the conservative movement.
So, that just sounds kind of odd when he’s sitting there saying all that other stuff doesn’t exist — because it’s completely out of touch with reality. Can you explain how he could come to that conclusion? I mean, you might not really know, but can you speculate a bit?
Oh, I found that disturbing and…as I say, I respected President Bush, I like President Bush, and I think he did a lot of wonderful things for our country. He defended us when our country came under attack and I supported the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not saying he’s a bad person.
What I’m saying was he believed that what he had done was to sort of move the party to embrace government more and as you can see from his spending record, he believed in more spending. I think we spent more money than any administration since LBJ. He also expanded the size of government and he wanted to change our position on climate change and start moving to the left on a lot of different issues. He truly believed that was the best approach in the Republican Party. That’s what the immigration thing was about; he thought a more relaxed illegal immigration policy would appeal to people — whereas most conservatives believe just the opposite, that you have to enforce the laws as they’re written.
A lot of traditional conservatives were uncomfortable with a lot of the things that were happening. That’s one of the reasons that the President’s approval rating was so low. You had people who wanted to defend him because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan going on. I wanted to defend him. In fact, I wrote speeches defending the administration. But, a lot of conservatives became disenchanted, disenfranchised, and fell out of the loop because the administration was starting to drift to the center and to the left. They thought that was the way to get their popularity back and in fact, just the opposite happened.
Absolutely. Last question: one thing I think people asked over and over and over again during Bush’s last term is, “Why is he not defending himself?” He was slandered at every opportunity, the Republican Party was ripped up along with him, and people felt like he was just sitting there taking it like a punching bag. What was the rationale behind that?
The biggest problem that I think conservatives face in Washington is they do not fight the war of ideas in the media. It’s because they don’t really know how. One of the reasons is…you know, I worked on Capitol Hill for years, as I talk about in the book, and even when the Republicans were in charge of Capitol Hill, the conservatives were not in charge.
We have good people like John Kyl, whom I worked for, Mitch McConnell, Tom Coburn and others who are fighting the good fight, but they are always outnumbered and overwhelmed by the so-called mavericks… They get all the attention in the media and they always undermine what conservatives want to do.
So, one of the problems is we keep electing people who say they’re conservatives, but aren’t conservatives. They’re actually just RINOS if you will, and they make it harder. Then you have the media that we’ve failed to engage and confront. I don’t know what the reasons for that are, but when I was in the Bush administration, we had more public communications people at the top…interested in the Washington Post and The New York Times than the conservative media. They would return their calls and try to respond to their concerns more than they would the concerns of the conservatives. That’s a real problem. We cannot win electorally if we fail to engage in the war of ideas.
It doesn’t mean you have to be mean-spirited or angry, but we have to know what we believe and fight aggressively to explain to people because America is a center right country and they should be on our side. And, they are on our side in a lot of issues, but if we fail to make our arguments to them, get intimidated by the media or by these Republicans that media love, then we’re never going to be able to succeed.
Matt, I really appreciate your time.
Once again, you can get Matt Latimer’s book, Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor, by clicking here.