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Politics & Current Affairs

Who Do So Many White House Speechwriters Turn Rogue?

First we had to witness the egotistical tug-of-war over who took credit for coining the phrase “axis of evil” (David Frum’s wife leaked her husband as the author, which I’m sure he strenuously objected to). Then we had to sit through Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully’s playground-style takedown of his former credit-hogging boss, Michael Gerson, in a September 2007 Atlantic Monthly tell-all (in which he gave us the phrase “pulling a Gerson,” which “does not refer to graceful writing”). Now we get to meet Matt Latimer, the latest freckle-faced speechwriter to realize there’s money to be made in them there hills of kiss-and-tell memoirs.

In his new 279-page book, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor, the former Bush speechwriter dishes on his former superiors, calling them, among other choice phrases, “recycled losers,” “lackluster writer[s],” “villain[s],” “not supremely qualified.” Gee, how did all these hacks make it so high up the White House totem pole, one wonders.

Speechwriting is not the most glamorous of gigs. There are no bylines, no corner offices, no prestigious awards ceremonies for Most Effective Turns of Phrase. Most speechwriters in the business slave away unnoticed for some corporate bigwig, drafting the occasionally rejected op-ed. A good number are recent college grads with impeccable posture. So how come so many turn rogue, once they give up their gigs?

In Ted Sorensen’s masterful autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, he declines to take credit for any of President Kennedy’s greatest phrases. Why can’t the current crop of speechwriters be so ego-free?

There’s hope for the newest batch of White House wordsmiths. At my college ten-year reunion, I was waiting in line for some foamy keg beer in a dorm basement when I struck up a conversation with the Irish-looking chap (this was Holy Cross, after all) in front of me in line. Turns out it was Obama’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau (he was class of ’03, I was ’98). I was taken aback by his lack of pretension and humble average-guy demeanor. While every D-bag in attendance wouldn’t shut up about their big-deal banking job (this was pre-crisis), he seemed almost subdued to discuss the fact he may have the world’s coolest job.

That is a quality sorely lacking in today’s speechwriters.


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