Friday, September 18, 2009
Strategerizin' at the Office : I Can't Believe It's not Capitalism
Via the King Report
By Matt Latimer
As a speechwriter for George W. Bush during the final years of his presidency, I’d seen crises and controversies. But nothing prepared me for the imminent collapse of America’s free-market system.
I was in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with another speechwriter, a young man named Jonathan. (His last name was Horn; the president nicknamed him Horny.) We were chatting casually when the president’s favorite speechwriter came in. Chris Michel was in his midtwenties, with sandy blond hair. He was usually chipper, though at the moment his face was so pale he must have been the whitest man in the Bush White House. And that was no small accomplishment. Chris had just come from a secret meeting in the Oval Office, and without so much as a hello he announced: “Well, the economy is about to completely collapse.”
“You mean the stock market?” I asked.
“No, I mean the entire U.S. economy,” he replied. As in, capitalism. As in, hide your money in your mattress.
The secretary of the treasury, Hank Paulson, had sketched out a dire scenario. And Chris said we’d have to write a speech for the president announcing his “bold” plan to deal with the crisis. (The president loved the word bold.)
We had to reassure the American people that everything was going to be okay. As it turned out, Secretary Paulson had a plan that would fix everything: a $700 billion bailout of the financial system. The plan, like the secretary himself (who’d been pretty much a nonperson at the White House), seemed to come out of nowhere, as if it had been hastily scribbled on a sheet of paper in the secretary’s car on his way to work. Basically, it could be summed up as: Give me hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and then trust me to do the right thing.
There was no denying it. This plan was certainly “bold.”
As a young political geek growing up in Flint, Michigan, I’d always dreamed of heading to Washington to work for a conservative president and help usher in another Reagan Revolution. As soon as I was able, and with the support of my baffled liberal parents, I packed up my old maroon Dodge Dynasty and said good-bye to my sleepy hometown.
My youthful exuberance cooled as I moved up the rungs of power. On Capitol Hill, I worked for a congressman who “misremembered” basic facts, such as the “Eisenhower assassination.” I worked for a senator who hid from his own staff. I was assigned to coach Republican senators on how to reach out to the media and entertainment world. (You try explaining The View to a group of 65-year-old white Republican men.) At the Pentagon, as chief speechwriter to Donald Rumsfeld, I battled an entrenched civil-service system and an inept communications team.
In 2007 I finally made it to the Bush White House as a presidential speechwriter. But it was not at all what I envisioned. It was less like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and more like The Office. After watching Karl Rove’s bizarre farewell to White House staffers and hearing the president dismiss the conservative movement I believed in (“I know it sounds arrogant to say,” he told me, “but I redefined the Republican Party”), I thought I could muddle through till the end. Washington might not have been the city I had dreamed of, but I figured things couldn’t get much worse.
To this day, I don’t really understand what happened.
In the first months I worked at the White House, I wrote any number of speeches praising America’s economic prosperity. There’d been month after month of uninterrupted job growth, after-tax income was increasing, exports were rising, inflation was down. “The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” we’d write. Because that’s what we’d been told. And as far as I could tell, the president was told the same thing by his economic advisers, led by Secretary Paulson. Paulson had been brought into the administration by Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff. They’d both worked at Goldman Sachs. Paulson had been one of the highest-paid CEOs on Wall Street, making at least $30 million a year, and had an MBA from Harvard (like President Bush). Paulson was supposed to be a nonideological, pragmatic, sensible type. He was bald with glasses and had a scratchy voice that sounded like he had a thousand-dollar bill caught in his throat.
Yet there were obvious signs that all was not well. The housing bubble had started to collapse, leading to a sharp increase in home foreclosures. And in January 2008, the president proposed an expensive economic-stimulus package, which he ultimately negotiated with Congress and passed, that would send Americans checks for a few hundred dollars.
To look like we were doing more, we announced various initiatives, such as assembling an alliance to encourage lenders to renegotiate loans. For a while, the communications guys—Ed Gillespie and Kevin Sullivan—wanted the president to give a toll-free number for Americans to call for assistance with their mortgages. I thought that was embarrassing, as if George W. Bush were Jerry Lewis. An additional problem was that the president kept botching the phone number. He thought it was an 800 number, but the number actually had an 888 prefix. So the president ended up telling Americans to call the wrong number. Unfortunately, I can’t say any of the president’s top economic advisers struck me as having a firm handle on the economic mess ahead. The economic team the president put together at first included his friend Al Hubbard. He may have been a competent adviser; I really didn’t know him. The only thing I knew about Al was that he went around putting whoopee cushions on people’s chairs in the West Wing.
Bear Stearns. Lehman Brothers. None of the senior officials at the White House had expected to end the second Bush term this way, with what Warren Buffett called an “economic Pearl Harbor.” In fact, Ed Gillespie was mapping out an ambitious schedule of “legacy speeches” for the fall and winter to trumpet all of the administration’s achievements. We could strike “remarks on the robust economy” off the list. Pundits on TV started asking why the president wasn’t saying more and what he was going to do. The answers were: We had nothing to say and no one had any idea.
After Chris, Jonathan Horn, and I learned about the president’s $700-billion-bailout proposal and drafted the remarks announcing it to a stunned nation, Ed said the president wanted to see us in the Oval Office. The president looked relaxed and was sitting behind the Resolute desk. He felt he’d made the major decision that everyone had been asking for. That always seemed to relax him. He liked being decisive. Excuse me, boldly decisive. The president seemed to be thinking of his memoirs. “This might go in as a big decision,” he mused.
“Definitely, Mr. President,” someone else observed. “This is a large decision.”
(Stopping for a moment, putting down my glasses, shaking my head ... pausing ... shaking my head again. Can you believe this @#$@#? -AM)
The president asked his secretary, Karen, to bring him the Rose Garden remarks he’d just delivered that day, September 19, announcing his action plan. He got slightly exasperated when she was delayed in printing them out. When he finally got them, he put his half-glasses on and looked at them. “See, this was fine today,” he said. “But we got to make this understandable for the average cat.” He proposed an outline for another speech that talked about the situation our economy was in, how we’d gotten here, and how the administration’s plan was a solution.
“This is the last bullet we have,” the president said at one point, referring to the bailout. “If this doesn’t work…” He shook his head, and his voice trailed off. That wasn’t good enough for me. If this doesn’t work, then what? We’re done? America is over? I looked around at everyone else. What does that mean?
Ed and the president decided to give a prime-time address to the nation, and Vice President Cheney was sent to the Hill to argue for our bill (a bill he may or may not have believed in) and was apparently hammered by House Republicans. There were reports that only four Republicans out of nearly 200 supported the plan. From what I was starting to glean about the whole scatterbrained operation, four seemed like too many. Hours before the president was to speak to the country, Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign informed Josh Bolten that McCain was going to phone the president and urge him to call off the address and instead hold an emergency economic summit in Washington. If the president did speak that night, the McCain campaign didn’t want him to outline any specific proposal.
Of course, this threw the proverbial monkey wrench into our plans—and at the eleventh hour. I overheard the president call McCain’s plan “a stunt.” Dana Perino said the negotiations were nearly over, and suddenly he was going to swoop in and muck things up? The president’s political adviser, Barry Jackson, was blunt, calling McCain a “stupid prick.”
We were faced with a dilemma: Should Bush still go out and address the nation, or should he cancel? And if he did go out, what should he say? Ed, typically, told us to write two drafts for the address to the nation—one outlining the proposal as originally announced and another that only discussed the “principles” the legislation needed to incorporate to win the administration’s support. Chris and I looked at each other warily. Two versions of a major prime-time address that may or may not be given hours from now? Sure, no problem. Ultimately, Ed decided to go with the second speech. But he clearly didn’t share his plan with the president. When the president came into the Family Theater to rehearse the speech in front of a teleprompter, he didn’t like the idea of just talking about principles. It sounded like the administration was backing away from its own plan (which it was).
“We can’t even defend our own proposal?” the president asked. “Why did we propose it, then?” This was not bold decision making. There were about a dozen people gathered in the theater to watch him rehearse, and all of us remained silent as the president looked at us for an answer.
The president walked over to sip some water from one of the bottles on the table near his lectern. “This speech is weak,” he said. He looked at me and Chris. “Frankly, I’m surprised, to be honest with you.”
There was more silence.
“Too late to cancel the speech?” the president asked into the air. He was joking…I think. Finally, Ed (who hadn’t exactly rushed to jump into the line of fire) explained that we had to make this change to the address because the proposal the president liked might not end up being the one he had to agree to. “Then why the hell did I support it if I didn’t believe it would pass?” he snapped. There was yet another uncomfortable silence.
Finally, the president directed us to try to put elements of his proposal back into the text. He wanted to explain what he was seeking and to defend it. He especially wanted Americans to know that his plan would likely see a return on the taxpayers’ investment. Under his proposal, he said, the federal government would buy troubled mortgages on the cheap and then resell them at a higher price when the market for them stabilized.
“We’re buying low and selling high,” he kept saying.
The problem was that his proposal didn’t work like that. One of the president’s staff members anxiously pulled a few of us aside. “The president is misunderstanding this proposal,” he warned. “He has the wrong idea in his head.” As it turned out, the plan wasn’t to buy low and sell high. In some cases, in fact, Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth in order to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president’s proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. It wasn’t that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.
As Chris and I were in our office in the EEOB trying to put in the latest of the president’s edits, there was a steady flow of people coming into the room. The economic team came in. Ed Gillespie, the president’s top communications adviser, came in. Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary, was there. At one point there were twelve people crowded around our computer, trying to explain how the proposal worked. The economic advisers were disagreeing with each other.
There was total confusion. It was 5:30 p.m. The speech was in three and a half hours.
After finally getting the speech draft turned around and sent back to the teleprompter technicians, we trudged back to the Family Theater, where the president rehearsed. In the theater, the president was clearly confused about how the government would buy these securities. He repeated his belief that the government was going to “buy low and sell high,” and he still didn’t understand why we hadn’t put that into the speech like he’d asked us to. When it was explained to him that his concept of the bailout proposal wasn’t correct, the president was momentarily speechless. He threw up his hands in frustration.
“Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” he asked.
(If George Bush wasn't born into this he probably would not have amounted to much more than a mid-level manager that enjoyed playing snap the towels with the waitresses at Applebee's after work.-AM)
The president was clearly frustrated with what was going on, but there was little he could do at this late hour. He went up to take a nap, saying he was beat. He looked it. I’d never seen him more exhausted. His hair was out of place and shaggy. His face looked drained and pale. Even more distressing, he was wearing Crocs. As I looked at him I thought to myself, how many more crises can one guy take?
As the start of the prime-time speech approached, Chris and I went up to the East Room. The large room had been converted into a studio for the address. There was a big group of technicians present, and wires and equipment were everywhere. The president’s lectern was set up so that we were to his left and out of his line of sight. His audience was a gold curtain next to a large portrait of George Washington. As Chris and I were watching the speech get fed into the teleprompter, Josh Bolten walked over to us. He looked like he’d had a long day, and I felt a tinge of sympathy for him. He told us he’d gotten an earful from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Speaker had yelled at him for fifteen minutes and expressed her view that the president’s speech was a mistake and would screw up their deal. “Talking to them is the hardest part of my job,” he said quietly.
Then, with about thirty minutes until airtime, the president showed up, looking transformed. He was in a deep red tie and dark suit. His hair was neatly combed. His demeanor was completely businesslike. He made a few edits to the text and then read it through, flawlessly, from start to finish. He informed us that he’d called both the presidential candidates, Senators Obama and McCain, and asked them to come to the White House the next day for the summit McCain had wanted. Both candidates had agreed. After the president finished his run-through, about ten of us walked over to him, forming a phalanx around him. We had little to say, of course. The speech was in ten minutes, so there wasn’t time for any serious changes. We just wanted to be around him—it made us feel useful. And a few aides liked to be in the pictures that the White House photographers were taking of the president preparing for another historic speech.
Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director, tried to be of use. “Mr. President, you were standing slightly to the left,” he said.
We all looked at him, confused. So did the president. “What?” he asked.
“On the camera,” Sully explained. “You were standing slightly to the left when you rehearsed.”
The proposal the president announced to the nation that night would be soundly rejected by the House of Representatives. An eventual compromise was reached a week later. And to help get it passed, I had to endure what I considered the biggest indignity of my entire White House tenure: We were now writing remarks for Jimmy Carter, of all people, because we’d been abandoned by nearly everyone else. I’m not sure if Carter ever delivered that statement, but a week later he launched a vicious attack on Bush’s “atrocious” economic policies. It was just one more humiliation. First the administration had had to seek out Carter’s help, and then the White House had been schooled on the economy by the president who’d brought you gas lines, an energy crisis, and high unemployment.
We wrote speeches nearly every time the stock market flipped. Meanwhile, the White House seemed to have ceded all of its authority on economic matters to the secretive secretary of the treasury. The president was clearly frustrated with this. I was told that at one Oval Office meeting, he got very animated and exclaimed to Paulson, “You’ve got to tell me what you’re doing!” (In the weeks that followed, Paulson changed his spending priorities two or three times. Incredibly, he’d been given the power to do with that money virtually anything he pleased. All thanks to a president who didn’t understand his proposal and a Congress that didn’t stop to think.)
The president understood the danger of talking constantly about the economy, especially if he had nothing new to say. “It’s hard to keep that kind of pace,” he said, noting that people would start tuning him out. The real problem, which no one at the White House seemed willing to confront, was that the country already had tuned him out. The president didn’t have credibility anymore. At one point, during another of our marathon speechwriting sessions, Steve Hadley and Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, let us know that the president needed an FDR line—like “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The president had his own suggestion for such a line, however: “Anxiety can feed anxiety.” So we produced a speech with no real information and our FDR knockoff line. Here were some of the kinder reviews: “lackluster”; “there is no news here”; “the president should go away for a while.” The stock market dipped further.
As Treasury started to use the bailout funds to invest directly in financial institutions, Ed wanted to come up with a name for the plan that made it sound better to the public, particularly conservatives who thought this was nothing more than warmed-over socialism. Yes, a catchphrase would solve everything. As we were working on this, Ed called a few of the writers on speakerphone with the idea he’d come up with: the Imperative Investment Intervention. “Oh, that sounds good,” one of us remarked, as the rest of us tried not to laugh. We decided that if a catchphrase must be deployed, surely we could come up with something better than a tongue twister with the acronym III. We started out with dark humor: the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Capitalism” Plan; the MARX Plan. I suggested that we also apologize to the former Soviet Union and retroactively concede the Cold War. Then one of the writers got serious and came up with the Temporary Emergency Market Protection Program, or TEMP. Not bad as gimmicks go, and Ed liked it. But he decided that instead of dropping it into a speech, we’d leak it to the press that this was the phrase we were using internally. Ed’s logic was that anything Bush said would be ignored, but if the press thought they’d got it from a leak, they’d find it more interesting and newsworthy. TEMP never made it as a catchphrase regardless.
When White House press secretary Dana Perino was told that 77 percent of the country thought we were on the wrong track, she said what I was thinking: “Who on earth is in the other 23 percent?” I knew who they were—the same people supporting the John McCain campaign. Me? I figured there was no way in hell any Republican would vote for that guy. John McCain, the temperamental media darling, had spent most of the past eight years running against the Republican Party and the president—Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the White House hated him. Choosing John McCain as our standard-bearer would be the height of self-delusion. It would be like putting Camilla Parker Bowles in charge of the Princess Diana Foundation.
As it turned out, I was the one who was deluded. The people I worked with in the White House were the most loyal of the Bush loyalists. Dana Perino was so sensitive to criticism of Bush that she once said she couldn’t watch the Democratic convention because it would be “too mean” to the president. Yet I watched them embrace McCain enthusiastically—backing a guy who’d worked so hard to undermine them. It was a cynical bargain.
The president, like me, didn’t seem to be in love with any of the available options. He always believed Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. “Wait till her fat keister is sitting at this desk,” he once said (except he didn’t say “keister”). He didn’t think much of Barack Obama. After one of Obama’s blistering speeches against the administration, the president had a very human reaction: He was ticked off. He came in one day to rehearse a speech, fuming. “This is a dangerous world,” he said for no apparent reason, “and this cat isn’t remotely qualified to handle it. This guy has no clue, I promise you.” He wound himself up even more. “You think I wasn’t qualified?” he said to no one in particular. “I was qualified.”
(I think I need to take a walk. -AM)
The president didn’t think much of Joe Biden either. “Dana, did you tell them my line?” the president once asked with a smile on his face.
“No, Mr. President,” Dana replied hesitantly. “I didn’t.”
He paused for a minute. I could see him thinking maybe he shouldn’t say it, but he couldn’t resist. “If bullshit was currency,” he said straight-faced, “Joe Biden would be a billionaire.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing.
(And if mediocrity were worshiped you would be pope. -AM)
Bush seemed to feel considerable unease with the choice of McCain as well. I think he liked Romney best. (The rumor was that so did Karl Rove.) My guess was the president hadn’t so easily forgotten the endless slights he’d suffered, but there was little he could do. To him, McCain’s defeat would be a repudiation of the Bush administration, so McCain had to win. The president, who had quite a good political mind, was clearly not impressed with the McCain operation. I was once in the Oval Office when the president was told a campaign event in Phoenix he was to attend with McCain suddenly had to be closed to the press. The president didn’t understand why when the whole purpose of holding the event had been to show Bush and McCain together so the press would stop asking why the two wouldn’t be seen together. If the event was closed to the press, the whole thing didn’t make sense.
“If he doesn’t want me to go, fine,” the president said. “I’ve got better things to do.”
Eventually, someone informed the president that the reason the event was closed was that McCain was having trouble getting a crowd. Bush was incredulous—and to the point. “He can’t get 500 people to show up for an event in his hometown?” he asked. No one said anything, and we went on to another topic. But the president couldn’t let the matter drop. “He couldn’t get 500 people? I could get that many people to turn out in Crawford.” He shook his head. “This is a five-spiral crash, boys.”
We tried to move on to something else. But the president wouldn’t let go. He was stuck on the Phoenix event. At one point, he looked off into space and said to no one in particular, “What is this—a cruel hoax?”
Chris and I were tickled by that comment. For weeks, we would look for ways to use it. “They are out of Diet Pepsis at the mess. What is this, a cruel hoax?” I went to dinner with a friend. “They don’t have cheeseburgers?” I said, looking at the menu. “What is this, a cruel hoax?”
If my colleagues at the White House were even momentarily scared straight about McCain over the convention fracas, the clarity wore off just as quickly as it came when the very conservative governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, was picked as McCain’s running mate. I didn’t have anything against Governor Palin from what I knew about her, which was next to nothing. The instantaneous reaction to Palin at the White House, however, was almost frenzied. I think what was really going on was that everyone secretly hated themselves for supporting McCain, so they latched onto Palin with over-the-top enthusiasm. Even the normally levelheaded Raul Yanes, the president’s staff secretary, was overtaken by Palin mania. He’d been slightly annoyed with me for not jumping on the McCain bandwagon and for saying aloud that I thought McCain would lose. Now, of course, I had to be enthusiastic about the ticket. “You still think we’re going to lose?” he asked me laughingly.
“Yep,” I replied.
Raul looked incredulous. “Well, you obviously don’t believe in facts!”
I was about to be engulfed by a tidal wave of Palin euphoria when someone—someone I didn’t expect—planted my feet back on the ground. After Palin’s selection was announced, the same people who demanded I acknowledge the brilliance of McCain’s choice expected the president to join them in their high-fiving tizzy. It was clear, though, that the president, ever the skilled politician, had concerns about the choice of Palin, which he called “interesting.” That was the equivalent of calling a fireworks display “satisfactory.”
“I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.” His eyes twinkled, then he asked, “What is she, the governor of Guam?”
(Have to admit though the fellow has a good sense of humor. He would be a lot of fun at Applebee's -AM)
Everyone in the room seemed to look at him in horror, their mouths agape. When Ed told him that conservatives were greeting the choice enthusiastically, he replied, “Look, I’m a team player, I’m on board.” He thought about it for a minute. “She’s interesting,” he said again. “You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off the rose.” Then he made a very smart assessment.
“This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. “She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.” It was a rare dose of reality in a White House that liked to believe every decision was great, every Republican was a genius, and McCain was the hope of the world because, well, because he chose to be a member of our party.
Toward the end of October, I’d started working with Chris on drafts of the president’s speech for the morning after the election. We’d written a version if the victor was Obama and another if the victor was McCain. But I think only the Obama one ever went for vetting.
As events turned more surreal and staff members played the spin game with each other, I asked myself daily, What more can go wrong? The answer, of course, would be practically everything.