Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog



By Shawn Healy
For the political animals amongst us, Washington, DC epitomizes the pinnacle of the profession. There's something mystical about our nation's capital, from the Capitol Rotunda to the monuments by moonlight to the White House rose garden. Each of us remembers our first glance at the Executive Mansion, how small we felt next to Lincoln's statue as we reread the Gettysburg Address we memorized in grade school, and being baffled by L'Enfant's layout of streets by number, letter, and state.

Matt Latimer went to Washington with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a young conservative as the Republican Party consolidated power for the first time in two generations. His memoir, Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor, is an account of his early career as a Capitol Hill staffer, campaign manager, and speech writer for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W Bush. His tell-all tale is both eye-opening and disillusioning, for he departs DC every bit as defeated as his beleagured party and seeks retrospective clarity in this simultaneously humorous and unfortunate recount of a young man who ascended to the highest thresholds of power.

Latimer was raised in Michigan by two devoutly Democratic parents, but somehow evolved into a rock-ribbed conservative who worshiped all things Republican. Always supportive, they paid his way to attend the 1996 Republican National Convention, his first foray into politics. Among his funny anecdotes were the awkward welcoming committee for nominee Bob Dole as he sailed up to the convention site, his encounter with Mary Matalin when he told her that he read her book five times, and his endless infatuation with Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

From San Diego he landed in Washington, working as a staffer for home state Senator Spence Abraham, then a local congressman, and back to the Senate in Jon Kyl's office. He eventually parlays this into a speechwriting job in the Pentagon, and is exposed firsthand to the inner turmoil of the Bush White House and their war operations. Secretary Rumsfeld emerges as a highly competent and sympathetic character who is a fall guy for a badly bungled war. Robert Gates' arrival spurred Latimer to look elsewhere, and the White House was his final destination.

He enters 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the final years of the Bush presidency on the heels of the Democratic takeover of Congress and Nixonian approval ratings. He works closely with the President and presents him as a fun-loving and earnest leader, but one who places more emphasis on decisiveness than accuracy and who is surrounded by men and women selected on the basis of loyalty, not competency.

Karl Rove lived up to his "Darth Vader" stereotypes, a scheming, petty "architect" insistent on getting his way even when the facts point the opposite direction. Latimer anticipated learning from this highly regarded guru, but instead was glad to see him go and even skipped Rove's final send-off.

Vice President Cheney, on the other hand, emerges as a down-to-earth, grounded voice of conservative reason. Latimer recalls Cheney waiting in line with the masses in the White House mess, ordering his own cup of coffee, even asking for the cold remnants of the cup he was holding be "nuked."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is held high as an influential voice, second only to Laura Bush. Latimer claims that it was widely known that the First Lady was only nominally a Republican. He left feeling the same way about her husband after a stunning session when Bush claimed ignorance about any association with the conservative movement.

Some of the other inside baseball stories that emerged included the president's take on the 2008 race to replace him. Though Bush failed to take sides in the primary process, Latimer speculated that he and Rove favored former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He reluctantly sided with John McCain, recognizing that his legacy was tied to the campaign of the Arizona Senator. Bush continually questioned their strategies, from closing a joint Phoenix fundraiser to the public (Latimer claims McCain failed to fill the required number of seats) to insisting on a remote address to the Republican National Convention to the surprise pick of Sarah Palin as VP. Bush repeatly characterized the latter as "interesting" and recognized from the outset that she would struggle with national media exposure once the proverbial "flower fell off."

On the Democratic side, Bush expected Hillary Clinton to win the nomination all along, and repeatly made statements to the effect that he couldn't wait until she seated her fat *** in the Oval Office and faced the real problems he confronted every day. Bush considered Obama ill-prepared for the rigors of the White House, but the rest of course is history.

Latimer ends his political journey in a Virginia voting booth of all places. He detested John McCain, yet considered himself a lifelong Republican and committed conservative. He was sympathetic to the enthusiasm of his young nephew toward Obama, and recalled his mom's crossover vote for Bush 41 in 1992 on his behalf so not to cancel out his first presidential vote. He alternates levers between McCain and Obama, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions after confronting this disconcerting vignette.

My money is on Obama, and Latimer will likely face this question and others during the Freedom Project's program in partnership with the Chicago Young Republicans this coming Thursday at the Cubby Bear. Titled "Reinventing Republicans," Latimer will pair with Reihan Salam of Grand New Party fame to articulate the future of the wounded and diminished party they call home.

In the end, Latimer fell victim to the clash between idealism and political reality. On one level, politics is poetry, the stuff of ideological purity and doctrinal domination. Campaigns embody these qualities now more than ever. In reverse, and often in practice, politics is prose, the hard work and pragmatic attempts to do the nation's business of governing. Latimer was disillusioned by this realization, and his book is a shot of restoring a reasonable balance between the two.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is rather interesting for me to read this blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

2:32 AM  
Blogger McCormick Fields said...

This blog posted on 11/08/09 helped alleviate my darkest fears about the McCormick Foundation becoming some kind of conservative think tank.
When I received a notice on the upcoming 'Reinventing Republicans' program. I got real concerned. As a reformed "Republiholic", I get real edgy when I see evidence of the GOP information orchestra playing. In fact I get as edgy as a scandinavian hearing bagpipes. Good luck on the upcoming program.

9:59 AM  
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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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