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.