A Cruel Hoax
September 17, 2009 Leave a comment
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.”
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?
Just when you thought the flood of GWB Administration tell-alls had slowed to a trickle, one last gem comes rolling down the drainpipe.
It’s the work of Matt Latimer, who came to the White House as an ambitious young movement conservative, only to suffer severe disillusionment as he watched the Bush posse fumble helplessly with an economy sliding into ruin.
He’s written a piece called “Me Talk Presidential Some Day” for GQ, and it is bonafide.
The first inkling that Latimer is about to lower the boom on GWB comes when he describes how his dream job turned into a surreal sideshow:
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.
The job mostly consisted of penning “legacy speeches,” touting the accomplishments of the administration in its final days. They’d plan to boast about how “the fundamentals of the economy are strong,” but after a while it became patently obvious that it wasn’t the case.
Pretty soon, Latimer found himself in a full-on crisis situation, as the White House tried to lead the country out of a disaster that it had helped precipitate with its happy-go-lucky economic message.
It didn’t help things that the GOP presidential nominee, John McCain, was trying to thread the needle between sticking close to the President to fire up the base and distancing himself from the President to attract moderate voters.
And then there was his brilliant idea to “suspend the campaign” when the economic poo really hit the fan. That did NOT go over well at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave:
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.”
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.
The most brutal part of the tale comes when Bush realizes that his conception of the bailout plan is totally wrong, and it’s not the sweet deal for America that he’d tried to believe it was.
Try explaining THAT to the average cat.
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.
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.
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?
Probably the juiciest delights from Wareham’s account pertain to GWB’s takes on the 2008 presidential candidates. They were universally negative.
After all, GWB felt that he had personally transformed conservatism, and how could any of those chumps fill his shoes?
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.”
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?”
Bush’s take on Palin was equally amusing. We’re so used to thinking of the former POTUS as a dunce, so it’s always great when a moment of pure clarity pokes through.
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?”
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.”
Thank you, Matt Latimer, for giving us this glimpse of Dubya’s last days, and showing him at his best and his worst. History owes you a debt of gratitude.
To read the full article – including a tasty gem about how a top economic advisor was best known for deploying whoopie cushions around the West Wing – click here.