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Matt Latimer, Struck 'Speech-Less' By The D.C. Noise

Sep 22, 2009 (Fresh Air)

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Matt Latimer was among the ranks of young idealists going to Washington to make a difference in the world. He became chief speechwriter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and was hopeful that he was on his way. When he got assigned to the White House, he knew his dream was coming true.

Once there, however, he was quickly disillusioned. Working as speechwriter to President George W. Bush during his last months in office, Latimer was immersed in the chaos of an environment he describes as more like The Office than The West Wing. It's from these experiences and others living and working in the nation's capital that Latimer writes his tell-all memoir, Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor.

Among the risque comments attributed to Bush in the memoir, some of the ones getting the most attention include:

On then-Sen. Barack Obama: "This is a dangerous world, and this cat isn't remotely qualified to handle it. This guy has no clue, I promise you."

On then-Sen. Hillary Clinton: "Wait till her fat ass is sitting at this desk."

On then-Gov. Sarah Palin: "I'm trying to remember if I've met her before. ... What is she, the governor of Guam?"

Latimer, who served for three years as the chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld before moving to the White House, also reveals that the secretary of defense offered to resign twice during the Abu Ghraib scandal, but that the administration declined both offers.

"[Rumsfeld] knew in doing so [not resigning publicly] that he was going to be a lightning rod for the administration," Latimer tells Terry Gross. "But then again, a president can use a lightning rod. A lightning rod has its usefulness, and I think Rumsfeld knew that he was going to do that."

Working at the White House, Latimer discovered that the economic meltdown provided a unique challenge to the administration's speechwriters, who struggled to communicate the scope of the problem while also maintaining a reassuring front.

"The strategy was to ... reassure people that we had a plan," he says. But "we also wanted to, at the same time, alarm people in a way, to sort of let them know how serious this problem was and how important it was for Congress to act immediately."

He describes writing speeches about the economic crisis that were so complicated and worded so carefully that he doubts the public could understand them: "I don't think we communicated that issue very well to people, because it was a very difficult issue to communicate."

When not crafting overly complicated speeches about the economy, Latimer says he often found himself writing in a manner that was overly simplistic.

"The strategy of writing speeches was to make it as simple ... as possible, and it became a situation where we just were trying to make the president from getting mad or upset. If the president was uncomfortable with the speech, you didn't want to hear from him," he says. "Our audience became the president. It didn't become the country."

Latimer says the speeches "got so bad at some point, that we were basically just giving the president information to satisfy him." He describes writing a speech that Bush delivered at a base near a pipeline in Alaska: "At one point, we were saying something to the effect of, 'You are near a pipeline. Oil comes from pipelines. Oil comes from the ground.' "

Looking back, Latimer says that he doesn't necessarily want to take credit for some of the speeches he wrote for the Bush administration.

"One of the things I was disappointed about was the quality and the level of speeches, because what we've done with presidencies is we've turned them into sort of infomercials, where presidents go out and constantly talk all the time. ... And it's actually, I think, diminished the presidential voice," he says.

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