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A Book Worth Reading

2:58 PM, Sep 17, 2009 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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"Speech - less," a new book by former White House speechwriter Matthew Latimer, is causing quite a stir. After a brief excerpt of the book was published this month in GQ magazine, cable television and talk radio exploded with discussion of that piece and speculation about the book.

Former Bush administration officials don't like what they've seen.

"I was in maybe two dozen meetings with him and I can't tell you what his voice sounds like," former Bush press aide Tony Fratto told Politico. "The most common reaction really has been 'who is Matt Latimer?' That is the most frequent email I've gotten in the last two days."

Fratto, the former deputy press secretary, says that Latimer, former deputy director of speechwriting, was only a "junior or mid-level staffer" with "episodic" access to the president. According to the Politico article: "Fratto contended that Latimer had nowhere near the access to Bush that he suggests, and that the book shows it."

So, did Fratto actually read the whole book? That's unlikely, since it won't be released until next week. If he had read it he would know that Latimer frequently downplays his own importance at the White House and in Washington. It's a theme of the book. I know because I read it cover to cover (and wrote a blurb for the back cover).

And yet Latimer actually did play a significant role in some of the major speeches Bush gave in the final year and a half of his presidency. He helped write Bush's address to the nation after the financial collapse in the fall of 2008. He wrote Bush's 2008 Republican Convention speech, his address to the World Economic Forum in Egypt, and dozens of others. Before that he served for three years as the chief speechwriter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Most of the criticism of the book is based on the excerpt in GQ. But even there, Latimer writes about what he knows and acknowledges what he doesn't. On Bush economic adviser Al Hubbard, Latimer writes: "He may have been a competent adviser; I didn't know him. The only thing I knew about Al is that he went around putting whoopee cushions on people's chairs in the West Wing." At another point in that excerpt Latimer wrote that he and other aides gathered around Bush before a big speech because "it made us feel useful." Hardly the words of someone who is trying to sound important.

Latimer is often critical of George W. Bush. In that, he's giving voice to a large segment of the Republican Party disappointed in Bush's profligate spending and second-term foreign and national security policy. But the book is not a hit on the former president and it includes praise for Bush on a variety of subjects. (Bush had "quite a good political mind," Latimer writes in the excerpt.)

I have had different experiences with several of the people Latimer discusses in the book. For instance, Latimer criticizes several decisions by senior presidential adviser, Ed Gillespie. I think Gillespie is one of the smartest conservatives in Washington today and he transformed the timid and incompetent White House communications shop under Dan Bartlett into an aggressive rapid-response operation during the final years of the Bush presidency. (Which may explain why the Bush team's pushback on Latimer's book has been more energetic and effective than, say, the response to claims from the left that Bush "lied" about the Iraq War.) Latimer has many good things to say Donald Rumsfeld and his leadership at the Pentagon. I don't agree with him there, either.

But one need not agree with everything in the book to appreciate the fascinating story it tells - from Latimer's time as a dorky kid in Michigan to his crush on Kay Bailey Hutchison and his work at the White House. "Speechless" provides a valuable, behind-the-scenes look at Washington and the Bush administration from someone with experience on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and eventually the White House. It's well-written and very funny. It will appeal especially to people who consider themselves conservatives first and Republican, if at all, second.

That's why, despite the best efforts of the Republican establishment in DC to knock it down, it is selling so well nearly a week before it will be released.