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Matt Scully’s thoroughly devastating piece documenting Michael Gerson’s great talent at self-promotion is breathtaking in its scope, even tone, and fact-based reality.
During my nearly three years in the White House, I can attest that what Matt states as fact about the speechwriting process is perfectly correct. There was never a moment I witnessed a major or minor speech being written that didn’t involve Gerson, Scully, and their brilliant colleague John McConnell. They were an inseparable whole.
Lost, however, in Matt’s piece is a potentially much more significant point than speechwriting credit-snatching. In discussing the speechwriting for the USS Abraham Lincoln speech – the “Mission Accomplished” speech – Scully writes,
As usual, Mike had come in with a grand, historic vision for the effort-along with a literary antecedent to imitate. This was another habit of his, and with each speech you could always predict which models he would turn to. When it was a speech on race, in would come Mike with a sheaf of heavily underlined Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. For speeches on poverty, it was time for more compassionate-conservative fervor, drawn secondhand from the addresses of Robert F. Kennedy. For updates on the war against terrorism, we could expect to see Mike’s well-worn copies of JFK and FDR speeches plopped on the table for instruction, and for imitation that when unchecked (as in the second inaugural) could slip perilously close to copying.
Here we have the Bush presidency – the desire for the grand story, the great narrative, the huge arc, regardless of fact. This isn’t policy-making by speechwriting, it is leadership by plagiarism.
Great moments in history and great visions drive great words – think RFK standing in the back of a truck one April evening in 1968 telling the assembled crowd in Indianapolis that MLK had been assassinated. But this was not the Bush way. The Bush way was to fit what it was doing into a narrative established and given credibility by other people, other great leaders.
As tragic as what Mike seems to have done in denying others credit for their effort – or simply taking what other men did and claiming it as his own – is simply a metaphor for the greater tragedy of the Bush presidency.