Friday, September 18, 2009

Bush #43 unplugged (or unhinged)

The American people always knew he had a sense of humor, if not a sense of how much of a sense of humor he needed to have — about himself, his administration and the panoply of gaffes, crimes and horrors they presided over. Now almost nine months after George Walker Bush left office as the 43rd President of the United States, we’re about to get a dose of the Full W, a taste of the unexpurgated, unplugged, unmasked or unhinged President Bush.

Bush’s months-long silence since leaving the White House is being broken for him. It’s ironic that, for an administration obsessed with control and image, maybe the most revealing transcripts of Bush #43’s inner emotional workings and political calculations were acquired through an agent of that message of control.

On Sept. 22, Crown publishes former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer’s book “Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor,” a tale of a pilgrim’s progress through the bowels of modern Washington. The book contains some priceless examples of then-President Bush venting his spleen about other political figures; parts of Latimer’s book are already getting heavy rotation on the punditburo jukebox.

Excerpts of the book are in the October issue of GQ but surprise surprise, some of the good stuff’s already been leaked. Count on Latimer to do his part on the cable news shows next week — and the ‘Vox to do his part right now.

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On Barack Obama: “After one of Obama’s blistering speeches against the administration, [Bush] 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.’

On John McCain: “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.’ ”

On Joe Biden: “He paused for a minute. I could see him thinking maybe he shouldn’t say it, but he couldn’t resist. ‘If bullshit was currency,’ he said straight-faced, ‘Joe Biden would be a billionaire.’ Everyone in the room burst out laughing.”

On Sarah Palin: “’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 [an aide] 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.’ ”

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Latimer’s recollection of Bush’s words suggest the president was given to occasional bouts of prescience — he couldn’t have been more right about Palin and McCain. And the man who gave us strategeries was apparently astute enough about political language to have graced us with “five-spiral crash,” a vivid phrase that enters the lexicon of American politics as a full partner.

But the former president also reveals a tone-deafness about his own presidency and its predilection for invention and self-invented catastrophe. Bush’s riposte about Biden leaves him open to the same: There’s eight years of proof that, if bullshit was currency, the Bush administration would have been the Federal Reserve. This is a dangerous world, and Bush’s own qualifications to handle the job of president were suspect from the beginning. The American people said as much when a majority of them voted for Al Gore in 2000.

“‘You think I wasn’t qualified?’ he said to no one in particular.”

That’s right, sir, we did. But you won anyway, and in the following eight years of your presidency the nation was subjected to its own five-spiral crash: of its values, its armed forces, its treasury, its global standing and too much of its self-confidence.

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Latimer’s snapshots, funny as they are, reveal finally a sadness about the Bush administration, its obdurate blindness concealed in cowboy swagger, its cluelessness held high like a trophy.

Latimer may have felt it too; without having read the book yet, we suspect that he was early disabused of his young enthusiasms about Washington — that, as the book’s Amazon description says, the young speechwriter found politics was less like the walk-and-talk world of “The West Wing” and more like the insular institutional paranoia and indecision-making common to the workers of “The Office.”

The rest of Latimer’s book should offer other surprises, and we’ll hear a lot of them next week. We’ll see what these presidential asides ultimately mean to the Bush biography, one we’d thought couldn’t be any more tarnished by its own proud coarseness. “Speech-Less” will probably show just how wrong we were.
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Image credits: Bush: Public domain. "Speech-Less" cover: Crown Publishers. Obama: Still from White House video. Palin: BBC News.

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