Young Matt Latimer tells readers in the opening sentence of his new book Speech-Less that sitting on the top floor of the White House he is wondering “how it had all come to this. And as the days passed, each more surreal than the last, another question haunted me: What the heck was I doing here?”
Mr. Latimer assumes a sassy voice throughout to tell his story of how a boy from Flint, Mich., makes his way in relatively few years to writing speeches for men such as George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
He tells us how he — the son of two liberal teachers — got hooked on politics in the first place. Listening in a school assembly to what he characterizes as a pretty dull speech by Walter Mondale — then running for president against Ronald Reagan — he recollects how not a soul in the auditorium except for a handful of teachers could even vote. A few months later, Mondale lost 49 states and young Latimer began thinking that maybe Reagan might not be as terrible as everyone said. Indeed, a huge majority of the country seemed to like him just fine, and he remembered how disappointed mom was. That started him listening to what Reagan was saying and he found himself “attracted to his philosophy of responsibility, accountability, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
The more he thought about it, the more he found himself thinking that the Republican Party activists may not have been hip (his word), but they were the responsible, competent grown-ups. At least, that is what young Latimer concluded Republicans were supposed to be.
And that sort of thinking led the teen-age youth to begin reading the “great speeches of Lincoln, Kennedy and Reagan, and, more than anything else, I could go to the White House and write eloquent words for a President that would also ring through history.” All of this in due course brought him to a steady diet of getting hooked on every political news show he could find. He found himself a devotee of the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., Fred Barnes and Kate O’Beirne. He joined up with the Genesee County Republican Party back home, even though he says he felt they barely had a pulse.
At first his family had found his party apostasy “cute,” but began to be concerned. Was it for this that they had sacrificed to send him through college and law school? To use his own words, Latimer says his parents wondered if this meant he was “going to use that training to practice the dark arts of the Republican Party? This was exactly what had happened to Anakin Skywalker.”
By 1996, the senior Latimers found themselves shelling out more than $1,000 to send their offspring off as a page to the Republican Party’s nominating convention in San Diego. Before leaving for San Diego, young Matt felt impelled to write a letter to former President George H.W. Bush telling him how he was the first person he had ever voted for and how he’d love to meet him in San Diego if he had any free time. A delighted Latimer tells readers how moved he was on arriving in San Diego to actually find a note from George H.W.Bush.
A few pages further on and he tells Mary Matalin how he has read her book five times. She inscribes his book: “To Matt: Go get’em. Love, Mary.” Overwhelmed, he unblushingly writes: “I felt like I’d been knighted by the queen.” You can understand how a young man might have felt on such an occasion, but you really don’t expect a man who’s been around as much as Latimer has to have such an unsophisticated, almost teenage groupie reaction. It may be that he just wants readers to share his innocent excitement in meeting up with the big world out there, but it doesn’t really come off and, unfortunately, detracts from the impact of his genuine elbow-rubbing with the great of this world.
Latimer gets off some good stories about his time as a young congressional aide, giving readers good inside gossip without being too mean, too revealing or too snarky. Then we come to the chapter titled simply “Rummy.” The second page of that chapter rather sets the tone with this description of his first impressions of the Pentagon: “It was Brooks Brothers goes to Fort Bragg.”
Latimer sets the scene for his first meeting with the Secretary of Defense as though he were laying out a film-shooting script. Indeed, that is much the way he sets forth many scenes in his book, thus that preparing readers for the last sentences: “As I left politics, I knew more than ever what I believed. And though I didn’t know where I’d land next, I was going to keep searching for that place in America where people meant what they said and where principles still mattered. Maybe I’d try Hollywood.”
Latimer gives a full emotional view of his time with Rumsfeld in describing in detail the scene at which Rumsfeld tells him that he was “my star.” Latimer describes himself breaking into tears, but reports the secretary, however, did not cry. “He did not appear fazed at all. He was cool, controlled, just fine.” He winds up by giving an honorable tribute to the secretary: “And in the end the irony was that the man who was supposedly this fearsome D.C. operator didn’t play the ruthless game that everyone played on him.”
Of course, what readers are really looking for most in this genuinely quite readable book are the chapters on the author’s speechwriting days with President George W. Bush. Here Latimer does deliver the goods. Nice little touches such as describing the speech-vetting processes that went on. How if anyone asked Latimer’s opinion of a speech, he’d automatically describe it as “great.”
“This meant absolutely nothing. But “if I used any other adjective — “good” or “interesting” or “elegant,” for example — then that meant I actually liked it.” And how speechwriters managed to weave the President’s mother into nearly every speech. Worth the price of the book alone.
Perhaps the most touching and to-the-point story about the whole role of being a speechwriter comes close to the end of the book, when Latimer, having described how he and his fellow speechwriters were welcomed into the membership in the Judson Deliver Society, founded by former Nixon speechwriter William Safire, realizes he was not destined to be the author of a speech ushering in the 21st Century New Frontier.
“We didn’t have a boss like Kennedy or Reagan whose oratorical skills might burn our words into history. Rather, we were kin of sorts to the writers who’d toiled in the administrations of Carter and Ford. We were the RC Cola of speechwriters, the Hyundais, the socks you get as Christmas presents. That was the best I was going to do with the job of my dreams.”