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Former Bush speech writer kicks off Verba speaker series

Story by Clayton Woullard

Published on Colorado SPJ Pro’s website October 15, 2009
Former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer kicked off the third season of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Helen Verba lecture series talking about bad senators, bad advisers and a funny president.

Latimer spoke at the Denver Press Club Oct. 13 as one of his only speaking events on his tour to promote his new book, Speech-less: Tales Of A White House Survivor. He also said it was one of his first public speaking events.

Seeming to not want to denigrate his former boss, Latimer mostly spoke warmly of President George W. Bush for whom he helped write speeches from March 2007 to October 2008. Still, some politicians and columnists came down on him for writing so candidly about what went on in the Bush administration, even before the book was published.

“My mom still won’t even watch TV because Bill Bennett, former secretary of education, a man I admire a great deal, denounced me and said I belong on the worst ring of hell,” Latimer said to a group of about 40 people. The moderator for the event was Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi.

Latimer said he didn’t except the hoopla about his book in Washington, D.C.

“There was one day that I was on CNN nearly the entire day, and I didn’t expect that,” he said. “I just thought I’d put out a simple book my tale, my experience and people would ignore it and move on but no, people are very sensitive in Washington and I guess I did hit a lot of sensitive areas.”

Latimer said he always wanted to be a political speechwriter, even when he was young.

“Some kids were following like baseball times, and I was coloring red states and blue states on maps I had drawn,” he said.

One of Latimer’s critiques of the Bush administration is that he wasn’t really a conservative in the truest sense considering how much money was spent and how much the government grew.

He also observed how easily representatives and senators are absorbed into the political system in Washington, D.C.

“We send people to Washington time and time again to say that they’re going to represent us, and they’re not going to get ruined by Washington, they’re not going to change, and they go to Washington, and they change,” he said. “It’s very rare to find a politician who goes to Washington, sticks to what they believe in and doesn’t get seduced by the power and the privilege.”

He pointed to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, as an example of someone who was seduced by power and privilege. He said she had two young aides who people in Washington called “purse boys” because basically their job appeared to be to hold her purse as she went around the Capitol Hill.

“The U.S Senate is like 17th French aristocracy,” he said. “Senators…have probably two, three, maybe four offices…everything is geared toward privileges, and they just want to get re-elected.”

He said there was no real set way to write a speech for Bush. The former president would set the theme. He also loved jokes and the lawyers hated jokes. As an example he told about a joke he wanted Bush to say about Jessica Simpson.

“She had just gone to Iraq, so I thought it would be funny for President Bush to go to the USO and say ‘Ya know everybody credits my decision to send more troops into Iraq for turning the situation in the country around. But we all know the real reason Iraq got better, because the USO decided to deploy Jessica Simpson.”

He said it was a simple joke, but there was a big battle in the White House about it because the lawyers didn’t want to give the impression that Simpson actually went there and turned things around.

Latimer emphasized that Bush was not a dumb man as many in the public believed, and that he was very funny. He did say Bush wasn’t very curious.

“He didn’t seem, at least from my perspective, to dwell a lot on what were the alternative views, he was very decisive and more certain about his own opinions.”

He said Bush was also very blunt, sometimes overly blunt, and he got criticized for quoting him verbatim. He also said he had very good political sense and made comments on the 2008 election.

“After Sarah Palin was chosen…he said “Ya know she’s an interesting choice,’” he said, further adding Bush’s comment, “’Ya know let’s wait a few weeks from now and see if the bloom’s still on that rose.’”

He said Bush’s economic advisers and former treasury department head Henry Paulson told the former president that the economy was strong—and then came the economic collapse.

“Most of the people who were in charge of government at the time are still there,” Latimer said. “Members of Congress just changed seats…I just thought that was a curious thing.”

He found former vice president Dick Cheney to be shy and “someone who was more comfortable around books than people.”

Latimer said one of his most proud moments as a speechwriter was when Bush had to speak to the Tuskegee airmen for a gold medal ceremony. The Tuskegee airmen were a group of black pilots who served in the military during World War II and faced discrimination, including never being saluted.

“I had the president say ‘Ya know this is not going to make up for that history, but if I can offer you one small token of our appreciation, on behalf of the country you served, I want to salute you for your service to the country. So the president saluted them…all the old black men…they all struggled to their feet, with tears in their eyes, and they saluted him back. And the president cried, and Nancy Pelosi cried, and Colin Powell cried.”

Latimer is currently helping former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, for whom he wrote speeches for three years, put together his memoirs. He has also been offered to write a column and is planning to write a second book.

Verba was a Denver Post staffer who had such a passion for SPJ she left a $50,000 endowment upon death, which turned into $150,000. As a result for the past three years, SPJ Colorado has been able to put on free lectures for the public.

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