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Compassionate Credit-Grabbing
If your main talent is commandeering credit from the deserving, have the good sense not to write a book about your greatness. White House speech writer Matthew Scully kept his mouth shut for a long time, and then he got a peek at fellow speech writer Michael Gerson's new book, and made a number of...corrections in a piece ($ubscription) in The Atlantic:

My favorite example came in a piece by Bob Woodward and two other Washington Post reporters. The writer’s writer and the reporter’s reporter spent a lot of time together, and whatever Bob got out of the deal you could always find Mike’s reward in print. There had been a September 13, 2001, Oval Office meeting attended by adviser Karen Hughes and three speechwriters—Mike, John McConnell, and me. Early in the meeting President Bush said to us, “We’re at war”—an exact quote, and not the sort of moment easily forgotten. In The Washington Post account, however, the rest of us have vanished, and the president declares, “Mike, we’re at war.”

One word, and history is changed. And not only have colleagues been cleared out, but the attention of Woodward’s readers isn’t even on the president anymore. Things like this happened all the time with Mike—crowded rooms and collaborative efforts gave way, in the retelling, to the self-involved spectacle of one.

Woodward’s trilogy about the Bush years is a tale of speechwriting glory that Mike himself could hardly improve upon. Remember those powerful and moving addresses the president gave after September 11? According to Woodward’s State of Denial, Mike wrote all of those speeches by himself—and if there were other speechwriters, well, they must not have made it back from the evacuation:

Gerson, a 40-year-old evangelical Christian who had majored in theology at evangelist Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, had written all of Bush’s memorable post-9/11 speeches, including the one he gave at Washington’s National Cathedral on September 14, 2001—“This conflict has begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour of our choosing”—as well as his remarks before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001: “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign.” Gerson had written Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech identifying Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil” connecting terrorism with weapons of mass destruction, and had also come up with the intellectual and historical roots for Bush’s “preemption” doctrine speech, delivered at West Point in June 2002—“The war on terrorism will not be won on the defensive.”

How do I break the news to Bob Woodward that his high-placed source wrote not a single one of the lines quoted above, at best a third of any of the speeches he mentions, and that the National Cathedral address was half-written before Mike even entered the room?

Without fear of contradiction—because it’s all in the presidential records—I can report here that Michael Gerson never wrote a single speech by himself for President Bush. From beginning to end, every notable speech, and a huge proportion of the rest, was written by a team of speechwriters, working in the same office and on the same computer. Few lines of note were written by Mike, and none at all that come to mind from the post-9/11 addresses—not even “axis of evil.”

He allowed false assumptions, and also encouraged them. Among chummy reporters, he created a fictionalized, “Mike, we’re at war” version of presidential speechwriting, casting himself in a grand and solitary role. The narrative that Mike Gerson presented to the world is a story of extravagant falsehood. He has been held up for us in six years’ worth of coddling profiles as the great, inspiring, and idealistic exception of the Bush White House. In reality, Mike’s conduct is just the most familiar and depressing of Washington stories—a history of self- seeking and media manipulation that is only more distasteful for being cast in such lofty terms.

Posted by aalkon at August 17, 2007 7:34 AM

Comments

Love this. Two birds (Woodward and a glory-seeking functionary) with one stone. Woodwards books have become less like early drafts of history and more like TV movies-of-the-week. Besides, David Frum already explained the genesis of "Axis of evil."

Posted by: Crid at August 17, 2007 9:10 AM

Everyone is aware of Woodward's moments of make believe history. Does anyone remember he was the supposed last reporter to interview the late William Casey on his hospital/death bed? Even though the armed guards stationed outside Casey's hospital room do not remember Woodward entering the room during the specific interview.

From the wikipedia entry on William Casey:

Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, Bob Woodward, who had interviewed Casey on numerous occasions, said that he had gained entry to Casey's hospital room for a final, four-minute long encounter — a claim that was met with disbelief in many quarters, and adamant denial by Casey's wife, Sofia. According to Woodward, when he asked Casey if he knew about the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan Contras, "His head jerked up hard. He stared, and finally nodded yes."

Posted by: Joe at August 17, 2007 11:13 AM

I think Woodward is long-overdue for some vetting by a good investigative reporter. Actually, I can't remember where I read it, but somebody did a study where they called people quoted in a large number of stories -- and a large number of those people say they were actually misquoted.

I try to make people tape me when they interview me. I tell them it's because I talk really fast, which I do. But, that's not the only reason.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 17, 2007 11:24 AM

P.S. This piece by Scully is deliciously bitchy, and worth buying this month's Atlantic to read.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 17, 2007 11:26 AM

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