Politics & Policy

The World According to Matthew Scully

Not the Mike Gerson I know.

As a friend and former colleague of both Matthew Scully and Michael Gerson — I was deputy director of speechwriting in the Bush administration in 2001-02 — I have many thoughts on the piece written by Matt in the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic). But as a preliminary matter, I should say I believe Scully’s piece is deeply unfair to Mike and is itself misleading.

The core of the article is that Gerson was a vain person constantly in search of media attention, always portraying himself as the sole author of President Bush’s speeches. In the process of writing speeches, Matt asserts, “colleagues were not in the outline… People have a way of disappearing in Mike’s stories. The artful shaping of narrative and editing out of inconvenient detail was never confined to the speechwriting.” In the World According to Gerson, Scully argues, the president’s speeches are the work of just one man, and his name is Michael Gerson. But certain facts belie the charge.

In a Sunday evening C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb earlier this year, Lamb asked about how the September 14 National Cathedral speech was written. Gerson answered this way: “I worked on that with Matt Scully and John McConnell, who were writers that I’ve become very close with.”

When asked about the speechwriting process and State of the Union addresses, Mike said that when he would get back from Christmas break, he “would go into the season working with some fine writers that I’d hired — people like John McConnell and Matt Scully and others — to put together a draft.”

In a February 1, 2002, Washington Post story by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz on the September 20, 2001 speech to the nation, we learned this:

Gerson worked for a few minutes in his office in the basement of the West Wing, then walked over to Room 271 in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where he joined fellow speechwriters Matthew Scully and John McConnell. While Gerson was the best known of the president’s speechwriters, the three often combined to write the most important speeches. After working together through the 2000 presidential campaign, they had developed an interesting arrangement, with McConnell at the computer keyboard and Gerson and Scully grouped around the desk. They fed lines to one another, edited each other as they wrote and together built a speech sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase.

In Newsweek’s story on Gerson’s departure from the White House, we read this:

His move will radically alter the speechwriting process. Gerson, McConnell and Scully came together during Bush’s 2000 campaign. Since their earliest days in the White House the three men sat in one room writing together entire speech texts from the opening “Thank you” to the closing “God bless America.” Bush even nicknamed the speechwriters “triune,” a word that means three in one and also refers to the trinity.

In Gerson’s forthcoming book, Heroic Conservatism, he writes that the best early decision he made was to “hire two writers who would share the burden, and eventually share some of the most intense days of my life.” He goes on to describe John McConnell as “the nicest human being on earth” who “has a talent for the perfectly appropriate, crystalline phrase.” And he refers to Matt Scully as “an elegant writer with a … manner that hides a ferocious commitment to the defense of the weak… No one I know writes more convincingly about the need for a culture of life and mercy, because no one feels those causes more deeply themselves.”

“For seven years these two speechwriters,” Gerson writes, “would be my friends and partners, and hardly a cross word ever passed between us.”

Elsewhere in the book, Gerson writes about returning from College Station, Texas, and “producing a [2000 Republican Convention speech] draft along with my colleagues John McConnell and Matt Scully…”

In describing preparation for the September 20, 2001, joint-session speech, Mike tells about what happened after his conversation with Karen Hughes: “I sat down in my office for about a half an hour, collected my thoughts, and wrote down an outline. I called Matt and John, and we started to work, making use of the information John Gibson had provided.”

And in recounting the drafting of the speech that was given in the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrating in the atmosphere, Gerson writes, “After an emergency weekend call, and an hour’s work with Matt and John, the president delivered brief remarks from the Cabinet Room near the Oval Office.”

Elsewhere we find this: “I still needed to work with John McConnell and Matt Scully on a short speech announcing the beginning of military operations [in Iraq].”

This is certainly an odd way to go about protecting a supposed state secret.

There is more that could be added to this. But three things should be clear. The first is that Matt Scully believes it would have only been fair for him and John McConnell to get more credit for their role in the president’s speeches. And there is no question that Matt and John are terrific writers and deserve enormous credit for the speechwriting success of the president in the first term. But the impression that Mike never shared credit with them is simply false.

The second is that to the best of my knowledge, during the five years they worked together Scully never went to Gerson and expressed his concerns, frustrations, and anger. If he had, I suspect — actually, I am certain — they would have been taken into account. And for those of us in the White House who know them and saw them work together so long and well over the years, with such seeming ease and comfort, it is simply stunning to see this lightning bolt out of the blue. The fact that Matt never raised his grievances with Mike and, when he finally did air them, it was done in this manner, is itself revealing. If Matt felt so strongly about how things were going in their relationship, he had an obligation to raise it with Mike — and if that didn’t work, to raise it with others.

Finally: If Matthew Scully’s portrait of Gerson — breathtakingly vain, petty, and selfish; a man of pretense and the author of extravagant falsehoods — was anything near accurate, he would have been reviled in the White House, and reviled by me. Instead, Mike is deeply liked and admired by many of his former and current colleagues, including by me. Mike is not perfect; he has his own human struggles and foibles. But he was, and remains, a model of integrity and grace. If people who know Mike Gerson don’t recognize him in the Atlantic Monthly profile, there is a good reason why.

 – Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

A Bizarre and Revealing Biden Interview

William Voegeli of the Claremont Review of Books brought up a strange Joe Biden interview from 1974 I hadn't seen before in which Biden emerges as arrogant and determined to make more money, one way or another. Biden also speaks of his first wife Neilia, who had died two years earlier, in unusually frank ways: ... Read More
Politics & Policy

A Bizarre and Revealing Biden Interview

William Voegeli of the Claremont Review of Books brought up a strange Joe Biden interview from 1974 I hadn't seen before in which Biden emerges as arrogant and determined to make more money, one way or another. Biden also speaks of his first wife Neilia, who had died two years earlier, in unusually frank ways: ... Read More
Media

The Unseemly Urge to Excuse Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, was suspended from his jobs and subjected to a round of public mockery for visibly exposing himself while masturbating on a Zoom call with New Yorker colleagues. The call was designed to role-play post-election scenarios for a contested election; Toobin ... Read More
Media

The Unseemly Urge to Excuse Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, was suspended from his jobs and subjected to a round of public mockery for visibly exposing himself while masturbating on a Zoom call with New Yorker colleagues. The call was designed to role-play post-election scenarios for a contested election; Toobin ... Read More
Elections

How Trump Should Approach the Final Debate

The so-called mainstream polls of the swing states show the race narrowing. If the trend continues at the current rate, President Trump could poll even in two weeks—in addition to the “other” polls that show him near there already. So Trump’s mission at the final debate on Thursday is to continue to ... Read More
Elections

How Trump Should Approach the Final Debate

The so-called mainstream polls of the swing states show the race narrowing. If the trend continues at the current rate, President Trump could poll even in two weeks—in addition to the “other” polls that show him near there already. So Trump’s mission at the final debate on Thursday is to continue to ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More

The Pollster Who Thinks Trump Is Ahead

The polling aggregator on the website RealClearPolitics shows the margin in polls led by Joe Biden in a blue font and the ones led by Donald Trump in red. For a while, the battleground states have tended to be uniformly blue, except for polls conducted by the Trafalgar Group. If you are a firm believer only in ... Read More