Speechwriters at War

"Michael Gerson never wrote a single speech by himself for President Bush", writes former colleague Matthew Scully. Along with Gerson and John McConnell, Scully was part of the team that crafted some of George W Bush’s best known speeches. In a bitchy article for the Atlantic Monthly, Scully accuses Gerson of placing himself at the centre of a narrative of "extravagant falsehood" and taking credit for words that are not his own.

In National Review Online Peter Wehner, a former colleague of both Scully and Gerson, argues that Scully’s portrait is unfair and misleading. "Mike is not perfect", writes Wehner, "But he was, and remains, a model of integrity and grace." In the Washington Post, Peter Baker writes that this isn’t the first time Scully has accused his co-workers of self promotion.

But enough of the commentary — here’s how Scully remembers the writing of Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech:

As usual, Mike had come in with a grand, historic vision for the effort—along with a literary antecedent to imitate. This was another habit of his, and with each speech you could always predict which models he would turn to. When it was a speech on race, in would come Mike with a sheaf of heavily underlined Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. For speeches on poverty, it was time for more compassionate-conservative fervor, drawn secondhand from the addresses of Robert F. Kennedy. For updates on the war against terrorism, we could expect to see Mike’s well-worn copies of JFK and FDR speeches plopped on the table for instruction, and for imitation that when unchecked (as in the second inaugural) could slip perilously close to copying.

In writing the Abraham Lincoln speech, this habit of historical reenactment spelled trouble. As John and I sat down to get started, in marched Mike with a muffin in one hand and Douglas MacArthur’s “the guns are silent” speech—delivered on the deck of the USS Missouri at the end of World War II—in the other. And this time Mike had worked up his own memorable variation: “The sirens of Baghdad are quiet. The desert has returned to silence. The Battle of Iraq is over, and the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Much as I’d like to record that I had the good sense to object, I think I even added my own touches to the glory of the moment. The honored role here in averting rhetorical disaster was assumed by Donald Rumsfeld, who expressed alarm at this overreach, and by Karen Hughes, who often checked our more blustery outbursts. “These are beautiful sentences,” she wrote on draft three, “but may overstate the case—there is still shooting going on.”


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14 years ago

Wow. People fighting over who wrote ‘Mission Accomplished’. Next they’ll be fighting over who wrote the scripts for the final season of ‘Happy Days’.

Enemy Combatant
Enemy Combatant
14 years ago

In response to The Gerson-Scully stoush.

From memory, in the last scene of Robert Altman’s “Nashville”, a beautiful loser singer/songwriter senses her moment of fame. A jumbo American flag is the auditorium backdrop. A political assanination has just occurred before her eyes. Dead wannabe president drops the mike. Fame-seeker picks up the mike and begins to sing her song.

david tiley
14 years ago

This like watching junkyard dogs fighting over the corpose of a skunk.