Sunday, September 27, 2009

C.S. Lewis on Matt Latimer

Love or hate his theology or his cultural preferences and prejudices, C.S. Lewis remains worth reading because of his imaginative grasp of human motive. Among the "multiple intelligences" classified by Howard Gardner he had in spades the type that observes its own internal working and extrapolates from self knowledge to psychological and sometimes sociological. Lewis was especially (you might say viscerally, personally) insightful about what he archaically deemed the temptations of 'the world'--the lust to be part of an 'inner ring,' to cede one's moral judgment for a place in the councils of power.

He was particularly scathing about the type of person who's often best adapted to penetrate such circles. This persistent type in his writings came to mind as I read an excerpt and various snippets of the newly published memoir of Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer. Latimer seems to cast himself as the sort tempted into but standing apart from an "inner ring" of ethically and intellectually bankrupt power players -- a disillusioned idealist. But his sneering, trash-heaping tone reminds me of that type itself. Here's a Lewis description from Out of the Silent Planet, of a character who ripens into a primary protagonist of evil:
Devine had learned just half a term earlier than anyone else that kind of humour which consists in a perpetual parody of the sentimental or idealistic cliches of one's elders. For a few weeks his references to the Dear Old Place and to Playing the Game, to the White Man's Burden and a Straight Bat, had swept everyone, Ransom included, off their feet. But before he left Wedenshaw Ransom had already begun to find Devine a bore, and at Cambridge he had avoided him, wondering from afar how anyone so flashy and, as it were, ready-made, could be so successful.
Compare Latimer:
Ed said the president wanted to see us in the Oval Office. The president looked relaxed and was sitting behind the Resolute desk. He felt he’d made the major decision that everyone had been asking for. That always seemed to relax him. He liked being decisive. Excuse me, boldly decisive. The president seemed to be thinking of his memoirs. “This might go in as a big decision,” he mused.

“Definitely, Mr. President,” someone else observed. “This is a large decision."
At one point, during another of our marathon speechwriting sessions, Steve Hadley and Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, let us know that the president needed an FDR line—like “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The president had his own suggestion for such a line, however: “Anxiety can feed anxiety.” So we produced a speech with no real information and our FDR knockoff line. Here were some of the kinder reviews: “lackluster”; “there is no news here”; “the president should go away for a while.” The stock market dipped further.
As Treasury started to use the bailout funds to invest directly in financial institutions, Ed wanted to come up with a name for the plan that made it sound better to the public, particularly conservatives who thought this was nothing more than warmed-over socialism. Yes, a catchphrase would solve everything. As we were working on this, Ed called a few of the writers on speakerphone with the idea he’d come up with: the Imperative Investment Intervention. “Oh, that sounds good,” one of us remarked, as the rest of us tried not to laugh. We decided that if a catchphrase must be deployed, surely we could come up with something better than a tongue twister with the acronym III. We started out with dark humor: the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Capitalism” Plan; the MARX Plan. I suggested that we also apologize to the former Soviet Union and retroactively concede the Cold War.
This is not to suggest that Latimer's characterizations of chaos, off-the-cuff policymaking and cavalier message-crafting in the Bush administration is not accurate in many or even most particulars. But someone who trashes in humiliating detail the majority of colleagues he portrays in an account of 22 months of ultra high stakes work is not what I would call a a reliable narrator -- however emotionally gratifying his judgments may be to outraged progressives, disillusioned conservatives, aggrieved insiders, and other constituencies who recognize the Bush presidency as a disaster.


  1. So basically Latimer is an unreliable snitch?

  2. "This is not to suggest that Latimer's characterizations of chaos, off-the-cuff policymaking and cavalier message-crafting in the Bush administration is not accurate in many or even most particulars."

    And yet he is not "reliable"? If what he reports is accurate, then I would say he was a reliable narrator, even if he is also a flippant twit.

  3. Just so we're clear, you're criticizing Latimer's "sneering" tone and his decision to gossip about others by name. You are doing so by sneering at Latimer and repeating his "trash-heaping" verbatim for your readers, leaving the original names intact. You are passing judgment on Latimer's book without having read it, and you are doing all this after invoking your admiration for Lewis, a Christian philosopher?

    I grant that you're separating Lewis's insight from its theological origins here, but you don't need to come at your argument from a Christian perspective to recognize its hypocrisy.

  4. someone is having a case of be careful what he wishes for right now..