Former George W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer says it's more than about Bush

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It didn’t take long for former George W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer to be branded as a back-stabbing nobody — someone who slipped inside the White House just long enough to overhear some embarrassing snippets and spill them for a book contract.

After GQ magazine ran excerpts of his new book “Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor,” Latimer found himself a target of both the right and the left for telling tales out of school. Among the tidbits that drew attention were his claims that then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson did not fully understand the bailout plan and that President Bush didn’t remember meeting Sarah Palin.

In an interview with POLITICO before his book’s release Tuesday, Latimer responded to the criticism by borrowing a page from the health care debate: Read the book. “People started to criticize my book before they even read it,” he said. “The book is my story — and Bush is only one part of that story.”

Latimer, 38, says what he has written is not just a tell-all memoir — though he certainly does dish plenty. Nor is it a “they should have listened to me” manifesto. He considers the book a Washington guy’s version of “The Devil Wears Prada.” But in fact, it’s closer to Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” — minus the redemption.

Latimer’s exposure to the halls of power — which besides writing speeches for Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld included time on the staffs of Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and then-Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), as well as then-Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) — resulted in across-the-board disappointment.

“You want congressmen to be people of great stature and weight,” he said. “You want presidents to fight for things they believe in. That’s what I wanted. Maybe I was naive to want that in the first place. But I think that’s what people want. And when I saw Washington to be very different than that, I just felt people needed to know about that.”

The criticism he now faces is similar to that which another former speechwriter, Matthew Scully, drew. In September 2007, Scully took a detailed look at the Bush White House in The Atlantic. Latimer’s book, by contrast, examines how the city’s collective culture affects its inhabitants. Ultimately, “Speech-less” is about coming to terms with political idealism and facing the grim reality of Washington. It may come off as one long, loud whine, but it is also a self-portrait of a nerdy political junkie who came in as a principled conservative and left feeling abandoned.

“The gravitational pull of this city is against ideas and values. It’s toward middle-of-the-road or tactical things, like getting 51 percent of the vote,” he said. “I saw so many people saying they believe in certain values, and then they come to Washington and forget.”

And it’s not only on the right: “I’m sure there are many people who are liberal who are disappointed by leaders who say they are sharing their principles, and they don’t follow through.”

When Latimer says these things in person, his puppy-dog eyes go even more droopy, suggesting an earnest sorrow that the country is doomed to mediocrity. In print, he turns that sadness into damning observations of elected officials and their staffs.

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