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Hey, GOP: Watch Your Back With Matthew Scully

Memo to Romney-Ryan speechwriters John McConnell, Lindsay Hayes, and Stuart Stevens: Watch your back around this guy Matthew Scully!

Scully, who with McConnell is credited with writing Paul Ryan’s crowd-pleasing convention speech, is a former White House speechwriter and author of a well-regarded book, Dominion, that urges humans to show greater respect for the animal kingdom. The animal Scully most emulates is the black widow spider. Scully’s method is to lavish the boss with an embarrassing degree of adulation, to be an enthusiastic team player, to slip into the background as all good political staffers must—and then, after he departs government service, to generate considerable publicity for himself by attacking his onetime competitors for the boss's (and the wider public's) attention. These former colleagues’ invariable sin is—get this—overweening personal ambition! Scully has done this not once, but twice.

In January 1993 Scully, a former speechwriter to Vice President Dan Quayle, penned an essay for the Washington Post “Outlook” section headlined, “Bush League Of Their Own: An Inside Story Of Spineless Self-Promotion.” The Democratic victor, Bill Clinton, hadn’t even been inaugurated yet, but to Scully it wasn’t too soon to ask:

How did an honorable, loyal man like George Bush wind up dependent on men so devoid of both virtues? Probably because of that very civility and fealty. Kind forbearance toward one’s staff is admirable, provided you have first assembled a capable and trustworthy staff. It turns out the election really was “about trust” after all. President Bush trusted the wrong people.

Which people? Some—for instance, a functionary in the White House Office of Political Affairs—went unnamed (“a man in whom vanity ran far deeper than conviction. He brought to public service the greedy zeal of a hobbyist, a loyalty dependent on the next presidential favor or keepsake and principles about as fragile as his little model airplane”). Others Scully named. White House budget chief Richard Darman was “Cassiius” to Poppy Bush’s “Caesar.” Spokeswoman Torie Clarke and Deputy Campaign Manager Mary Matalin gabbed to the press too much about their “upcoming marriage” (Clarke) and “romance with Clinton’s strategist” (Matalin). “Did they really suppose the president was served by having his campaign press secretaries jabbering on about their wonderful lives of newfound celebrity?” John Frohnmeyer, director of the National Endowment for the Arts, would routinely “sponge political capital off his old friend and then play the media against him.” Campaign Counsel Jim Pinkerton (faulted for writing a piece about working for Bush published in TNR) was “a man, obscure outside of Washington, who could become a force in the world only here.” These people were profoundly unworthy not only of “honorable, loyal” George H.W. Bush but also of Scully’s immediate boss, Dan Quayle, who in response to “taunts and cruel snobbery” about his abilities made himself into a “wise realist” and a model of “perseverance” and “humility.” (Elsewhere, Scully has compared his colleague on Quayle’s staff, William Kristol, to Michael Corleone.)

Scully was just getting warmed up. After a second tour as White House speechwriter, this time for President George W. Bush, Scully published, in Sept. 2007, an even more vituperative attack on former chief speechwriter (now Washington Post columnist) Michael Gerson:

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.

The piece made a huge splash, and I confess to being among those taken in—well, half-taken in. “Is Mike Gerson a glory hog?” I asked. “Or is his former colleague, Matthew Scully, just unhinged?” Evidence could be found for both propositions. In the “unhinged” column one had to place the sentence: “I think I recognize greatness when it steps before me, and the sight of George W. Bush in those days [immediately after 9/11] left an impression that has never worn off.” Still, I equivocated. I also (to my shame) failed to discover that Scully had written virtually the same piece, just aimed at different targets, in 1993. After I saw Scully’s earlier piece I confessed, “I have a much harder time taking seriously his hatchet job on Gerson. Scully appears to be a guy who likes to establish his own moral superiority by trashing his colleagues.”

Some might say: Isn’t this what White House and cabinet officials always do? Write self-serving memoirs in which they are moral giants doing constant battle with pygmies? That’s true up to a point, but the memoirists usually confine themselves to saying “I was right, this other person was wrong.” They don't typically attack their former co-workers’ personal characters, and when they do it’s seldom with anything like the viciousness Scully brings to the task. My friend James Fallows, onetime chief speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, has sometimes been criticized for writing a 1979 Atlantic piece deeply critical of Carter. But Carter was president, and the public had a right to know about the personal failings that were hampering his presidency. Fallows was also nowhere near as vituperative in critiquing Carter as Scully was in critiquing Darman, Clarke, Matalin, Frohnmeyer, Pinkerton, Kristol, and Gerson. Scully’s poison pen puts him in a category all by himself.

McConnell presumably doesn’t need to hear my warning, having previously worked with Scully in the Dubya White House. Anyway, McConnell tends to keep a pretty low profile; Scully’s modus operandi is to attack coworkers who he thinks have gotten too much favorable press. In Scully’s value system, the meek shall inherit the earth. (That’s why he ended up, in 2005, publicly defending Harriet Miers, Dubya’s bizarre—and hastily withdrawn—choice for Supreme Court.) Interesting, provocative, or otherwise colorful folks draw Scully’s special loathing. That leaves Stevens especially vulnerable, I think. Careful, dude!