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I Wrote George W. Bush’s Cheat Sheets. Here’s What I Learned.



Axios recently reported that President Joe Biden carries cheat sheets with him into meetings with supporters and donors. Some of these supporters have expressed alarm that a president would do such a thing. Perhaps these cards—aide-mémoire, after all—are a sign of age and frailty?

From 2001 to 2002, I had the job of writing speeches for President George W. Bush. Bush was 54 years old when I started working for him—almost 10 years younger than I am now. He was a president of extraordinary physical vigor. He delighted in mountain biking down the plunging slopes of Catoctin Mountain at Camp David. When he did middle-distance runs, he’d be disappointed if his speed slowed much below seven minutes a mile. He lifted weights. He chopped brush. And when he spoke to groups at White House events, he relied on note cards.

The life of a presidential speechwriter may seem glamorous from a distance: selecting the words that could sway the destiny of the nation, even the world. But the unglamorous truth is that about two-thirds of my time was spent preparing such cards for the president’s meetings, both public and private, with constituents and supporters.

President Bush had—and has—phenomenal recall of names and faces. Contrary to some negative reports, he had a deep mastery of policy detail. But like everybody in a highly demanding job, sometimes stress and exhaustion overpowered his active mind. I remember one White House meeting early on in the administration in which Bush discussed his hopes for good economic results from his plan for a tax cut. He talked about the benefits of lowering the top tax rate to … and then he blanked.

This, from a man who could easily name every county judge in Texas.


So the president took to using note cards. The notes for Bush were printed on large cardboard cards in 14-point Arial font—he was not trying to hide his reliance on them; there was no way he could.

On the first card, we would describe the group he was meeting with. For the members of the National Pork Producers Council, this day at the White House would be an experience they would never forget; for the president, it was one of as many as 18 such meetings in a week. After the pork council might come the American Medical Association, then the Persian Gulf ambassadors, then major donors to the Republican National Committee, then a delegation of Great Lakes  mayors, then the Teamsters union. You might imagine that you’d never mix them up if you had the job of speaking to them. You’d be wrong.

On the second card, we’d list the names of the event’s attendees, each spelled out phonetically. Calling the president of the Indiana Bar Association “Elaine” when her name is “Eileen” might seem the pettiest of small mistakes, but that little error might cost the president her support, and the support of all her family and friends—which could possibly cost the reelection campaign a crucial margin of victory. How many hours did our small team spend double-checking, then triple-checking, the pronunciation of the names of spouses and children? Many, many.

On the third card, we’d list relevant facts and figures. You may happen to carry in your head the electrical capacity of the New Jersey power grid or the names of the ships in the U.S.’s Mediterranean battle group or a list of the children whom Thomas Jefferson fathered with Sally Hemings. But all of those facts? With one set of them required to be summoned at 3 p.m., the next at 3:30, the third at 4? While also negotiating with the leaders of the House and the Senate, and preparing for an urgent phone dialogue with the president of Brazil?

The fourth card would offer a selection of jokes and quips. Presidential humor should be mildly amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. Laughter is typically the human mind’s mechanism for resolving discomfort; the more acute the discomfort, the louder the laughter. Consider the way that President Donald Trump destroying a 7-year-old’s faith in Santa Claus was excruciating-funny. Presidential humor should soothe, not shock. Kimmel, not Chappelle.

The fifth card would be the key page: the talking points. What was the message we were driving home? Believe it or not, presidents are not equally interested in every measure that lands on their desk. The new highway bill might be very important to the fortunes of the president’s party in Congress, but it might not seem the uppermost priority compared with advice from NASA that a giant meteor would soon pass perilously close to Earth.


So, for the cheat sheet, we’d itemize how many new bridges the bill would support, how many new interchanges in which key states—all to support a president whose attention might well be preoccupied with some other matter entirely.

Card No. 6 was to me the most interesting: options for making news if the president wanted to make news in that place, that day. As the saying goes, you make news by attacking an enemy, surprising a friend, or announcing a new program. We’d pile those options one atop another. Four times out of five, the president would choose to ignore them entirely.

President Barack Obama preferred a teleprompter to cards, if he was having the sort of meeting where one could be used. His critics liked to mock this—as if Obama, of all people, couldn’t speak coherently and fluently unprompted. But if a misplaced word from you could knock 20 percent off the S&P 500 within minutes, wouldn’t you want a cheat sheet or a teleprompter yourself?

I once had an idea for a movie scene about the work of the presidency. From the point of view of an aide, you’d see the president backstage, behind a curtain, speaking urgently into a mobile phone. Then the curtain would part. The president would say “Hold on,” pass the phone to someone else in his entourage, and step out beyond the curtain. From backstage, you’d hear snatches of a speech to a group or an association. Applause. Then the president would step behind the curtain again, retrieve the phone, and resume his urgent conversation.

Being the president is a tough job. It’s the center of everything. It comes with a huge staff for a reason. Winging it is not a virtue.

Source: The Atlantic


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