03.08.10

Bush's Ghostwriter

The inside story of how a 28-year-old ex-Yalie and former speechwriter, Christopher Michel, became the man behind Dubya's memoirs.

How did 28-year-old ex-Yalie and former speechwriter Christopher Michel become the man behind Dubya's memoirs? Bryan Curtis talks to Bush chief of staff Andrew Card and former speechwriters Matt Latimer and Marc Thiessen about how Michel went from Barbara Bush’s classmate to the confidant he dubbed “Junior Bird Man.”

At a reunion for George W. Bush's administration on February 26, the Decider joked about his upcoming memoir. "This is going to come as quite a shock to people up here that I can write a book," Bush said, "much less read one." Of course, Bush is writing the tentatively titled Decision Points in the presidential sense—that is, he's putting it through the word processor of a loyal aide. The aide is Christopher Michel, a 28-year-old former White House speechwriter. In a phone interview from Dallas, where he is knee-deep in the manuscript, Michel says, "The president is working on it pretty much constantly, and that means that I am, too."

How Michel (pronounced Mi-SHEL) landed in Bush's inner circle is one of the most intriguing untold stories of the last administration. He arrived at the White House as a fresh-outta-Yale rookie in 2003. Within a few years, without much of the public noticing, he had inherited the mantle once held by Karen Hughes and Michael Gerson—he was Bush's voice. "Every president bonds with someone who knows what they're thinking and how to say things, and Chris was that for President Bush," says Matt Latimer, a fellow White House speechwriter. Now, as Republicans begin to re-embrace Bush as an alternative to Obama, as Bushies like Karl Rove release their own hardcover defenses of the administration, it will be up to Bush—with Michel as his loyal helper—to convince America it is ready to hear from Dubya again.

Latimer says Michel reneged on a bet to run naked through the White House if Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate.

White House veterans described how Michel became Bush's scrivener.

The 10 Biggest Scoops from Karl Rove’s Memoir "I hired him at the White House," says Andrew Card, who was Bush's chief of staff. Card says he met Michel on a recommendation from Bush's daughter, Barbara, a fellow Yalie. "It was, ‘Great guy, take a look at him,' that sort of thing," Card says. In 2003, Michel came aboard as an unpaid intern. By 2008, at the ripe old age of 26, Michel had become a made man: He was deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of speechwriting. "He was a person who rose up by pure talent," says Marc Thiessen, another White House speechwriter.

Michel had fallen for Bush at Yale. As a reporter for the Yale Daily News, the native Californian saw Bush's aw-shucks Yale commencement speech in 2001 ("To the C students, I say, you, too, can be president of the United States"). "I liked George W. Bush already," Michel says, "but I came away from that really admiring him and loving the guy." Later that fall, Michel landed the top job at the Daily News, edging out Louise Story, now a reporter with The New York Times. Michel's newspaper colleagues remember him as a disarmingly friendly, slightly nerdy, not especially conservative. Unlike his future boss, Michel did not make it into Skull & Bones.

At the White House, Michel took on several influential Bushies as mentors. Michael Gerson gave him his first speech to write. When Gerson left, chief speechwriter William McGurn recruited Michel, along with Thiessen, to form the Three Amigos of Bush speechwriting. "The three of us would sit around the computer and edit everything," says Thiessen. "We got to the point where we'd complete each other's sentences."

Just as Michel had swooned for Bush, Bush soon embraced "Junior Bird Man," as he dubbed his young charge. Both were ex-Yalies who jogged and watched sports. At speechwriting meetings, Michel was deferential but quick with answers, just as the president liked. Before long, the president was inviting Michel out to the balcony of the White House to smoke cigars. He met Michel's family and took him on a trip to Africa. By the end of the Bush's second term, when he wanted revisions on a speech, the president would often call Michel from the Oval Office, whether Michel was the original author of the speech or not.

"Chris was without a doubt the president's favorite writer," says Thiessen, who later became chief speechwriter.

Michel's White House office had the usual knickknacks. But according to Latimer, his office was also notable for its collection of the biographies and autobiographies of American presidents, which Michel kept in chronological order of administration. It seemed as if Michel, in his own clairvoyant way, was already preparing to write Bush's memoirs.

As a speechwriter, Michel did not mint many Gersonian lines like the "the soft bigotry of low expectations." But he fully internalized Bush's rhetorical style, which he described to me as "elevated but direct." Michel worked on Bush's 2008 State of the Union and his farewell to the United Nations. He privately cheered on John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, then helped write Bush's congratulatory remarks to Barack Obama after the election. (Latimer says Michel reneged on a bet to run naked through the White House if Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate.)

Michel's rise was so rapid that the Israeli Knesset episode stood out as a detour, a rare false note. On May 15, 2008, Bush was set to toast Israel's 60th birthday, and Michel wrote a tribute that Latimer said should have been his pièce de résistance as a speechwriter. But after the draft got a working-over in editing, Bush stood in the Knesset and attacked those who would negotiate with terrorist groups as offering "the false comfort of appeasement." It sounded like Bush was blasting then-candidate Obama—and from foreign soil, no less. In his memoir Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor, Latimer says the line was inserted by Thiessen and approved by Bush. (Michel and Thiessen refuse to comment.) Critics dubbed the "appeasement speech" a low moment in Bush rhetoric.

But Michel remained a beloved Junior Bird Man. He obeyed the Bush code of discretion almost to a fault; Thiessen recalls having to talk Michel out of leaving the White House to go to Yale Law School. "He fell in love at the White House," says Andrew Card. "That in itself is a great story." Indeed, Michel met Emily Kropp, a researcher in the speechwriting office, in 2003, and the crowd at their July 2008 wedding was full of Michel's White House friends.

Ask Michel what he admires about President Bush, and he'll say, "I'll try not to go on too long…"

So when Bush decamped for Dallas, no one was surprised when Michel and his wife followed him. Michel had somehow emerged from ruins of Bush's second term with his c.v. burnished rather than destroyed. "It's been quite a ride," Michel wrote in an email to family and friends on January 19, 2009, the last day of the administration. "After arriving as an unpaid intern in June 2003, I met my wife; got married; became the director of speechwriting; and traveled the world on Air Force One."

On January 21, Bush's first full day as a private citizen, Michel and his wife left for a three-day vacation in the Bahamas. On January 22, Michel logged on to a computer from his hotel. He found an email from Bush containing the first pages of the memoir. "He didn't waste any time, and he didn't slow down much since then," Michel says.

Michel, in the grand tradition of ghostwriters, says the president is fully in charge. "He'll write a first draft of a lot of different things, and email it to me," Michel said. "My role is to help put together different scenes—he'll write the scenes, and I'll help stitch things together." The two usually start work before 7 a.m. They meet daily in an office building in Dallas. Or else they stage wall-to-wall editing sessions at the Bush ranch in Crawford, the president taking breaks to ride his bike while Michel jogs. Michel has also been able to corner Bush on transoceanic flights to China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, and Nigeria. Bush was without a computer for eight years in White House, and has taken to emailing with the eagerness of a new adapter. Michel says Decision Points, or whatever it ends up being called, will be finished by the end of summer and on shelves in the fall.

Critics will, and should, inspect every comma. But perhaps the best way to read the Bush memoir is as the elusive pièce de résistance of the most loyal Bush scrivener. In the 2009 email to friends, Michel wrote, "I owe more than I can repay to the 43rd president of the United States, a man of courage who will fare well in history."

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.