The New Talking Heads, by Way of the West Wing

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, September 8, 2008

Four years ago this past Thursday, Michael Gerson was holed up in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, where a teleprompter had been set up and President Bush was practicing his acceptance speech for the 2004 Republican National Convention in front of a handful of his closest aides.

On the last day of this year's GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., Gerson was scribbling some notes longhand for his column, eating a salad for lunch and talking about how relaxed he has been feeling.

"You don't have a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach all the time," he said. "I like my life. Now I can give the vague, unhelpful advice that I got for seven years."

For the White House, the 2008 Republican National Convention was notable not only for the absence of President Bush, who because of Hurricane Gustav became the first incumbent to skip his party's nominating convention in 40 years. Attending the convention were several former senior Bush aides who have crossed from the world of government to punditry, including Gerson, former senior adviser Karl Rove and former counselor Dan Bartlett.

Rove, a contributor to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, have been in the fray for some time. Now they have been joined by Bartlett, who was a commentator and consultant for CBS News at both party conventions, often paired with Democratic consultant Joe Trippi.

For Bartlett, who worked 14 years for Bush, walking the floor at the Democratic convention with a television headset on was probably the more surreal experience. "I joked with CBS that they would have to provide me security," he said in a brief interview in St. Paul. "But Democrats were very gracious." (Rove, who encountered a fair degree of overt hostility in Denver, had security at both conventions.)

Bartlett also says he got "pretty emotional" watching as his former boss delivered his final speech as president to the Republican convention, by satellite feed from the White House. In addition to making appearances on "The CBS Evening News" and CBS's "Early Show," as well as the convention special and webcasts, Bartlett said he has been participating in meetings about coverage, helping provide a perspective on how the McCain campaign might approach issues and situations. He will be helping the network through the campaign, as well as possibly through the transition and inauguration.

Despite his support for Bush and John McCain, Bartlett says he has tried to call it straight in his analysis. He termed the choice of Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential nomination "risky," one that could pay off or prove a "spectacular failure."

"I have been known in the past to call things as I see them, and I think I am doing that," said Bartlett, who clashed with Rove in the White House on various issues.

Of the three big Bushies-turned-pundits, Gerson has probably been the most pointed in his commentary, making clear on television and in his column Saturday that he did not think much of McCain's convention speech. (He didn't think much of Barack Obama's, either.)

McCain "set out a strong, overarching theme of restless reform -- then undermined that theme with uncreative, typically Republican policy," Gerson said in a quick posting Thursday night on "The speech was not a flop; it was a missed opportunity. But in a come-from-behind race, every missed opportunity is costly."

Rove did not make the McCain camp happy, either. During one interview, with, he characterized the selection of Palin (along with Democrat Joseph Biden) as a decision made to help win the election rather than one to help govern if elected.

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