Two Speech Writers Leave White House : Conservatives Depart After Friction Over Tone of Reagan Rhetoric

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan's speech-writing shop, long considered an ideological hotbed in a White House stacked with political pragmatists, is losing two of its most outspoken proponents of conservatism after months of friction with top officials over the tone and emphasis of the President's speeches.

Chief speech writer Bentley T. Elliott, who had announced plans to join the staff of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) later this year, told friends he was forced to leave his post earlier than he wished by White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan.

Margaret Noonan, who wrote Reagan's moving tribute to the lost crew of the space shuttle Challenger, is leaving to pursue "literary ventures" after being passed over as Elliott's successor.

Clash of Styles

"This is Merrill Lynch vs. movement conservatives," said a White House official, who declined to be identified Tuesday. "It's dull gray vs. more colorful; it's writers vs. bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats are in charge."

The official was referring to the Wall Street-style corporate hierarchy installed in the White House by Regan, a former chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch.

Elliott, a staunch believer in supply side economics and a fervent right-to-life advocate, clashed with Regan and other top presidential assistants over the rhetorical tone of the President's State of the Union address last January. Although Elliott was widely believed to have won the battle, his language was nevertheless softened considerably.

"It's a question of how it's said, and Ben was saying it in the most confrontational way possible," another White House official said. "It's almost like he was trying to get a rise out of the other side."

Bastion of Reaganite Right

The speech-writing shop, located in a corner of the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, has long been regarded as the last bastion of the Reaganite Right, the so-called movement conservatives. It is under the control of Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan, whose ideological stands on issues have largely isolated him from the rest of the President's top staffers.

Buchanan reportedly fought to keep Elliott in his job. When that failed, he backed Noonan in her bid to become chief speech writer. Rebuffed on both counts, Buchanan, friends said, has resigned himself to the lonely role of being the President's conservative conscience.

After the January row over the State of the Union speech, Buchanan, a former television commentator with a stiletto wit, christened his West Wing opponents "the mice" for their cautious ways and lack of rhetorical derring-do. He keeps a beautifully lacquered mousetrap in his desk drawer, a going-away gift from Linda Chavez, a White House colleague before she resigned earlier this year to run for the Senate in Maryland.

Cites Long Chain of Command

During Reagan's first term, the speech writers were kept in check by presidential assistant Richard G. Darman, who is now deputy secretary of the Treasury. One official involved in the speech-writing process said the chain of command now includes several aides to Regan.

"There's a lot of mice," this official lamented. "You get past one, and you got to get past his uncle."

At a farewell party last month for Elliott, Darman recalled the ideological struggles waged during his tenure. "It is in the area of speech writing where the strategic, political and philosophical tensions get worked out every day," he said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World