Aug 8th, 2008
Michael Gerson, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and President Bush’s former speechwriter, discusses new trends in evangelicalism. He explains that the younger evangelicals are breaking from the religious right; while they are remaining morally conservative, they are becoming more socially liberal.
Bio from Wikipedia:
Prior to joining the Bush Administration, he was a senior policy advisor with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institution. He also worked at various times as an aide to Indiana Senator Dan Coats and a speechwriter for the Presidential campaign of Bob Dole before briefly leaving the political world to cover it as a journalist for U.S. News & World Report. Gerson also worked at one point as a ghostwriter for Charles Colson.
In early 1999, Karl Rove recruited Gerson for the Bush campaign.
Gerson was named by Time as one of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America” in the magazine’s February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine, listing Gerson as the ninth most influential.
Gerson joined the Bush campaign before 2000 as a speechwriter and went on to head the White House speechwriting team.
“No one doubts that he did his job exceptionally well”, wrote Ramesh Ponnuru in a 2007 article otherwise very critical of Gerson in National Review. Bush’s speechwriters had more prominence in the administration than their predecessors did under previous presidents because Bush’s speeches did most of the work of defending the president’s policies, since administration spokesmen and press conferences didn’t do that, Ponnuru wrote. On the other hand, he wrote, the speeches would announce new policies that were never implemented, making the speechwriting in some ways less influential than ever.
There is a gap between every administration’s rhetoric and its actions, David Frum, a former speechwriter for Bush, wrote in late 2006, “but seldom has it gaped as wide as in this one. As someone involved in the making of those words, this gap has greatly troubled me.”
On June 14, 2006, it was announced that Gerson was leaving the White House to pursue other writing and policy work. He was replaced as Bush’s chief speechwriter by WSJ chief editorWilliam McGurn.
Criticism from other speechwriters
At least two speechwriters who worked under Gerson in the White House have criticized him for exaggerating his role as the sole speechwriter of some important speeches. David Frummildly criticized Gerson for taking disproportionate credit for Bush speeches when interviewed by Bob Woodward for a book. Former speechwriter Matthew Scully blasted Gerson in an article in The Atlantic Monthly for exaggerating his role to the point of denying that other speechwriters had collaborated on many of the important speeches of the Bush presidency.
Frum has said Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, which is said to have relied on Gerson’s accounts about certain speeches, “does a serious injustice” to Scully and another speechwriter, John McConnell. On page 342, Woodward wrote that “Gerson had written all of Bush’s memorable post-9/11 speeches”, a statement that is flat-out wrong, according to Frum, since it ignores Scully’s and McConnell’s work. McConnell wrote at least as much as Gerson on some important speeches, Frum wrote. “Gerson ranks among the most brilliant and most influential presidential speechwriters in decades,” he wrote. “It would not detract at all from his great merits and accomplishments to acknowledge the contributions of his colleagues and collaborators.”
Scully said Gerson constantly made exaggerations that appeared in media profiles of him while working in the White House and wrote his own exaggerations after he left government service.
“Every time, line by line, the three of us [Scully, Gerson and fellow speechwriter John McConnell] talked the speeches through, taking turns at the keyboard and generally agreeing when one of us had come up with the right thought, sentence, or edit,” Scully wrote. Gerson would often initiate the speechwriting with a bare outline and the three would collaborate (sometimes with other speechwriters as well) in putting together the speeches, which Gerson would then take to administration officials.
Once, after a collaborative effort to come up with jokes for a 2000 convention speech, Scully and McConnell found a cover note Gerson had written and sent to senior campaign staffers which said, “it’s not easy to write jokes sitting alone in a room.”
“[A]s a matter of undeniable fact – entered in the permanent records of the United States, which will include more than 10,000 different speech drafts saved on the computer we shared – every major Bush speech of the first term was written from start to finish in the office of John McConnell, by the good old team,” Scully wrote.
In a 2002 segment of the ABC News program Nightline, Gerson suggested that he worked on speeches alone:
- INTERVIEWER: How do you, physically, write a speech? I mean, are you working at a computer keyboard, or what do you do?
- GERSON: Well, actually, when I’m working on the initial phases of a speech, it’s hard to work in my windowless basement office at the White House. I actually like to work with people around.
- INTERVIEWER: But you have an office in the West Wing, which is pretty good real estate.
- GERSON: I do. It is – it’s nice, and I’m glad to be there. But the fact is that I, in that stage of writing, I’ll often go to a Starbucks or some other place to put together ideas. I guess in some ways it breaks the solitude of writing to be around a buzz of people. And I’ll do that on notepads and put together my ideas. And then, at some stage, you do, you know, go to a computer screen.
Lines attributed to Gerson
Gerson proposed the use of a “smoking gun/mushroom cloud” metaphor during a September 5, 2002 meeting of the White House Iraq Group, in an effort to sell the American public on the supposed nuclear dangers posed by Saddam Hussein. According to Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, “The original plan had been to place it in an upcoming presidential speech, but WHIG members fancied it so much that when the Times reporters contacted the White House to talk about their upcoming piece [about aluminum tubes], one of them leaked Gerson’s phrase – and the administration would soon make maximum use of it.”
Gerson has said one of his favorite speeches was given at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, a few days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which included the following passage: “Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn.”
Gerson also coined “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “the armies of compassion.”
Gerson’s noteworthy phrases for Bush are said to include “Axis of Evil”, a phrase adapted from “axis of hatred”, itself suggested by fellow speechwriter David Frum but deemed too mild.
Scully wrote that he, not Gerson, came up with the wording change to Frum’s original formulation.
Washington Post columnist
After leaving the White House, Gerson wrote for Newsweek magazine for a time. On May 16, 2007, Gerson began his tenure as a twice-weekly columnist for the Washington Post. His columns appear on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Gerson, a conservative, has repeatedly criticized other conservatives in his column and conservatives have returned the favor. One of Gerson’s first columms was entitled “Letting Fear Rule”, in which he compared skeptics of President Bush’s immigration reform bill to nativist bigots of the 1880’s Conservative opponents of the bill such as Power Line deemed Gerson’s columm insulting and an effort to demonize opponents.
At a conference at the Atlantic Ideas Fest, Gerson claimed that Saddam Hussein was “the equivalent of Pol Pot,” a claim which brought jeers from the audience.