Michael J. Gerson was the guest at the Monitor's 3,500th newsmaker breakfast held Thursday, July 6. Until last week, he was assistant to George W. Bush for policy, strategic planning, and eloquent presidential prose.
A self-described person of faith, Gerson attended Georgetown University and graduated from Wheaton, a Christian liberal arts college whose motto is, "For Christ and His Kingdom."
On his way from Wheaton to the White House, Mr. Gerson was policy director for Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coates. Gerson also exercised his rhetorical dexterity by crafting speeches for the charisma-impaired Steve Forbes, the ebullient Jack Kemp, and the acerbic Bob Dole.
During a speech-writing sabbatical in the late 1990's, Gerson labored in the land of journalism as a senior editor at US News & World Report. He moved from the magazine to the Bush campaign and thence to the White House where his work won rave reviews. One of Jimmy Carter's speechwriters told Carl Cannon of the National Journal that Gerson's writing was "shockingly good."
In coming weeks, Gerson said he would seek "an intellectual home" and "find a place to write."
Here are excerpts from Gerson's remarks at breakfast:
On President Bush's relationship with the news media:
"I do think that some of the relationship with the press changed in the aftermath of Iraq. I think that was unavoidable ... it is hard to describe why but I do think that there was some turn that took place in the aftermath of Iraq. I think we have seen increasing polarization in American politics, which is reflected everywhere, in all institutions, the Hill, and media, and other places. This has always struck me as strange. The president was not and is not a cultural warrior. He didn't come from the background of, say, a Richard Nixon with the Hiss case or Ronald Reagan as a leader of the conservative movement. He came as a fairly moderate governor with an inclusive government style. But I do think part of the dynamic is that consequential presidents, who do big things, who try to change fundamental institutions and have new foreign policy approaches, are often controversial."
On the role of Christianity in politics:
"I don't believe that particularly Christian faith can be identified with any party or any ideology. I think that, properly understood, it has to stand in judgment of every party and every ideology with a passion for human dignity, and justice, and rights. And it is a dangerous thing, a wrong thing, to too closely identify faith, any religious tradition, with any political movement. But it is also a dangerous thing to try to exile or scrub religious influence from our common life."
On whether the president believes that God talks to him:
"I would put it differently. I think he has confidence that providence is on the side of human dignity and justice. There are two views of history. One view is that history is really one damn thing after another. There is no progress or justice....
But then there is also a view that there is a purpose working itself out in some way or another, that is difficult to determine and is not always known but it is there. Now I think that is the Lincoln tradition, I think that is the Martin Luther King tradition, where he talks about the arc of history as long but it bends toward justice. And I think that is the tradition the president is in. It is the view that history is not blind....
I am not sure I know the president that well. We had a very professional relationship. I would only answer as a person of faith myself, is often what you find in those moments is not some kind of audible guidance but a sense of peace after you have done everything you can. And that is what I think I have often seen in the president ... he does have a sense the results are not entirely up to him, that there is a providence working itself out in history."
On criticism that Republicans rely on the themes of "God, guns, and gays" to get elected:
"On the religion side, I think we have been very careful to have a principled pluralism, not to have a sectarian rhetoric. The goal is to be welcoming to the role of all faiths and not to single out any faith or preference. That kind of sectarianism is deeply destructive, it is destructive to faith as well as government, when any religious group becomes a tool of those in power.... [On gay rights] I would only say on the side of the homosexual rights question, I see it from the inside. This is a case where this was an issue that was pushed upon us by aggressive courts."
On President Bush as an editor:
"I have been edited in a journalistic context, too, and he is actually from that perspective a good, aggressive editor. He hates, for example, passive constructions. He likes active language. He likes directness."