Backstory: Compassionate conservatism's voice

Former presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson has argued within the White House that faith must bear fruit in works.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The 1948 presidential candidate Thomas Dewey was exaggerating when he said "the man who writes the president's speeches runs the country." But the perks for presidential prose producers are appealing.

So when George Bush stepped onto the White House balcony to watch the fireworks on the sultry evening of July 4, those there with him for an early celebration of his 60th birthday included his family, the vice president, friends from first grade through Yale, and the president's voice ... speechwriter Michael Gerson.

It was Mr. Gerson's last late night at the White House. The next day, he vacated some of the most prestigious and coveted real estate in Washington – a West Wing office.

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The proximity was symbolic of what Bush administration friends and foes alike agree was perhaps the closest intellectual relationship between a president and his speechwriter since Theodore Sorensen's mind meld with John F. Kennedy.

The relationship between client and writer offers a view into the administration at a time when the president has begun toning down some of his most muscular foreign policy language, causing Time to proclaim on its cover this week, "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy." Gerson's role is also telling of how one person not just articulates a spirituality based world view but acts on it to help others.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum saw the relationship up close. "President Bush cares a lot about words. I think maybe because they do not come easily to him, he recognizes their power," Mr. Frum told a Monitor breakfast in 2003. "He and Gerson have a bond. They are both very religious people and they are able to talk about that. So this is an administration in which writers have played a role they haven't played in a long time."

Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett explained in a New Yorker interview that, "When you bring a West Texas approach to the heavy debates of the world, there has to be a translator and Mike is the translator."

For the seven years he wrote for Bush, Gerson brought an unembarrassed deep faith to that role. He studied theology at Wheaton College in Illinois, a Christian liberal arts institution whose alums include evangelist Billy Graham and whose motto is "for Christ and his Kingdom."

Here is Gerson on the nature of prayer in Bush's speech in the National Cathedral three days after the Sept. 11 attacks:

"God's signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own. Yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard, and understood.

"There are prayers that help us last through the day, or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers, that give us strength for the journey. And there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own."

By all accounts, Gerson has argued within the White House that faith must bear fruit in works.

"I don't believe that particularly Christian faith can be identified with any party or any ideology ... properly understood, it has to stand in judgment of every party and every ideology with a passion for human dignity, and justice, and rights," he says.

Gerson's passion was battling infectious disease in Africa, and he played a key role in urging the president to propose spending $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa. He argues that "this element of social justice is essential to the Republican message." And with a passing swipe at some in his party, he adds, "Unlike some conservatives, I have seen that government – careful, energetic, effective government – can be a powerful force for good."

Gerson reminisces about sitting in the Oval Office in 2002 when the president decided to approve the emergency AIDS relief – and then later visiting an Ethiopian orphanage of 400 HIV-positive children, all of whom lost both parents to AIDS, and all of whom would have been expected to die in the past. "Because of what the American people have done," he says, "now almost none of the children are dying ... and that is happening all over Africa."

So, Gerson concludes, "sometimes the words really do matter."

***

The White House has had a resident speechwriter since Judson Welliver was hired as "literary clerk" to assist the scandal-besieged Warren Harding in 1921. And, Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's chief of staff, observed in a New York Times interview, "The battles over a president's words are really struggles over the heart and soul of his presidency."

But to a degree rare in the White House, Bush let Gerson talk about working on notable Bush lines like "axis of evil" and "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Not that Gerson's client is self- effacing. Bush, notes Gerson, "very much wants to hear his voice in the speeches he gives." And he describes Bush as "a good, aggressive editor," admitting, for example, that the president rejected "some of the vicious things that I tried to give [him to say]" about his GOP primary opponent Sen. John McCain.

But the result of their collaboration has won bipartisan praise for its power and eloquence, if not always for its policy content. One of Jimmy Carter's speechwriters, Hendrik Hertzberg, reviewed Bush's first inaugural address in the New Yorker, calling the writing "shockingly good ... better than all but a tiny handful of all the inaugurals of all the presidents since the Republic was founded."

Still, the Bush team's rhetoric isn't on par with the Kennedy-Sorensen collaboration, argues presidential historian Robert Dallek.

"It is not strictly the quality of the prose, it is the person who delivers it. If you listen to Kennedy speeches ... it is the delivery that brings it across, it is finesse, the quality of voice, a sense of the man's substance," says Mr. Dallek, coauthor of the new book "Let Every Nation Know," an analysis of JFK's most memorable speeches.

And the presidential scholar notes, as several critics have, the sometimes wide gap between the quality of the president's speech when armed with a Gerson text and the quality of his impromptu remarks.

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Gerson is reveling in the sudden post-White House decompression. At a Monitor breakfast last week, he claimed not to have shaved or read a newspaper in a week.

"The first thing you notice is that when you see the news, you don't have to respond to it in any way," he said. "And I think the second stage is you probably get frustrated that you can't respond when you see the news."

A staunch defender of President Bush, Gerson says he left his West Wing perch because, "you come to a point not where you are tired, but you are ready for what's next."

What's next for former White House speechwriters is often a book about their experience close to power. Gerson didn't keep a diary because staffers were requested not to, lest the document get subpoenaed. But he did write letters to his young children that could be raw material for a book.

As for the future, Gerson quips, "I'll eventually try to find someplace to write so that I can see the news and then tell other people how to respond."

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