Present at the Creation

The only person the speechwriter Michael Gerson made look better than President Bush was Michael Gerson. The shaping of a Washington reputation, as witnessed by a White House colleague

Michael J. Gerson, my former speechwriting colleague in the Bush White House, is a talented fellow with a first-rate mind and serious purposes—all of which we can expect to see in his new book, Heroic Conservatism. But reading a few insider stories in the first chapter of the book, which his publisher has sent out for publicity, I was not surprised to find that the personal heroics begin early.

By page 3, a “solemn quiet” has fallen over the Oval Office, and we have one of those crossroads moments that come in every White House memoir. Large and consequential matters were in the balance, “the keepers of the budget” were about to crush the hopes of millions, only truth well spoken could save the day, and guess who had the courage to speak it? The conviction and idealism of his words were so characteristic that, in Mike’s telling of the story, President Bush declared, “That’s Gerson being Gerson!”

The president’s little tribute, however, would much better describe what happened after this incident, when the story of “Gerson being Gerson” found its way into a Washington Whispers item by a friend of Mike’s at U.S. News & World Report. Someone had to tell the reporter about this inspiring moment, and I have a feeling it wasn’t the keepers of the budget. It was always like this, working with Mike. No good deed went unreported, and many things that never happened were reported as fact. For all of our chief speechwriter’s finer qualities, the firm adherence to factual narrative is not a strong point. He has chosen the perfect title for his book, because in his telling of a White House story, things often sound a lot more heroic than they actually were.

This tendency to rearrange and romanticize events could be observed in the scores of media profiles and other articles that Mike sat for over the years. When he resigned in June 2006, USA Today remembered “the man whose words helped steady the nation” after 9/11—meaning Mike, not President Bush. It was Michael Gerson, said TheWashington Post, who “crafted the two speeches after the September 11, 2001, attacks that will probably be recorded as Bush’s signal moments of national leadership: the service at the Washington National Cathedral and the address to Congress.” He “filled George Bush’s mouth with golden phrases,” said TheTimes of London. In numerous profiles, Mike was the “conscience of the White House” and answered also to “moral compass for the Bush presidency.”

In a January 2006 piece, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave the standard portrait:

A devout Christian known to lead fellow staffers in prayer, Gerson is what colleagues call a writer’s writer, a big-picture thinker with an instinct for the broad sweep of history who melds the mind of a policy wonk with the heart of a poet.

He is surely the only member of our presidential speechwriting fraternity as celebrated for his moral example as for his literary inspirations. A couple of years ago, Time magazine even named the “President’s Spiritual Scribe” one of the “25 most influential evangelicals” in America, placing Mike in the company of Billy Graham.

“Leading staffers in prayer” might not have been a bad idea, but in our White House speechwriting office it never happened—unless it was the practice to get the morning oblations out of the way before I showed up. Yet even to point out such errors was futile: the “spiritual scribe” served some larger purpose for the media, as a character of their own invention as much as of his own, and attempts at correction only intruded on a private and mutually satisfying arrangement.

My favorite example came in a piece by Bob Woodward and two other Washington Post reporters. The writer’s writer and the reporter’s reporter spent a lot of time together, and whatever Bob got out of the deal you could always find Mike’s reward in print. There had been a September 13, 2001, Oval Office meeting attended by adviser Karen Hughes and three speechwriters—Mike, John McConnell, and me. Early in the meeting President Bush said to us, “We’re at war”—an exact quote, and not the sort of moment easily forgotten. In The Washington Post account, however, the rest of us have vanished, and the president declares, “Mike, we’re at war.”

One word, and history is changed. And not only have colleagues been cleared out, but the attention of Woodward’s readers isn’t even on the president anymore. Things like this happened all the time with Mike—crowded rooms and collaborative efforts gave way, in the retelling, to the self-involved spectacle of one.

Then there was Mike’s Newsweek account last year of the high drama he experienced trying to get into Washington on September 11, while “my evacuated staff” near the White House was doing, well, whatever. (That would be us, his colleagues, who contributed the sole line in that evening’s address, drafted by Karen Hughes, that anyone remembers: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”) Mike never made it into town that day, but that doesn’t prevent him, in his own version, from staying at the center of events—a position from which even the president, as Mike put it in Newsweek, looked “stiff and small.”

“Gerson is a ‘planner,’ not a ‘plunger,’” a 2005 National Journal profile noted, “meaning that he makes a meticulous outline, which he consults during the writing process.” This is true, and equal care and intensity went into crafting the Gerson image. Colleagues were not in the outline, nor were the normal standards of discretion in White House speechwriting. People have a way of disappearing in Mike’s stories. The artful shaping of narrative and editing out of inconvenient detail was never confined to the speechwriting. (The phrase pulling a Gerson, as I recently heard it used around the West Wing, does not refer to graceful writing.) And though in Heroic Conservatism Mike has doubtless offered a kind word or two for speechwriting colleagues, no man I have ever encountered was truer to the saying that, in Washington, one should never take friendship personally.

Woodward’s trilogy about the Bush years is a tale of speechwriting glory that Mike himself could hardly improve upon. Remember those powerful and moving addresses the president gave after September 11? According to Woodward’s State of Denial, Mike wrote all of those speeches by himself—and if there were other speechwriters, well, they must not have made it back from the evacuation:

Gerson, a 40-year-old evangelical Christian who had majored in theology at evangelist Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, had written all of Bush’s memorable post-9/11 speeches, including the one he gave at Washington’s National Cathedral on September 14, 2001—“This conflict has begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour of our choosing”—as well as his remarks before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001: “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign.” Gerson had written Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech identifying Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil” connecting terrorism with weapons of mass destruction, and had also come up with the intellectual and historical roots for Bush’s “preemption” doctrine speech, delivered at West Point in June 2002—“The war on terrorism will not be won on the defensive.”

How do I break the news to Bob Woodward that his high-placed source wrote not a single one of the lines quoted above, at best a third of any of the speeches he mentions, and that the National Cathedral address was half-written before Mike even entered the room?

Without fear of contradiction—because it’s all in the presidential records—I can report here that Michael Gerson never wrote a single speech by himself for President Bush. From beginning to end, every notable speech, and a huge proportion of the rest, was written by a team of speechwriters, working in the same office and on the same computer. Few lines of note were written by Mike, and none at all that come to mind from the post-9/11 addresses—not even “axis of evil.”

He allowed false assumptions, and also encouraged them. Among chummy reporters, he created a fictionalized, “Mike, we’re at war” version of presidential speechwriting, casting himself in a grand and solitary role. The narrative that Mike Gerson presented to the world is a story of extravagant falsehood. He has been held up for us in six years’ worth of coddling profiles as the great, inspiring, and idealistic exception of the Bush White House. In reality, Mike’s conduct is just the most familiar and depressing of Washington stories—a history of self- seeking and media manipulation that is only more distasteful for being cast in such lofty terms.

There are rewards for such behavior, and in Mike’s case the Washington establishment has raised him up as one of its own—a status complete with a columnist’s perch at The Washington Post. There is a downside, too, measured in the lost esteem of friends and in the tainting of real gifts and achievements. At his best, Mike is a serious man, with an active Christian faith that could be seen in his work as an adviser in the president’s program for helping AIDS and malaria victims in Africa—a vital contribution and well deserving of praise. Yet being a part of such efforts was never reward enough for Mike, and there was always more to the story, always an angle.

Merriman Smith, a White House correspondent from the 1940s to the 1960s, wrote in his book A President Is Many Men of Clark Clifford at the beginning of his career as a figure of renown in Washington. After the special counsel settled into his White House office, Smith wrote, “word passed that Clifford had become one of the top idea men for Mr. Truman.” He “attracted a steady flow of reporters and photographers,” and soon tested the patience of colleagues. “During one week when Clifford was featured in several big national magazines, a White House old-timer wisecracked, ‘What the hell is going on—Clark Clifford Week?’”

For us, it was always Mike Gerson Week, with the difference that the self-publicizing was accompanied by pretense. And nobody outside the speechwriting department ever seemed to wonder what the hell was going on.

Presented by

Matthew Scully, a writer living in Southern California, is the author of Dominion (2002). From July 1999 until August 2004, he served as a senior speechwriter for President Bush.

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