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
Power and Piety

Like so much else, it started with Karl Rove. Karl understood, after the misfortunes of the 1996 Dole campaign, that the party would need a “different kind of Republican” and a different kind of speechwriter to go with him. In his engaging book about the 2000 campaign, Stuart Stevens, a Bush media adviser, describes “compassionate conservatism” as a matter of having to “face reality” and recalls the meeting in which Karl explained how it would work. Every big Republican idea—the Laffer Curve, the Gingrich revolution—is first scrawled out on a napkin, and in Stuart’s telling of the story there’s one for compassionate conservatism, too. He and Karl were at an Austin coffee shop in April 1999, and Karl laid out the logic of Bush II:

“He’s a different kind of Republican. Compassionate conservatism.” Karl scribbled on a napkin. He was drawing little boxes—one was labeled BUSH, another BIG STATE GUV. He made COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM a big box that overlapped the others. This was what Lee Atwater would have called “the ditch we’re going to die in.” If compassionate conservatism “worked,” the campaign worked.

To keep the campaign on the high road, Karl turned to Mike in early 1999. At the time a senior editor at U.S. News, Mike had been a ghostwriter for Charles Colson, the evangelical founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, and a speechwriter for Senator Dan Coats of Indiana and for the Dole campaign. He had a reputation for religious conviction, and the National Journal profile describes his first encounter with Bush as “the calling of the apostle.”

My own, less providential summons came in a phone call from Mike in late April 1999: Would I be interested in moving to Texas? I was just then starting a book, but the offer made a lot of sense. Among other reasons, I was quite fond of Mike, whom I had first met on the Dole campaign, and figured it would be great fun to work with him. Our previous joint effort had been to finish a book proposal that Mike had begun for Senator Coats—the work was to be called Power and Piety—and, oddly enough, it hadn’t gone well at all. Seeing the two of us sitting all afternoon on January 23, 1997, staring at the blank computer screen in my apartment, you’d never have guessed we were destined for future collaborations, and on works even more powerful and pious. But I found Mike to be hilarious company, a side that doesn’t really come out in the profiles. When White House staff secretary Harriet Miers decreed in 2003 that we were using too many contractions in speeches—getting just a little too informal and “unpresidential”—Mike forwarded the e-mail to John McConnell and me with a note saying that if we ever again quoted Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of Flight 93, be sure to make it: “Let us roll.”

John completed the speechwriting department in Austin, arriving on January 2, 2000. He and I had become friends while working for Vice President Dan Quayle. It was John who strolled into my office one day in 1992, looked over a speech on the “cultural elite” theme that was getting great play in those days, and penciled in one of the more notable lines of that pre-compassionate- conservative era: “I wear their scorn as a badge of honor.” In the small universe of speechwriters in Washington, we both wound up working for the Dole campaign. For all the praise that speeches by our “different kind of Republican” received in 2000—for a new tone, so refreshing compared with that of our previous standard-bearer—somehow no one ever noticed that the different kind of speechwriters were three of the same guys who had written for Dole in ’96. (And when you look at some of that stuff written for Senator Dole—“There are those who seek to focus on what divides us … I prefer to focus on what unites us”—it has a familiar ring.)

Unlike the directionless Dole campaign, Bush 2000 was a sharp, disciplined operation. And a case could be made that we three overdid things a bit, with occasionally grandiose rhetoric and a tendency to preen. In speechwriting, the game was always “big ball,” and Mike had a particular knack for it. I used to kid him that I could guess the direction of his outline for any given speech on the compassionate-conservative theme, because the Gerson formula never varied: We begin with great and inexorable “callings” of history, then move on to hard moral “duties” and “nonnegotiable demands” of conscience, proceeding through the bramble patch of “temptations”—not to be merely avoided but actively confronted”—arriving in due course at the solution, and with that the “confident hope” of a better day. Mike’s conceptual architecture was always indispensable, with a kind of thematic big-think that was beyond my reach.

John, a Yale-educated attorney, brought a more grounded and mature tone to the writing, and usually kept us from going overboard. Often in Bush speeches you will find one slightly overstated sentence followed by another of elegant understatement, as in a 2002 address to the German parliament: “Those who despise human freedom will attack it on every continent. Those who seek missiles and terrible weapons are also familiar with the map of Europe.” The first is Mike and the second is John. In John’s hands, moral and religious ideas also had a more solid feel—more in the tone, for example, of the remarks that he and I wrote for delivery after the execution of Timothy McVeigh:

This morning, the United States of America carried out the severest sentence for the gravest of crimes. The victims of the Oklahoma City bombing have been given not vengeance, but justice. And one young man met the fate he chose for himself six years ago … Under the laws of our country, the matter is concluded … May God in his mercy grant peace to all; to the lives that were taken six years ago, to the lives that go on, and to the life that ended today.

As a general rule in Bush speeches, if the writing is graceful, judicious, and understated, and makes you think about the subject at hand instead of anyone’s particular craftsmanship or religiosity—there’s a better-than-even chance that it is by John McConnell. John is always the first to deflect attention elsewhere, a reflex of modesty and good manners that Mike and I witnessed many times. The truth of the matter is that of the three of us, John is by far the man most like Bush himself in his personal rectitude and goodness of heart, and these qualities shine through in all our best work for the president.

‘The Sirens of Baghdad Are Quiet’

In Austin and in Washington, we wrote speeches together on a single computer, in office conditions that John described as resembling the “back room of a cheap restaurant.” And though the rhetoric of President Bush has been praised for its “high seriousness,” it wasn’t that way in the drafting.

It was a rare day when Karl Rove, Josh Bolten, Dan Bartlett, or someone else didn’t open the door to see what we were all howling about, or to add to the fun with their own routines and Hill Country antics. Even on the dreariest days—slogging through a tax, education, or Chamber of Commerce speech—Mike and John and I endlessly entertained one another, with all the running jokes and gags you’d expect three guys in a room to develop. Education speeches in particular—with their endlessly complicated programs and slightly puffed-up theories, none of which we could ever explain quite to the satisfaction of our policy people—were always good for a laugh. As John observed in late 2003, around draft 20 in the typically chaotic revising of an education speech, “We’ve taken the country to war with less hassle than this.”

We once wrote, “This nation will prepare. We will not live in fear. We choose to fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here,” only to read it aloud and realize it sounded less like Winston Churchill than Dr. Seuss. When one of us offered up a bad idea, we’d all laugh—the offender as much as the other two—and then launch into extended parodies of similarly pompous sentiments that could be added to the speech. When one writer was “on,” the teasing took the form of exaggerated deference. With enough prodding, John would favor us with one of his impersonations—a repertoire ranging from a very impressive Harry Truman to the “Matt Foley” motivational-speaker character of the late Chris Farley. This may not sound like much, but for three guys working up the presidential turkey-pardon remarks for the fourth year in a row, it’s Vegas material.

Some moments seem ludicrous only in retrospect, as when we wrote the speech that Bush would give on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, on May 1, 2003—remembered now for the “Mission Accomplished” banner. As usual, Mike had come in with a grand, historic vision for the effort—along with a literary antecedent to imitate. This was another habit of his, and with each speech you could always predict which models he would turn to. When it was a speech on race, in would come Mike with a sheaf of heavily underlined Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. For speeches on poverty, it was time for more compassionate-conservative fervor, drawn secondhand from the addresses of Robert F. Kennedy. For updates on the war against terrorism, we could expect to see Mike’s well-worn copies of JFK and FDR speeches plopped on the table for instruction, and for imitation that when unchecked (as in the second inaugural) could slip perilously close to copying.

In writing the Abraham Lincoln speech, this habit of historical reenactment spelled trouble. As John and I sat down to get started, in marched Mike with a muffin in one hand and Douglas MacArthur’s “the guns are silent” speech—delivered on the deck of the USS Missouri at the end of World War II—in the other. And this time Mike had worked up his own memorable variation: “The sirens of Baghdad are quiet. The desert has returned to silence. The Battle of Iraq is over, and the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Much as I’d like to record that I had the good sense to object, I think I even added my own touches to the glory of the moment. The honored role here in averting rhetorical disaster was assumed by Donald Rumsfeld, who expressed alarm at this overreach, and by Karen Hughes, who often checked our more blustery outbursts. “These are beautiful sentences,” she wrote on draft three, “but may overstate the case—there is still shooting going on.”

Every time, line by line, the three of us 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. For important speeches, we spent hours on a single paragraph, and in a day got through maybe 500 words of a 3,800-word effort. In that room, at least, vanity was kept under close guard, and, if only to break the silence, you had to be willing to offer up thoughts and phrases that might fall flat. In even the most unusable line or unformed thought, there might be some little glimmer of a better idea to move the work forward.

Mike’s outlines were always sound and sometimes inspired—although after a while we started doing the outlines together as well. And in both cases these consisted mostly of placeholders to capture the shape of a thought. For a crucial section in remarks written for Bush during the Florida recount, the notes read:

At some point, something becomes something. And something becomes something. Loser becomes sore loser. Justified case becomes. At some point the voting must end … rule of law, not endless lawsuits. Call for recount, search for new results. Endless litigation. Ballot boxes and courts. War of words, something of lawyers.

When we sat down together this became: “At some point, we must have an end. At some point, the counting of votes must stop, and the votes must count. At some point, the law must prevail, and the lawyers must go home.”

‘A Unique (and Enjoyable) Working Relationship’

The wonderful thing was how we tended to draw out each other’s strengths and check each other’s faults—somehow each recognizing, for all our differences in style and temperament, the same standard of polished but conversational rhetoric. The method was really a kind of writing and editing all at once, with the further advantage of speaking the words as they naturally came to mind before they were written on the screen. It had a way of keeping things on track.

A reporter from TheNew York Times Magazine spent some time with the three of us during the writing of the joint-session speech of September 20, 2001, and gave an accurate account of how it came together:

Gerson, Scully and McConnell began on the Taliban. Scully started: “‘We’re not deceived by their pretenses to piety.” Gerson wrote: “They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of Fascism and Nazism and imperial Communism.” Scully added, “And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends.” They paused. Where would it end? They didn’t know. But there were plenty of ready-made phrases around. McConnell threw out five or six, like crumbs from his pocket. They liked the idea of predicting the end of the Taliban’s reign of terror. “You know, history’s unmarked grave,” McConnell said. The group bounced the phrase around until McConnell came up with: “It will end in discarded lies.” Gerson liked that, too. So the line read, “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

On September 13, 2001, when we sat down to begin that address, all we had on the screen were a few notes, such as:

Darkness. Light … harm/evil … challenge … enemy … defeat and destroy. Eyes open … alerted. We’ve been a continent shielded by oceans. Carnage known only in Civil War. Foe: Political ideology, not a religion. Our view of the world—‘challenge we did not ask for in a world we did not make.’ People turn to America. Much grief but many questions. Who is the enemy?

It was in a shorthand that only we could understand, each phrase a reminder of themes that we three—along with National Security Council speechwriter John Gibson, who always helped with foreign-policy addresses—had talked through with the president, Condoleezza Rice, Hughes, Rove, and others.

Above all, we shared a respect and affectionate regard for George W., the straight-up guy we’d come to know in Austin. Though our rhetoric did have a way of overdoing the drama sometimes, none of that was ever to be confused with the personal qualities of the man we served, who in the opinion of those who worked there was the actual conscience of the White House. I have never encountered a politician less impressed with himself. There was no surer way to get a laugh out of Bush than with some personally grandiose sentiment, or even an excessive use of “I.” He paused once during the rehearsal of a speech when we’d gone overboard with the global-freedom-agenda rhetoric: “What is this stuff? I sound like Spartacus or someone.” A similarly overwrought speech inspired him to rise and read it aloud with the exaggerated solemnity of Edward Everett Hale or some other 19th-century orator, to laughter all around. Modesty is a very becoming quality in people of his standing. There are CEOs and Washington bureau chiefs who carry themselves with a greater sense of their own importance than this president of the United States ever has.

After one of our “death marches”—John’s term for writing a State of the Union address—Mike said that it was a rare thing in life when you can spend nine days in the same room working with the same people and drive in on the morning of the 10th day still looking forward to it. He put it even better in late 2003 when I was thinking about moving along:

I hope you will think about the timing. This [2004] election will be important to the direction of the country, and our contribution will be made mainly from the State of the Union in January to the convention speech this summer. After that point, the themes are pretty much set, the huge speeches given. In this period, John and I will need your help. We have established a unique (and enjoyable) working relationship, and, frankly, I don’t want to face this last major challenge without your help, and without your company. We are talking about a little over half a year—and after four years, I hope that isn’t too much to ask. I can’t set your course, but I think this is important, and I know it is important to me.

We knew the feeling, John and I. It extended outward, too, in a sense of daily camaraderie with all the others on staff who invariably contributed ideas, lines, edits, and other touches essential to the work.

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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