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
‘The Fine China’

So it was a perplexing experience to read press ac-counts of Bush speeches that left the distinct im-pression that they were the work of just one man.

I first noticed the problem in Austin, when we were sitting together at the shared laptop and Bush would call. Just like that, the fellowship of the moment vanished, and one heard the singular instead of the plural: “Yes, Governor, I’m working on it now … Mm hmm … Mm hmm … I can have it done by then, yes … I’ve got some lines here I think you’ll like.”

When speeches by the three of us were particularly good, Mike attended meetings about them by himself, and then reassembled the team for even minor revisions, no matter how late the hour. When speeches by the three of us were more pedestrian, he made sure that his name disappeared from the draft. Reporters came and went at campaign headquarters, the drawn shades on Mike’s interior window signaling their presence and discouraging introductions. The three of us ran into E. J. Dionne of TheWashington Post in Philadelphia during convention week, and Mike’s collaborators on the convention address rated an awkward, “Oh, and these guys are, uh, writers for the campaign.”

Likewise, the only time Mike ever appeared disturbed by the approach of public attention was during the preparation of the New York Times Magazine account of the making of the joint-session speech, when the magazine’s fact-checkers started calling to confirm such details as who wrote what. Fact-checkers of tomorrow will find somewhere in the presidential archives a frantic e-mail from Mike in which a colleague was ordered not to take any further calls from Times fact-checkers.

Mike once said to us, in passing, “You guys had your administration”—meaning Bush-Quayle—and this seemed to explain his program for Bush 2000. Even during the campaign, he had apparently kept our colleagues—who all had better things to think about, anyway—unsure about how speeches got written. However things worked, they worked, and that was what mattered. Mike attended senior staff meetings, and what went on there could be glimpsed in a cover note he sent his superiors that found its way to us. We had just spent hours working up some humor for the 2000 convention speech. Mike sent the material along to senior staff, with a reminder to be lenient in judgment, since “it’s not easy to write jokes sitting alone in a room.”

In a rapture of self-congratulation following coverage of one or another campaign speech in 2000, he actually told us that Bush and the senior staff viewed his contributions, well, differently from ours: “I think they look at my writing as the fine china, to be taken out on special occasions.” What to say when a friend and colleague lays that one on you?

Maybe you have brushed up against such people in your own workplace. If so, you know that it is a peculiar vice, this kind of credit hounding. One is left almost disoriented by the gall of it. It was amazing that a friend could carry on like this in full view and still act as if nothing were out of order. The sheer pettiness of such conduct served to repel corrective action, because who wants to be drawn into little games of guile and manipulation? Mostly, though, I felt so embarrassed for Mike that it was just too unpleasant to bring up. Besides, for President Bush, we writers were always “the troika,” “the lads,” “the team,” and sometimes even “the A-team.” He knew how the work got done, and his good opinion was sufficient.

The problem did come up a few times in plain words, however, and Mike’s reactions could be even more jarring than his dreamy self-regard when left unchallenged. I think particularly of the 2000 convention address, the “crafting” of which became a staple of early Gerson profiles and, even before the speech was delivered, inspired an Associated Press piece titled “The Craftsman Behind George Bush’s Acceptance Speech.” For more than a week Mike was gone from our midst, working alone to compose the address (“with a rollerball pen on yellow legal pads,” as the AP described it) in the private apartment of the governor’s father at his presidential library, at Texas A&M University. After months of joint authorship, it was time to lay out the fine china, and convention delegates were going to see the complete set.

But the muse had somehow missed the appointment in College Station, and what Mike came back with was an outline—clever, ambitious, and usable, as always, but in the way of actual writing no more than a bundle of overwrought phrases and brittle loftyisms. Among the highlights were the “heat and hate and horror” of war and the “whisper of duty above the shout of fear.” America’s greatest generation was passing away, “and they left our country a ‘golden legend to her people.’” Now “the rising generations of this country have their own appointment with greatness,” and “after eight years in the wilderness, we can see the promised land.” “My generation has stumbled, but I believe we can soar.”

Of these lines—delicate pieces of the fine china—“appointment with greatness” actually made it into the final speech, having survived 18 drafts collaboratively written. I happened to be sitting at Mike’s laptop when it came time for us to send the very last draft to senior staff, and Mike, noticing that I had cc’d John and myself, stopped me: “Don’t do that! You can print copies from here!” I said, “Michael, why can’t I copy John and me?” This brought a frantic admission: “Because they don’t know you’re involved!” “And why is it a secret that we’re doing this together?” Because it was all very confidential, Mike explained as he rushed off—senior staff didn’t want anything leaking out. This performance was repeated at the White House, when Mike insisted that the usual author identifications not appear on drafts going to the president, or pouted when our department secretary put all three names there anyway. He seemed to think this was standard practice—just “the way it’s done” in Washington.

‘The Solitude of Writing’

I have never cared much for the first inaugural address, though I reviewed it extensively with Mike, and the first 200 or so words are not his work at all. John had no part in the effort, and it shows in passages that manage to be derivative, simple, and wordy all at the same time— doubtless a product of the wearisome calculation and “performing writer” routine that went into its production.

There is a line in the speech that goes, “Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love.” While Mike was drafting the speech, I was somewhere on the outskirts of Tar Heel, North Carolina, researching my book Dominion. As we were editing the speech by phone—Mike in the transition office in Washington, me in a parked rental car by a factory farm—we were interrupted by a call from my old friend Jay Heiler, a political consultant in Arizona. Jay suggested the Mother Teresa quote. I wrote it down, hit “Flash,” and passed the quote on to Mike, who immediately found a place for it in the inaugural. In a Gerson profile in USA Today, these lovely words of the saint—called in from Phoenix via a hog farm in North Carolina—became further evidence of the man’s near-mystical spirituality: He had a special devotion to Mother Teresa. “A favorite Gerson icon, she surfaces again in Bush’s inaugural.”

Another line in that speech reminds us, “No insignificant person was ever born.” David Kusnet, a former Clinton speechwriter, offered it as evidence in The New Republic that “Gerson’s eloquence made the president seem compassionate, conciliatory, and conservative, all at the same time.” The line is actually from a column I did for TheWall Street Journal after the death of former Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, my onetime employer, and in the inaugural was offered as a little tribute to a great man. A simple line, but Mike liked it enough to accept praise for the sentence, and he uses it again, without quotation marks, in the first chapter of Heroic Conservatism.

The only time our chief speechwriter was ever heard to say things like “I didn’t write that” or “That was John’s idea” or “I got that from Karen” was in the case of our more pedestrian efforts together. And then suddenly we’d find ourselves singled out for special attention, lavished with explicit recognition in mentions to the president or in e-mails that made sure everyone understood that this latest offering from the speechwriting shop was not to be confused with the fine china.

Perhaps you have read that Mike wrote some of the most memorable post-9/11 addresses in longhand, sitting by himself in a Starbucks. His colleagues heard that rumor as well, and in the profiles it became as much a part of the persona as Left Bank cafés to Sartre or London pubs to Shakespeare. TheNew Yorker’s profile came with a playful sketch of Mike dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac, quill in hand, Starbucks cup next to the ink bottle. Starbucks was “where he frequently writes speeches,” noted the magazine. As USA Today captured the scene, “He chews up uni-ball pens by the packet, scribbling out Bush’s most acclaimed speeches in longhand on a yellow legal pad. He sometimes takes days to produce a first draft. And he does some of his best writing in the nearest Starbucks.” In a Fox News “Power Player of the Week” send-off after Mike had announced his resignation, Chris Wallace explained in the closing shot: “If you’re wondering about all those legal pads on Gerson’s desk, in this age of computers, he liked to write the first draft of presidential speeches by longhand.”

My most vivid memory of Mike at Starbucks is one I have labored in vain to shake. We were working on a State of the Union address in John’s office when suddenly Mike was called away for an unspecified appointment, leaving us to “keep going.” We learned only later, from a chance conversation with his secretary, where he had gone, and it was a piece of Washington self-promotion for the ages: At the precise moment when the State of the Union address was being drafted at the White House by John and me, Mike was off pretending to craft the State of the Union in longhand for the benefit of a reporter.

He yearned for escape sometimes and preferred the “buzz” of the coffee shop to the “solitude” of his White House office, Mike explained in a 2002 ABC News Nightline segment, “Up Close: Michael Gerson.” This is a lengthy discourse on the craft of speechwriting (and indeed on how speechwriting “cultivates a sense of humility,” as Mike told Nightline) that happily I missed at the time and only came upon recently. To fully appreciate the dramatic tension here, just remember that as 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.

During the Nightline interview, we hear the voice of President Bush at the National Cathedral saying: "We are here in the middle hour of our grief," "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing," and other lovely and powerful lines written in my presence by John. And then we hear the guest explain how he himself wrote them:

Nightline: When you’re writing a speech, how do you find the words that fit the man?

GERSON: For me, it is a, you know, process of drafting, redrafting, and reading aloud …

Nightline: 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.

Nightline: 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.

Notice how the comfortable use of personal pronouns—I go to Starbucks, I make notes—suddenly shifts into generality in the description of actual speechwriting: “You do, you know, go to a computer screen.” For, of course, the computer screen to which he returned from Starbucks every time was John’s computer screen, in the office where we were working—probably even during this interview—and where others had written the very passages that Nightline played in the background. Reading the transcript, I found myself almost rooting for Mike to get out of there fast, without having to come clean with the whole miserable tale.

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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