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

Once you gain a reputation in Washington, things have a nice way of falling into place, in a print-the-legend fashion. John and I had the experience of working on the president’s eulogy for Ronald Reagan, and about midway through the effort getting an e-mailed “bulletin” from a Washington news service called the Frontrunner: “Gerson Writing Reagan Eulogy for Bush.” It cited a Los Angeles Times story that provided some further details: “The eulogy is being prepared by Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who also wrote the president’s moving speech for a memorial service in the same cathedral after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” The three of us spent two of our best days laboring over a speech delivered on Goree Island in West Africa, only to have The New Yorker pronounce it “perhaps Gerson’s most extraordinary speech.”

It was the same story with “axis of evil”: assumptions casually made and casually left uncorrected. And the most absurd thing about the episode, the sole occasion when credit snatching ever came up for public discussion, was that our colleague David Frum took the rap. David is a highly conscientious person, a gentleman, and, as the most accomplished author on our staff, hardly in need of exaggerating his achievements. Yet during that whole business, as another writer’s name started appearing in newspapers, now suddenly it was our chief speechwriter who was alarmed by an unseemly display of self-publicizing. The studio makeup scarcely washed away from “Up Close: Michael Gerson,” he let it be known that he did not approve: “Senior White House staff,” reported The Daily Telegraph, “have sharply criticised Mr. Frum in private for taking the credit for crafting the phrase instead of allowing it to be attributed to President Bush. Mr. Gerson, in particular, is understood to have been annoyed by the disclosure.”

What actually happened is that David came up with the phrase “axis of hatred” and e-mailed it, along with some other lines, to John, Mike, and me. We copied the material into the jumble of onscreen notes we kept beneath our working texts. Mike thought we should use the phrase, and we added it to the text. I said, “I hate hatred”—which brought to mind the ineffectual “forces of hatred” favored by Clinton speechwriters—and proposed going with evil instead, since we were already confronting evildoers, wickedness, and the like. It was agreed—“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world”—and we moved on.

For a time, I congratulated myself on at least preventing the even more melodramatic “axis of hatred” from marching into history—though, looking back, I suppose “axis of evil” was a case of how the very intensity of these speeches could sometimes give events a false momentum and fill the air with needless drama. Good phrase or bad, however, that’s how it got in there. It was not added by Mike—though he assured The New Yorker, “Evil exists, and it has to be confronted.”

Great works carried out collaboratively make for an undeniably less interesting story than the solitary genius scribbling away. If you write profiles, or submit to them, it complicates things. And when we are given credit for things we didn’t do, or feel tempted to grab at undeserved acclaim, we show what we are made of.

I think of our White House colleague Peter Wehner, who once picked up a magazine and was mortified to find himself improperly credited with writing parts of the National Cathedral address. With unhesitating honesty, he e-mailed me to say, “As a rule, I don’t think speechwriters should claim credit for this or that speech … And while it’s nice for folks to implicitly ascribe beautiful words to me, they were someone else’s (yours, or John’s, or Mike’s), and I’m sorry it happened … I’ve already dropped John & Mike a note.” But this gracious example, so characteristic of Pete Wehner, never caught on. For all of Mike’s moralizing on grander matters, he just never understood that a modest round of merited applause is worth far more than a standing ovation undeserved.

Harder to explain than one man’s foolish vanity is the gullibility of those who indulged him. Mike had the benefit, I suppose, of presenting an easy positive story to reporters generally hostile to President Bush. If only to keep up appearances or reward a faithful source, reporters had to find a happier angle on the administration. They needed something nice to say, and some color to go with it, and why not start with the bookish evangelical?

After a while, Gerson profiles took on an interchangeable quality, as if mere parts of the same tedious tract, and lost in the haze of sanctimony were the real qualities of the man I know—especially Mike’s ability to spot the very kind of pretension that filled his own press coverage. It was the Nixon speechwriter William Safire who, in his enduring 1975 book, Before the Fall, captured the false note heard throughout the whole self-indulgent exercise. By adopting a certain tone and manner, Safire observed,

the writer thereby not only buttresses his reputation for having a passion for anonymity but gains fame. This is known as ostentatious self-effacement, and it works its oily way far more effectively than less subtle forms of self-aggrandizement.
The ‘Contributor’

The worst of my former colleague’s conduct was not mere vanity, however. It was not even the pettiness and selfishness, or the casual treatment of the trust of friends. The real offense was to the president. And the most appalling part of the story is that such behavior could continue even in the weeks after 9/11—no “new normal” in the speechwriting department. Indeed, there was actually a commemorative edition of the joint-session speech sold in bookstores under the title Our Mission and Our Moment. It is still being sold by Amazon as a work “by Mike Gerson.” But at least George W. Bush isn’t overlooked entirely. He gets some of the credit too—as a “contributor.”

As it happens, that title line in the joint-session speech—“We have found our mission and our moment”—was inspired by my observation of the contributor’s conduct in the days after 9/11, by the way he carried himself and the things he said to us. He was not a “president stiff and small,” as Mike described him in Newsweek, and the clear, manful, and gracious tone that comes across in all of those post-9/11 speeches was not some invention of the speechwriters.

Six years later, with all that has gone wrong in Iraq, I know one is now supposed to sigh with regret at how mistaken we all were about Bush in those days, how foolish of us to think the man had greatness in him. As Jonathan Rauch reflected a year ago in these pages, Americans “thought they saw a Churchill,” but all that’s gone and now we know better. And yet I think I recognize greatness when it steps before me, and the sight of George W. Bush in those days left an impression that has never worn off.

It was apparent when he stood on the ruins of the World Trade Center, and again in his “I’m a loving guy” moment in the Oval Office. And we speechwriters saw his qualities of character just as vividly when the cameras were withdrawn. In hundreds of pre-9/11 speeches, we had been straining for the unforgettable turn of phrase, the noble sentiment, the heroic gesture. Now, nobility and heroism were actually on display, and it turned out he could do it without us.

The National Cathedral and joint-session speeches marked a clean break in our rhetoric, a casting-off of the fine china and the stuff of Starbucks. No more stilted generational summonses, no more made-up “callings.” Here, finally, was the real thing—a real calling with real heroism—and the words we found for all of this could have been written for that man and no other.

Some of the most moving lines in the joint-session address were just slightly polished versions of what Bush himself had told us: “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution … We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” As John, Karl, and I watched from the side of the House floor that night, it was a case of presidential speechwriting working exactly as it should, with the words spoken by the very man who inspired them.

That’s where presidential speechwriters belong—off to the side, where even the best there ever was, Ted Sorensen, was always content to stay. Speechwriting is a job with many privileges, but also its own rules, temptations, and demands of conscience, obvious and nonnegotiable. The work has rewards enough without each speechwriter stepping forward to give his or her name its own permanent shine in history.

In times of trial—of historic drama and of true presidential greatness, as after 9/11—it adds nothing useful for a speechwriter to be endlessly holding forth on the craft and performing for television crews. It only diminishes the moment and the achievement. In the presidency of George W. Bush, these achievements were the finest we ever shared, all of us together. And they require no embellishment or shading of truth.

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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