In the mid-1990s, I was the policy director of Empower America, a think tank whose co-directors were Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. A colleague told me that there was a person writing speeches for Jack he thought I might like to meet. He introduced me to Michael J. Gerson.
Mike and I bonded immediately. Ours was an acquaintance that quickly grew into a friendship that soon became one of the most cherished relationships of my life.
Mike Gerson died early yesterday morning of cancer. He was 58 years old.
Mike was one of the most gifted writers of his generation, a presidential speechwriter for George W. Bush who became a twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. He wrote on politics and faith, movies and books, the Queen of England, his beloved dogs, his first bout with cancer, and dropping his son off at college. Mike loved words, and he wrote like an angel. It was a way to express the longings and loves of his heart.
The best speeches Mike worked on with George W. Bush were his efforts to call forth our better selves, to right wrongs and dispense comfort, and to strive for justice.
Here are the words from President Bush’s speech at National Cathedral three days after the attacks on 9/11: “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.” There was also this: “This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.”
Mike was an instrument of mercy, a key figure in the Bush administration’s 2003 effort to provide AIDS treatment and prevention to Africans on a massive scale. At an Oval Office meeting the year before, as the details of the ambitious and controversial plan were being discussed—controversial because previous efforts had accomplished little, there were infrastructure challenges to overcome, and the cost of the program was enormous—President Bush asked people for their views. He turned to Mike last.
“If we can do this, and we don’t,” Mike said, “it will be a source of shame.” To which Bush responded, “That’s Gerson being Gerson!” And so it was. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was the largest commitment ever made by any nation to address a single disease. Mark Dybul, a brilliant NIH researcher who crafted the plan, says that nearly 20 years later, PEPFAR has saved 20 million lives, prevented millions of new infections, and changed the course of the epidemic.
“Mike was one of the most vocal and effective advocates for PEPFAR—and later, the president’s malaria initiative,” Dybul told me. “From the Oval Office meeting that led to the president’s decision, to constantly pushing to keep global health front and center on the agenda, to providing the public words that helped drive policy and funding, Mike spoke the president’s language of the heart and of faith that was central to the success of PEPFAR.”
Over the course of our friendship, I came to understand how essential faith was to Mike. He attended Wheaton College, the flagship evangelical school in America. He had been accepted at Fuller Theological Seminary for graduate studies, but Chuck Colson, then president of Prison Fellowship, hired Mike right out of college to write for him. That brought Mike to Washington, D.C., and changed the trajectory of his life, but not the outworking of his faith. He believed that politics, at its best, could advance justice.
Mike’s views reflected what he called a “Christian anthropology”—a belief in the inherent rights and dignity of every human life. It led him to solidarity with the weak and the suffering, the dispossessed, those living in the shadows of life. His faith was capacious and generous; it created in him a deep commitment to justice and the common good.
Mike was appalled at those who disfigured Jesus and used their faith for the purposes of dehumanization. It is one of the reasons why he was so thankful to publish an extraordinary essay in the Post before his death, lamenting Christians whose view of politics “is closer to ‘Game of Thrones’ than to the Beatitudes.”
Mike told me how moved he was by the comments and emails “from ex-believers saying the article helped them rediscover why they once believed.” When I asked him what he found most encouraging about the response, he told me, “All the people who find the Jesus of the Gospels so appealing.”
Very few people knew the full scope of the health challenges Mike faced. He suffered a heart attack in 2004, when he was 40. Kidney cancer in 2013. Debilitating leg pain, probably the result of surgical nerve damage. The kidney cancer spread to his lungs. Then Parkinson’s disease and metastatic adrenal cancer. And finally, metastatic bone cancer in multiple locations, intensely painful. At one point he told me he was on 20 different medications. Mike and I joked that of all the figures in the Bible he could model himself after, he chose Job.
Yet through it all—and this is simply remarkable—I never saw any self-pity. Mike referred to himself as “an instinctual Calvinist,” a person not prone to ask “why me?” He bore up under the hardship and pain with astonishing grace and dignity.
In a 2019 sermon at National Cathedral, he revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression, a condition he had struggled with since his 20s. He was raw, honest, and vulnerable in describing its effects. He said that at times he had reached the breaking point but didn’t break, fortunate to have the right medicine and the right medical care and the right friends “who run into the burning building of your life to rescue you.”
“Over time,” Mike said, “you begin to see hints and glimmers of a larger world outside the prison of your sadness. The conscious mind takes hold of some shred of beauty or love. And then more shreds, until you begin to think maybe, just maybe, there is something better on the far side of despair.” I heard from other friends, who also suffer from depression, how meaningful they found Mike’s words to be.
In the last months of his life, Mike told me that the pain was sometimes so distracting that he couldn’t write, but then we would move to other topics. I have pages of notes from my final conversations with him, as we spoke mostly about faith and theology. He gave me a book, and recommended others.
In the last weeks of Mike’s life, his wife, Dawn, and sons, Bucky and Nick, were faithfully by his side. His two brothers were able to spend time with him; so were close friends, all of whom were able to express their appreciation and love for Mike. The common theme from Mike was gratitude. He spoke about how grateful he was for the life he was able to lead and for the people who loved him and were able to travel his journey with him. He was in pain, but he was at peace.
I was planning on seeing him one Sunday morning in late September, but he had to cancel. He wrote me afterward, simply saying, “Sorry about today. Slept most of morning. A little down. Want to be an example to my sons. But hard to be in extreme pain, which eventually comes with bone cancer.”
Mike Gerson was a beautiful writer with an even more beautiful soul. He lived a wonderful and consequential life. “You have been a voice for Jesus,” one friend, Jack Oliver, wrote to Mike as he neared the end. “Your homecoming will be amazing.” He hadn’t just been an example for his sons; he was an example for us all.
Mike is now with the Lord he loved and served so well. But oh, how I miss my friend.