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.
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.”