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
Michael J. Gerson, my former speechwriting colleague in the Bush White House, is a talented fellow with a first-rate mind and serious purposes—all of which we can expect to see in his new book, Heroic Conservatism. But reading a few insider stories in the first chapter of the book, which his publisher has sent out for publicity, I was not surprised to find that the personal heroics begin early.
By page 3, a “solemn quiet” has fallen over the Oval Office, and we have one of those crossroads moments that come in every White House memoir. Large and consequential matters were in the balance, “the keepers of the budget” were about to crush the hopes of millions, only truth well spoken could save the day, and guess who had the courage to speak it? The conviction and idealism of his words were so characteristic that, in Mike’s telling of the story, President Bush declared, “That’s Gerson being Gerson!”
The president’s little tribute, however, would much better describe what happened after this incident, when the story of “Gerson being Gerson” found its way into a Washington Whispers item by a friend of Mike’s at U.S. News & World Report. Someone had to tell the reporter about this inspiring moment, and I have a feeling it wasn’t the keepers of the budget. It was always like this, working with Mike. No good deed went unreported, and many things that never happened were reported as fact. For all of our chief speechwriter’s finer qualities, the firm adherence to factual narrative is not a strong point. He has chosen the perfect title for his book, because in his telling of a White House story, things often sound a lot more heroic than they actually were.
This tendency to rearrange and romanticize events could be observed in the scores of media profiles and other articles that Mike sat for over the years. When he resigned in June 2006, USA Today remembered “the man whose words helped steady the nation” after 9/11—meaning Mike, not President Bush. It was Michael Gerson, said TheWashington Post, who “crafted the two speeches after the September 11, 2001, attacks that will probably be recorded as Bush’s signal moments of national leadership: the service at the Washington National Cathedral and the address to Congress.” He “filled George Bush’s mouth with golden phrases,” said TheTimes of London. In numerous profiles, Mike was the “conscience of the White House” and answered also to “moral compass for the Bush presidency.”
In a January 2006 piece, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave the standard portrait:
A devout Christian known to lead fellow staffers in prayer, Gerson is what colleagues call a writer’s writer, a big-picture thinker with an instinct for the broad sweep of history who melds the mind of a policy wonk with the heart of a poet.
He is surely the only member of our presidential speechwriting fraternity as celebrated for his moral example as for his literary inspirations. A couple of years ago, Time magazine even named the “President’s Spiritual Scribe” one of the “25 most influential evangelicals” in America, placing Mike in the company of Billy Graham.
“Leading staffers in prayer” might not have been a bad idea, but in our White House speechwriting office it never happened—unless it was the practice to get the morning oblations out of the way before I showed up. Yet even to point out such errors was futile: the “spiritual scribe” served some larger purpose for the media, as a character of their own invention as much as of his own, and attempts at correction only intruded on a private and mutually satisfying arrangement.
My favorite example came in a piece by Bob Woodward and two other Washington Post reporters. The writer’s writer and the reporter’s reporter spent a lot of time together, and whatever Bob got out of the deal you could always find Mike’s reward in print. There had been a September 13, 2001, Oval Office meeting attended by adviser Karen Hughes and three speechwriters—Mike, John McConnell, and me. Early in the meeting President Bush said to us, “We’re at war”—an exact quote, and not the sort of moment easily forgotten. In The Washington Post account, however, the rest of us have vanished, and the president declares, “Mike, we’re at war.”
One word, and history is changed. And not only have colleagues been cleared out, but the attention of Woodward’s readers isn’t even on the president anymore. Things like this happened all the time with Mike—crowded rooms and collaborative efforts gave way, in the retelling, to the self-involved spectacle of one.
Then there was Mike’s Newsweek account last year of the high drama he experienced trying to get into Washington on September 11, while “my evacuated staff” near the White House was doing, well, whatever. (That would be us, his colleagues, who contributed the sole line in that evening’s address, drafted by Karen Hughes, that anyone remembers: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”) Mike never made it into town that day, but that doesn’t prevent him, in his own version, from staying at the center of events—a position from which even the president, as Mike put it in Newsweek, looked “stiff and small.”
“Gerson is a ‘planner,’ not a ‘plunger,’” a 2005 National Journal profile noted, “meaning that he makes a meticulous outline, which he consults during the writing process.” This is true, and equal care and intensity went into crafting the Gerson image. Colleagues were not in the outline, nor were the normal standards of discretion in White House speechwriting. People have a way of disappearing in Mike’s stories. The artful shaping of narrative and editing out of inconvenient detail was never confined to the speechwriting. (The phrase pulling a Gerson, as I recently heard it used around the West Wing, does not refer to graceful writing.) And though in Heroic Conservatism Mike has doubtless offered a kind word or two for speechwriting colleagues, no man I have ever encountered was truer to the saying that, in Washington, one should never take friendship personally.
Woodward’s trilogy about the Bush years is a tale of speechwriting glory that Mike himself could hardly improve upon. Remember those powerful and moving addresses the president gave after September 11? According to Woodward’s State of Denial, Mike wrote all of those speeches by himself—and if there were other speechwriters, well, they must not have made it back from the evacuation:
Gerson, a 40-year-old evangelical Christian who had majored in theology at evangelist Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, had written all of Bush’s memorable post-9/11 speeches, including the one he gave at Washington’s National Cathedral on September 14, 2001—“This conflict has begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour of our choosing”—as well as his remarks before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001: “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign.” Gerson had written Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech identifying Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil” connecting terrorism with weapons of mass destruction, and had also come up with the intellectual and historical roots for Bush’s “preemption” doctrine speech, delivered at West Point in June 2002—“The war on terrorism will not be won on the defensive.”
How do I break the news to Bob Woodward that his high-placed source wrote not a single one of the lines quoted above, at best a third of any of the speeches he mentions, and that the National Cathedral address was half-written before Mike even entered the room?
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.
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.
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.”
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  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.
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.
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.
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 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.