Michael Gerson, columnist (updated)

Let me stay out of the fray over Michael Gerson's behavior in the White House. On the one hand, when I worked with Gerson ten years ago (after hiring him at US News, and liking and respecting him there), he did not behave in anything resembling the way described in Matthew Scully's article. On the other, circumstances were different, and Scully certainly has a lot of names, dates, places, and quotes on his side.

Instead let me reinforce a point made recently by Matthew Yglesias, Brian Beutler*, and others about Gerson's fundamental miscasting in his new role as regular newspaper columnist. There are two big problems Gerson will have to surmount if he wants to succeed.

First, (as argued previously here), he has to stop writing high-mindedly about sweet reason and bipartisan compromise in a way that suggests he had nothing to do with creating the polarized situation he now bemoans. He was for years and years one of the handful of advisors (reportedly) closest to the president. Through that time, despite ample contact with the press, he sent out no detectable signal** that he disapproved in any way of of the Bush-Rove-Cheney tone.

This problem will diminish with the passing years; but Gerson's first 18 months of column-writing will occur with Bush still in the White House, and he can't get away with his current faux-naive approach that long.

Second, and more serious: he has to learn the difference between speech writing and "real" writing. Your job in real writing is to make your meaning clear. You want to be just as precise and sharp about it as possible. If there is an ambiguity, you boil it out -- or should.

Your job in speech writing is to make your meaning just clear enough. Clear enough that people will know what side you're on (their side), but not so excessively clear and detailed that they will realize that they might disagree on specifics. Fundamentally you're looking for a message that 51% of the public can agree with -- a target that most writers wouldn't even known how to think of when sitting down to compose a book, an article, or a column.

There are many "real" writers who for a limited time wrote speeches. Top of the list: Rick Hertzberg, my colleague and successor in the Carter years*** and now the New Yorker's prime essayist. (You want a Republican list? William Safire, or Pat Buchanan, who certainly passes the "make your meaning clear!" test.) But there are also many long-term speech writers who can't or don't make the mental shift toward a different kind of writing. Based on his columns so far, Gerson has not made the shift. (At US News, he had been doing reported stories, not columns.)

How could he solve both problems at once? With a column or article that honestly examined the tension between the goals he espouses now and those he worked for over the last eight years. Not hand-wringing. Not tale-telling. But an application of his considerable intelligence and character to say: how could a government have done things I now consider dangerous? Where were we right, but also where were we wrong? Here's proof that it can be done: the book that earned another former speechwriter (and advertising man) his legitimacy, William Safire's excellent analysis of Nixon, Before the Fall.


* Across the generations, Brian Beutler and I share the bond that connects graduates of the public schools of Redlands, California.

** Can such signals be sent? Two-word answer: Colin Powell.

*** During the first two years of the Carter administration, I was chief of the speechwriting office and Hertzberg was on the staff. I then left and he took my place. He was a better speechwriter than I was (though worse about deadlines), and much more influential with Carter. But neither of us came close to Gerson's reported relationship with Bush.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong has apparently read Before the Fall more recently than I have (ie, within the last 30 years) and unlike me has a copy at hand to quote from. I take his point about the book's lapses from perfection and revise my encouragement to Michael Gerson, thus: write something with all the strengths of Before the Fall, and without any bad parts.