Letter From Washington: The Believer
George W. Bush’s loyal speechwriter.
By Jeffrey Goldberg
The New Yorker, February 13, 2006
[Read this article at The New Yorker’s website]
The Judson Welliver Society is a bipartisan, sporadically serious, and generally impious club of ex-White House speechwriters. Its founder and president-for-life is the former Times columnist William Safire, who once wrote speeches for Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon. Welliver, a former newspaperman, was the first “literary clerk” ever to be placed on the White House payroll; he wrote speeches for the subcompetent Warren G. Harding and the ineloquent Calvin Coolidge. The members of the society that carries his nearly forgotten name get together every year or so to remind one another of the maddening yet elating experience of watching the most powerful men on earth rewrite their otherwise perfect sentences.
The December, 2002, meeting of the Welliver Society took place at the headquarters of the Motion Picture Association of America, two blocks from the White House. Jack Valenti, the former Lyndon Johnson aide, who was then the M.P.A.A. chairman, provided his dining room for free, which is crucial to any gathering of writers, especially those with money. In attendance that night were writers who had served every President since Harry S. Truman, including Theodore Sorensen, who wrote for John F. Kennedy, and much of the recently decommissioned Clinton speechwriting team. White House speechwriters on active service are not offered membership in the Society, but they are invited to the dinner, mostly to be put on the spot. So there was a good deal of anticipation when it came time for Michael Gerson, then President Bush’s chief speechwriter, to address the group. By 2002, it had become the cross-party consensus that Gerson was almost Sorensen’s equal in skill and rhetorical ambition. (“George W. Bush’s first week as President of the United States began with a speech that, taken as a whole and judged purely as a piece of writing, was shockingly good,” Hendrik Hertzberg, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and not a Bush enthusiast, wrote in this magazine in January of 2001.) Gerson has provided Bush with striking expressions, such as “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” to describe how prejudicial perceptions affect minority students, and his invocation of the American dream, in June, 1999, when then Governor Bush announced his candidacy:
The success of America has never been proven by cities of gold, but by citizens of character. Men and women who work hard, dream big, love their family, serve their neighbor. Values that turn a piece of earth into a neighborhood, a community, a chosen nation.
Unlike most speechwriters, who tend to be segregated from policymaking, Gerson has always been an influential figure in the White House, in part because he shares Bush’s belief in the power of faith-both men are evangelical Christians-and because he possesses a preternatural ability, his friends say, to anticipate Bush’s thinking. There is a “mind meld” between the two men, Bush’s counsellor Dan Bartlett told me, adding, “When you bring a West Texas approach to the heavy debates of the world, there has to be a translator, and Mike is the translator.”
Gerson is known to his friends for his pre-ironic sensibility, and for his soft heart; I once saw him close to tears when he spoke about AIDS patients in Uganda. But he is also a capable operator. In 2002, a senior White House official told me, Gerson outflanked Dick Cheney, who didn’t want Bush to declare unambiguously his support for a Palestinian state, as Gerson had urged him to do-and as Bush did, in a speech that Gerson wrote. Gerson is also unashamedly guileless in his search for heroes; when he came to Washington, in the late nineteen-eighties, he would sometimes park outside the home of George F. Will, hoping to catch a glimpse of the conservative columnist. And, even in the Bush White House, he is known for his piety. On display in his office is a book called “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” photographs of African-Americans praying. He told the National Journal’s Carl Cannon, last year, that the book “moved me no end.” Cannon then noted, as if in wonderment, “Gerson really speaks this way.”
At a Welliver dinner, the remarks of ex-speechwriters tend toward carefully calibrated irreverence; current speechwriters aren’t expected to gripe or to disclose confidences. But at the 2002 event, Gerson spoke with immoderate earnestness. According to several people who attended, Safire asked Gerson to tell the group something it didn’t know about Bush. Gerson, in a quavering voice, responded with a story that left some of his audience nonplussed. He described a call that he got moments after Bush finished addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001. Bush thanked Gerson for his work on the speech, to which Gerson replied, “Mr. President, this is why God wants you here.” Gerson then related Bush’s response, as evidence of his thoughtfulness. “The President said, ‘No, this is why God wants us here.’ ”
An uncomfortable silence filled the room, and then one of Bill Clinton’s speechwriters said, in a stage whisper, “God must really hate Al Gore.”
Gerson knows that he is an enigma to the liberal establishment of Washington. He is a churchgoing, anti-gay-marriage, pro-life supply-sider who believes absolutely in the corporeality of Jesus’ resurrection. He is also supremely loyal to an ideological President in a city that tends to grant only posthumous approbation to ideologues, particularly conservative ones. Yet among his role models he counts Martin Luther King, Jr., and the radical evangelical abolitionists of the nineteenth century, and his chief vocational preoccupation is the battle against infectious disease in Africa. He has won the admiration of many AIDS and debt-relief activists, including the U2 singer Bono, who, in an e-mail, said, “Mike is known as a ‘moral compass’ at the White House. Seems like that compass keeps pointing him in the direction of Africa,” where Gerson has “obviously left a part of himself.” He is popular with reporters, perhaps because he was once one himself, at U.S. News & World Report. He has a self-deprecating manner that the Washington press corps is surprised to find in the Bush White House. “Mike has his own consistencies that defy the normal consistencies in our politics,” E. J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post, said. “For Mike, it’s thoroughly consistent to be pro-life and to work for poor people in Africa.”
Gerson also baffles many Republicans. Unlike the libertarian wing of the Party, he says that the government has a moral duty to help the poor. When Bush, in his first Presidential campaign, criticized small-government Republicanism as “an approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose than ‘Leave us alone,’ ” the head of the Cato Institute suggested that Bush’s speechwriter was moonlighting for Hillary Clinton.
Gerson defends Bush’s tax cuts, which the President’s critics believe not only favor those with the highest incomes but have also left less money for important domestic programs; Gerson believes that free markets and free trade are the best means of lifting people out of poverty, and that lower taxes stimulate both. “The part of Mike I have the most trouble understanding, perhaps because we simply disagree, is how he can square his support for pretty substantial spending for the very poorest among us with a defense of Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest people,” Dionne said. “Maybe Mike just buys supply-side economics in a way that I don’t, but most supply-siders don’t think like Mike.”
Jim Towey, who directs the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which steers government funds to religious groups that provide social services, explained Gerson’s role in the Bush Administration this way: “There are some people in the White House who are more conservative than compassionate, and some who are more compassionate than conservative. Mike is more compassionate than conservative.”
Gerson’s role as protector of “compassionate conservatism” was evident during a meeting in the first term with Bush and his advisers, who were discussing a proposal to spend fifteen billion dollars to combat AIDS in Africa. According to Dan Bartlett, Bush went around the room and then asked, “What do you think, Gerson?” (“The President just calls him Gerson,” Joshua Bolten, the White House budget chief, told me. “Mike isn’t the sort of guy who lends himself to silly nicknames.”) Bartlett said that Gerson answered with typical bluntness: “The bottom line is that we’re the richest nation in history, and history will judge us severely if we don’t do this.” The room went quiet. Then Bush said, “That’s Gerson being Gerson.” Although the program’s implementation has been sclerotic and not without controversy (critics have faulted it for emphasizing abstinence over condom use), the Administration now spends far more each year to combat AIDS in Africa than the Clinton Administration did. Bolten, a friend of Gerson’s, recalled another meeting, in December, 2004, about domestic-spending cuts. There was a skirmish that day between Bolten and Gerson, but neither can remember the details, mainly because Gerson suffered a mild heart attack early the next morning. He was rushed into surgery, and had two coronary stents implanted in his chest. A few hours later, Gerson sent Bolten an e-mail from the intensive-care unit: “I told you that budget was too extreme and shocking. I couldn’t take it.”
Even before the heart attack, Gerson, who is forty-one, was not a picture of stout good health. He is slight of stature and his skin has a tendency to shade gray, as one might expect of someone who spends his life sequestered in the White House, or in a nearby Starbucks, where he frequently writes speeches. Many of Gerson’s friends thought that he would quit after the coronary, but Bush asked Gerson to become a senior policy adviser, and he moved to a first-floor West Wing office, two doors down from the Oval Office. While he would still play a role in Bush’s speeches, Gerson was told to focus on Africa policy, on democracy in the Middle East, and on domestic social programs, including faith-based initiatives-in short, to be the advocate for such goals.
Before he took on this new role, though, Gerson-with his first-term writing partners, Matthew Scully and John McConnell-wrote the speech that is perhaps the best summation of Bush’s ideology, the second Inaugural, in which Bush said, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Like many Gerson speeches, the second Inaugural was steeped in the language of faith-and contained utopian promises that will be difficult to fulfill. In that way, it highlighted, perhaps inadvertently, the distance between rhetoric and accomplishment in the Bush Presidency.
Gerson is aware that Bush’s reputation hinges on the outcome of the Iraq war, and one day in his office we spoke about the Administration’s audacious goal of democratizing the Middle East. When I suggested that Bush might live to a great old age and never see the disappearance of totalitarianism in the region, he demurred, saying, “I think in three years this will be seen differently.”
Gerson’s office is windowless, and evidence of his writerly quirks could be seen on his desk, which was littered with violently chewed pen caps and legal pads that were dark with illegible scribbling. Gerson’s fidgeting is a source of amusement to his friends; they speak of occasions when he gnawed through pens, leaving his mouth filled with blue ink. At one point in our conversation, he rubbed his eyes so ferociously that I feared he would detach a retina. “I’m a worrier,” he said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I know people think it’s funny, but these aren’t charming eccentricities. When I had my heart attack, my doctor was very clear that I had to find a different way to work, without putting so much pressure on myself.”
The West Wing is no place for tranquil thought, especially as Bush tries to revive his Presidency. Gerson conceded that the current moment is a complicated and testing one for the White House, but he pointed out that Bush had predicted it in his speech of September 20, 2001. “You have a section where the President says, in essence, ‘Over time, life’s going to go back to normal for all of you, but it’s not going back to normal for me,’ ” Gerson said, quoting Bush quoting himself. “Now, that was written assuming that we didn’t have twenty more attacks, and for the first few months afterward we were expecting daily attacks. We had even worked on a set of remarks for a follow-up attack.” Gerson argued that the “successful protection of the American people reduces the sense of urgency on these questions of terrorism.”
When I asked Gerson about the recent domestic-spying controversy, he replied, almost irritably, “These are the appropriate constitutional and necessary methods to defend American liberty.” He added, “The President views us as at war, and he’d much rather be on that side of things than have to apologize after an attack. I don’t want to write any more ‘days of national mourning’ speeches.”
Gerson, like others in the Bush White House, seems to regard the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as somewhat beside the point, but he noted that Bush has now admitted the obvious-that the war has not gone as predicted. “I know that some of my decisions have led to terrible loss-and not one of those decisions has been taken lightly,” Bush said in an Oval Office speech in December that was written by Gerson. “I know this war is controversial, yet being your President requires doing what I believe is right and accepting the consequences.” Bush did not signal ambivalence, or a change of tactics, but the confessional tone, Gerson said, helped people to hear his argument for war in a new way. “We gained the ability to do the pushback by being realistic on the ground.”
In December, the Washington Post reported that some senior White House staff members, including Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, opposed this provisionally candid approach, but Gerson said Bush felt that he couldn’t respond because of the “unbelievable partisanship” of the Democrats, and because of the press of events-most notably, Hurricane Katrina, which last August destroyed much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Gerson told me, in an uncharacteristic burst of spin, “It’s amazing how much Katrina dominated the White House staff in terms of time, effort, and energy and emotion.”
In fact, few believed that Bush demonstrated much leadership throughout the Hurricane Katrina crisis; when the storm made landfall he was on vacation, in Crawford, Texas, and seemingly detached from daily events. His encouraging words to Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“Brownie, you’re doin’ a heckuva job!”), have become a comedic cliche. Bush did not, however, fail oratorically. In a speech from New Orleans two weeks after the hurricane struck, he said, “The people of this land have come back from fire, flood, and storm to build anew-and to build better than what we had before. Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature-and we will not start now.”
The words, which were Gerson’s, were seen as hollow against the chaotic backdrop of the federal government’s response. Gerson, though, argues for the importance of choosing the right language in a crisis: “In times of national grief, the words really do matter. And, in times of focussing national purpose, the words really do matter.” So it was with the second Inaugural. “I think the President believes that one role of his is to be practical, realistic, and effective, but he also believes that he has a second, and maybe more important, role, to set out an ideal,” Gerson said. “The President’s view is that one of the great soft-power advantages of the United States of America is that we can imagine a different and better world, that we are unique because we are not defined by race or tradition but by a set of universal ideals.” Bush’s critics, Gerson continued, lack historical perspective. “This is not some Don Quixote thing for the President. This is an odd time to be skeptical about the advance of freedom, given the advances we’ve made over the past fifty years. There are three billion people now who live in democratic countries.” Gerson went on to quote Martin Luther King: ” ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.’ I believe that deeply.”
Gerson frames issues in stark moral terms. The three most famous words he has ever set to paper are “axis of evil,” a phrase referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea that made its first appearance in the 2002 State of the Union Message. A speechwriter then on Gerson’s team, David Frum, had proposed “axis of hatred,” but, according to Frum, Gerson substituted “evil” for its more theological resonance. “Evil exists, and it has to be confronted,” Gerson told me.
Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Soviet political prisoners later said that the words gave them hope, but the foreign-policy realists associated with the Presidency of Bush’s father believed, and still do, that the expression was inflammatory and unwise. As a speechwriter, Gerson said, his conscience is, literally, his guide. “When we’re dealing with these questions, it always occurs to me, How would people who are living in that evil experience it?” he said. “How would exiles, and prisoners, and the families of the dead describe it? Now, that’s an element of realism. Are you going to take their side or not? When you talk about women being beheaded in soccer stadiums, or women being stoned for adultery, how would they experience it? I think asking this question is a form of realism.” He continued, “I think one of the ways Presidents and governments and civilizations are viewed is whether they side with this moral reality or not.”
Yet Bush and his Administration have sometimes stood with the autocrats-as in China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. The experiment in Iraq is not without hope, but it is a testament to the limitations of nation-building-and to the limitations of the Bush Administration’s designated nation-builders. All speechwriters create an ideal character of the Presidents they serve, but the actual Bush has now and then been eclipsed by Gerson’s idea of Bush, and not only in foreign policy. What is perhaps Gerson’s most extraordinary speech for Bush was a consideration of the legacy of slavery in America. Bush delivered it in 2003, at a former slave-trading station in Senegal:
The spirit of Africans in America did not break. Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions. And yet, in the words of the African proverb, “no fist is big enough to hide the sky.” All the generations of oppression under the laws of man could not crush the hope of freedom and defeat the purposes of God.
These words had no discernible effect on Bush’s relations with AfricanAmericans, which could hardly have been worse, and the speech was never given much attention. Gerson acknowledged that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina has not helped the relationship between Bush and black America. He said that he had hoped the storm “would open a larger debate on poverty and race in America. But the Republican leadership in Congress has not shown an interest in that. This has exposed something we eventually have to confront.” Gerson said that African-Americans might like Bush if they knew him better. “The President I know is a very tolerant man,” he told me. “The President I know is a very compassionate man.” Gerson was introduced to George W. Bush in 1999. Their first meeting-a job interview-did not begin auspiciously. Gerson had written speeches for, among others, the Presidential candidates Steve Forbes and Bob Dole. But, according to Carl Cannon, Gerson was so nervous about seeing Bush that he was spotted hyperventilating in the hallway of a Washington Marriott, where the meeting was to take place. David Beckwith, a former Bush aide, told Cannon, “There was a Texas Ranger in Bush’s security detail. He comes and says, ‘There’s this guy out there who says he’s got an appointment with the Governor, but we’re worried about him. He’s sweating and breathing heavily.’ “
When Gerson was brought into the room, Bush, who had read his earlier work, asked just one question: “Mike, did you write these speeches?” Gerson said yes. Bush said, “If this is your work, this is what I want.” Gerson doesn’t recollect the anxiety attack, but he remembers feeling that he had found in Bush an ideal President.
The person whom Gerson first saw as an ideal President, though, was Jimmy Carter. Gerson’s father, an ice-cream maker, was a Republican, but his mother was a Kennedy Democrat, and in high school, in St. Louis (the family moved there from New Jersey when Gerson was ten), Gerson, precociously political, became a Carter supporter. To Gerson, whose parents were evangelical Christians (his last name comes from a Jewish grandfather), Carter’s candid evangelicalism was thrilling. “He was very straightforward about his beliefs,” Gerson said. “It was very exciting.” He recalled Carter’s embarrassment after telling Playboy that he had committed “adultery in my heart.” Secular America found it amusing, but the expression, which came from the Sermon on the Mount, resonated with religious Christians.
Gerson still admires Carter, a furious critic of the Bush Administration, and many other Democrats as well. One day, I asked him to name his favorite Presidents. He immediately placed Franklin D. Roosevelt at the top of the list. “I have gained a new respect for him in my five years in the White House, for his moral clarity and firmness,” Gerson said. I asked him if he appreciated F.D.R.’s frank use of Christian imagery-after all, F.D.R. often referred to the war with Germany as a battle between the Cross and the swastika. Gerson laughed. “We would never use language like that to the extent he did,” he said. Also on Gerson’s list were Truman, Kennedy, and, “for his vision of democracy,” Woodrow Wilson. Finally, he admitted a Republican. “Reagan, to some extent,” he said, “for the recognition of a moral dimension of foreign policy.”
When I asked Gerson why, then, he wasn’t a Democrat, he replied that the Party had left him-in particular on the issue of abortion. In 1980, he presented Carter’s positions in a mock debate at his Christian high school, but, he recalled, “in the vote afterward it might have just been me for him.” By 1984, he was campaigning for Reagan, who was running against Walter Mondale. “In college, I was becoming very active in the pro-life cause, and there was no room for our position,” he said. “The Democratic Party, in many ways, abandoned its great tradition of caring for the weakest members of our society. It has elevated a philosophy of choice and individual autonomy above the needs of the unborn, the handicapped, and, on the question of euthanasia, the elderly. These are the very people I thought the Democratic Party should care about.” (Carter likes Gerson’s writing, but told me that it was a “gross exaggeration” to say that the Democratic Party made itself hostile to anti-abortion activists when he was President. “Tell Gerson he’s welcome to come back to the Party, if he wants,” Carter said.)
Gerson attended Georgetown University for a year, but transferred, in 1983, to Wheaton College, an evangelical school near Chicago. In 1985, he wrote a column for the Wheaton College newspaper in praise of Mother Teresa for her commitment to “the poor and the helpless unborn” and, notably, to AIDS patients. The column was written long before AIDS became an issue of general Christian concern, and it was noticed far from campus. Charles Colson read it and invited Gerson to work for him in Washington at the prison ministry he started after his release from jail, where he served a sentence for his role in the Watergate scandal. After that, Gerson went to work as a writer and adviser to Dan Coats, the U.S. senator from Indiana, who was looking at ways to interest conservatives in issues of poverty. During the 1996 Presidential campaign, Gerson wrote speeches for Forbes and Dole, and then went to work for U.S. News. Steven Waldman, the founder of the religion-oriented Web site Beliefnet.com, was Gerson’s editor at U.S. News, where his main journalistic interest, Waldman said, was the world of charities. “Mike was very curious to find out what actually worked” to bring people out of poverty.
Gerson is close in spirit to neo-evangelicalism, which grew up in opposition to Protestant fundamentalism, and to Catholic social teaching, which urges greater engagement in the suffering of the world. “Gerson represents a wholly new thing,” Michael Cromartie, the vice-president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a right-of-center think tank in Washington, said. Cromartie, who has studied the role of evangelicals in public life, believes that the first generation of evangelical activists became fixated on a narrow set of conflict-ridden issues, mainly abortion and gay marriage. “Many of the things that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say are contrary to the very core of the Christian message, which is about forgiveness, grace, and charity, not condemnation,” Cromartie said, and added, “Michael is very much focussed on the command to love your neighbor, and that means working on poverty, but, unlike Protestant liberals, he does not automatically equate this commandment with increased federal spending.”
Gerson’s life is built around prayer and faith, and so, too, are his speeches. Bush has been criticized for his regular invocations of God, but in that respect he is part of a long tradition. Bill Clinton often invoked the Deity, even referring, on occasion, to Jesus. (Bush frequently mentions “the Almighty,” and “the Creator,” but a close reading of his speeches shows them to be scrupulous in their nonsectarianism.) “The President can’t imagine that someone who is President of the United States could not have faith, because he derives so much from it,” Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, said. “I can see him struggle with other world leaders who don’t appear to be grounded in some faith,” he said. He added, “The President doesn’t care what faith it is, as long as it’s faith.” (Card also called Gerson “a C. S. Lewis type,” adding, “I don’t want you to think that we’re a bunch of amoral people running around here and finally Mike Gerson comes along and sets us right.”) Gerson says that he is flummoxed by the debate over religiosity in the White House. “There’s an idea that we are constantly trying to sneak into the President’s speeches religious language, code words, that only our supporters understand,” he said. “But they are code words only if you don’t know them, and most people know them.”
To illustrate his point, Gerson reminded me about the Times’ coverage of Bush’s first campaign. In April of 2000, after one Bush appearance, Frank Bruni wrote, “Mr. Bush also offered an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle. ‘Don’t be takin’ a speck out of your neighbor’s eye,’ he told the audience, ‘when you got a log in your own.’ ” Bush, in his inimitable way, was actually making reference to a saying of Jesus, quoted in Matthew: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Gerson, smiling, said, “No one at the Times seemed to know that these were the words of the Sermon on the Mount.”
But Bush’s reliance on the language of faith has led some to wonder whether he seeks comfort or actual political guidance from Scripture. Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan and the first President Bush, has criticized the second Inaugural, in particular the assertion that America’s “ultimate goal” is “ending tyranny in the world,” and suggested that the perfection of an imperfect world might better be left to God. “Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, adding, “This is not heaven, it’s earth.”
Gerson told me that Bush finds no policy prescriptions in Christianity, but he believes that God’s desires helped to shape the ideas at the core of the second Inaugural. “The President’s views about the universal appeal of liberty come in part from the fact that he is kind of marinated in the American ideal,” Gerson said. “They come in part from a view that human beings are created in the image of God and will not forever suffer the oppressor’s sword, that eventually there’s something deep in the human soul that cries out for freedom. That doesn’t mean he believes that God blesses this particular foreign policy or that particular foreign policy.”
I once asked Gerson to describe the role that the Sermon on the Mount plays in his own life, and in Bush’s life. (The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr calls the Sermon an “impossible ethical ideal” for human behavior.) “The Gospel stands in judgment of all human institutions and ideologies. It’s not identical with any one of them,” Gerson said. There is a danger, though, in “proof-texting”-searching the Bible for policy instruction. “You can’t find the justification for anti-sodomy laws in the Book of Matthew,” he said. “There is this idea that you can know what Jesus would think about missile defense or S.U.V.s, but it’s wrong… . I don’t have any moral qualms about saying that free-market economics are the single best way to take millions of people out of poverty that the world has ever seen,” but he added that he didn’t learn this from the Bible.
He said that the Sermon’s influence on his writing, and on Bush’s thinking, is far more profound than its influence on mere policy. Bush’s vision of democratic universalism owes much to Wilson, and Jefferson. But Gerson suggests that Bush is sure of his path because God is the God of justice. He even suggests that Bush’s leadership style-and his oratorical ambitions-are informed by the example of Jesus. “The ideal that’s set out in the Book of Matthew is a high one,” Gerson told me, “and the Sermon on the Mount has played an extraordinarily challenging role in the history of the world. And you notice that it didn’t have a realist, pragmatic understanding of what is possible. So maybe this is an attribute of leadership, to help imagine a different world.”
Imagining a different world is not the same as engineering it, and Peggy Noonan is not the only conservative to have detected a whiff of messianism in Bush’s vision. In a column last year, George Will noted that, in the Cold War, “the survival of liberty meant the containment of tyranny. Now, Bush says, the survival of liberty must involve the expansion of liberty until ‘our world’ is scrubbed clean of tyranny.” Speaking about Iraq, Gerson’s own pastor, the Reverend John Yates, told me that he “had a hard time justifying this war, but I was so torn internally that I didn’t speak out publicly.” Yates is the rector of the Falls Church, an evangelical Episcopal church in a Virginia suburb that takes its name from the church. The Falls Church has a venerable history-George Washington was once a warden there-and today it counts among its parishioners the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, and several Republican members of Congress. Yates praised Gerson as a devoted worshipper who is at church each Sunday morning with his wife, Dawn, who works on Capitol Hill for a Republican congressman, and their two young sons.
“Michael is a person of high morality,” Yates said, adding that he understands Gerson’s attraction to Bush. “The President’s vision of spreading democracy is a wonderful, noble vision, and I’m glad he has it, and I’m glad he has Michael. It’s just that often we Americans get into a situation where we find that we’re not nearly so knowledgeable about the world as we thought we were. Americans seem to be particularly vulnerable to that. Are there people who are not ready for democracy? I hope and pray that people are, but I don’t know.”
Gerson drafted much of last month’s State of the Union Message, sharing the work with John McConnell and the new chief of speechwriting, William McGurn. The speech had its moments-for instance, the tribute to Coretta Scott King-but it was more quotidian than inspiring, and the next morning I found Gerson in a somewhat deflated mood. “It’s always a letdown after a speech,” he said. It makes him nervous to attend the event in the House chamber; on the night of the speech, “fidgeting on the couch,” he watched at home. “I met a playwright who couldn’t watch his plays,” Gerson said, by way of explanation.
He thought that Bush gave an excellent performance-“He looked like he was enjoying himself”-but was surprised that lines he expected to win an ovation were greeted with silence. “We had two paragraphs on foreign aid, about the compassion of America, which is unusual for a Presidential speech, and there was no applause,” he said. “I don’t know-it could be a bad applause line, or it could be a sign that foreign assistance doesn’t sell. It happens.”
The speech contained several mentions of “compassion.” When I suggested to Gerson that there were few ideas to match the sentiment, he disagreed. “There’s seventy million dollars to provide more money for people waiting” for AIDS drugs, he said. “There’s ninety million for about three million rapid H.I.V. tests, where we’re going to focus on the prison population and on I.V.-drug users.” But, he went on, “we’re living in a different budgetary situation than we were in 2003, when the President could announce a fifteen-billion-dollar AIDS initiative, and that’s just a reality. There’s nothing that anyone can do about that, and I can’t change that.”
Nor did Bush say much about faith-based programs, to which even some conservatives have argued that the Administration is insufficiently committed. David Kuo, the former deputy director of the White House program, wrote on Beliefnet.com last year that, when Bush won the Presidency, “there was every reason to believe he’d be not only pro-life and pro-family, as conservatives tended to be, but also pro-poor, which was daringly radical. After all, there were specific promises he intended to keep.” But politics stood in the way, Kuo said, and funding disappeared. “Who was going to hold them accountable? Drug addicts, alcoholics, poor moms, struggling urban social-service organizations, and pastors aren’t quite the N.R.A.” Kuo quit in 2003, in frustration; his predecessor, John DiIulio, has also said that the program had been politicized. Gerson pointed out that Bush promised “twenty-five million dollars for African-American churches and faith-based institutions to do H.I.V./AIDS awareness.” When I noted that the amount seemed slight, Gerson said, somewhat apologetically, “It’s a start.”
Gerson said that he finds backing for his altruistic concerns throughout the Administration-he named Josh Bolten and Karl Rove as allies. Privately, though, he has told friends that he occasionally feels that Bush is his only ally. On such issues as the Iraq war, which occupied a large portion of the State of the Union address, Gerson, like Bush, has never wavered. “The people of the Middle East are not exceptions to this great trend of history, and, by standing up for these things, we are on the right side of history,” he said.
I once asked Gerson whether he believed that God put George W. Bush in the White House in order to defeat tyranny. “It’s a basic evangelical truth that God is interested in our lives and guides us,” Gerson replied. “Just because God’s hand was guiding us doesn’t mean that he’s not guiding other people. It’s not exclusive. It’s just a sense that God is at work in your life, that things happen for a reason.” He also believes that God has a plan for him. His heart attack, which might have scared others into semiretirement, helped him focus on important things-his family, most notably, and his work, he said. “God gave me a set of talents, and I want to use them to do what is right.”