Fascinating: Bush's Speechwriter

Discussion in 'Politics' started by Mariner, Feb 12, 2006.

  1. Mariner
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    Mariner Active Member

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    A fascinating piece in this week's New Yorker profiles Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson, who is apparently the source for many compassionate and religious comments--and some of Bush's more compassionate policies, such as increased AIDS assistance to Africa. He also coined the phrase "axis of evil."

    Overall, from my (Democratic, liberal) point of view, the piece makes George Bush a more interesting person. I'd imagine that it might make some regulars at USMB, who automatically diss Democrats, a little more open-minded as well.

    Here is a link to the whole piece:

    http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/060213fa_fact1

    And here are some excerpts. I apologize that many typos appeared in the process of cutting and pasting. I tried to fix them, but probably missed some:

    THE BELIEVER
    by JEFFREY GOLDBERG
    George W. Bush’s loyal speechwriter.
    Issue of 2006-02-13 and 20
    Posted 2006-02-06

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    At a Welliver [a society for former speechwriters--Mariner] 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 wh believes absolutely in the corporeality of Jesus’ resurrection.

    * * *

    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.”

    * * *

    Unlike the libertarian wing of the Party, he says that the government has a moral duty to help the poor.

    * * *

    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.”

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.”

    * * *

    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?

    * * *

    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.”

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.”

    * * *

    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.)

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.”

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    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.

    * * *

    Mariner
     
  2. archangel
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    archangel Guest

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    You are probably a very good and kind Doctor...however for one to believe a MD is all that compassionate is beyond belief...give us a break here y'all are more concerned with the 'bottom dollar' than most middle class workers are...we just care about 'family values' ya know things like one man-one woman...raising kids...providing a roof and food...a little left over for some summer or winter fun...just the simple and normal things in life...aids is a controllable disaster...keep your pants up and your skirts down...kinda sorta thingee...one man-one woman...ring a bell? :rolleyes:
     
  3. Mariner
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    Mariner Active Member

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    I'm not sure what aspect of my post(s) led to your comments. I will tell you that I did not originally intend to be a physician (even though my parents and almost everyone else in my family is one). I was studying physics, but the gradual loss of my hearing prompted my interest in medicine, particularly how people cope with changes and loss. Perhaps that makes me different from the average doctor--I do experience a lot of compassion for my deaf and hard of hearing patients, and am very grateful that this path in life became open to me. Of the Harvard/MIT students I teach, I'd say about half are in it for the money, the prestige, or to make their parents proud. The other half have a wide variety of motivations, from social reasons like wanting to assist a particular community or work on a particular disease, to technical reasons like wanting to lead research in a particular direction.

    Mariner.
     
  4. Mariner
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    this article is one of the few intimate views we've had of the Bush White House, which has been very opaque in terms of the personalities and interplay between the various characters.

    No one here at USMB has a comment about it? No one's struck that the President's chief speech writer loves Jimmy Carter and FDR, or that he's been the one to pull Bush towards taking action on AIDS in Africa? No comment on Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan's critique of Bush's use of religion? Or any of the other interesting stuff in the article? Did you all know this stuff already?

    Mariner.
     
  5. manu1959
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    manu1959 Left Coast Isolationist

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    none of this is news to me....
     
  6. CSM
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    Naw, you and others on this board have convinced us that Bush and all the current administration are the embodiment of evil and are hell bent in plotting the end of the world. The article can be dismissed as pure propaganda submitted by the Bush administration.


    Sarcasm, folks.
     
  7. Jimmyeatworld
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    Jimmyeatworld Silver Member

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    Yeah. Can't say any of it is too shocking.

    Gerson "loving" Jimmy Carter might not be something that is common knowledge, but can't say it's too surprising either. Personally, I thought the man was a horrid president, but I avoided saying much negative about him because of the fact that I did respect him personally. Of course, that has changed since the muttering old fart has gone off on his rants the last couple of years.
     
  8. Mariner
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    it "shocking" so much as interesting. It humanized the White House and Bush for me in a way I hadn't previously experienced, since they are so secretive. Remember the Reagan days, when we had a clear feeling for what the personalities of Nancy, James Baker, Reagan himself, and the other key players were like? In the Bush White House, it's all a carefully constructed monolith, with everyone reading from the same script. I'm not blaming Bush for this, really. It's a reaction to the fishbowl atmosphere over the past 30 years, since the media stopped giving presidents as much courtesy treatment as they used to. Clinton started the process of spin management, and Bush has continued it.

    Mariner.
     
  9. Jimmyeatworld
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    I would agree with that to some extent. The media does have to take a lot of blame, but the public has to take some too. It's much like the supermarket rags that have all the trashy stories. People complain about them and talk about how trashy they are, but they don't seem to have any trouble selling the trash.

    I think a big problem is there are too many people getting their news from things like The Daily Show. I'm not knocking the show, I'm knocking the people who think it's real news. The opprotunity to get a clear feeling for personalities is available, there are just far too many people in the so called information age who would rather be told what they want to hear from a blog or a comedy show. Seems like every time the personalities try to come out in some mainstream form, it's ripped apart and twisted to fit an agenda.
     

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