Sunday, August 12, 2007


Due to Matthew Scully's tell-all on Micheal Gerson in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly, I take back anything nice I have ever said about the former White House speechwriter:

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.

I must have been naive to think that the Bush administration could actually attract senior staffers who are genuinely not interested in self-aggrandizement. This example really captures Scully's point:

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.

That is sad. Really sad. I guess the satirical commentary offered up in the 2004 comedy Saved! was right all along: Evangelism has nothing to do with being humble or good-natured.

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