Michael Gerson, Bush speechwriter on 9/11, dies at 58
WASHINGTON – Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush who helped craft messages of grief and resolve after 9/11, then explored conservative politics and faith as a Washington Post columnist writing on issues ranging from President Donald Trump’s disruptive grip on the GOP to his own struggles with depression, died Nov. 17 at a hospital in Washington. He was 58.
The cause of death was complications from cancer, said Peter Wehner, a longtime friend and former colleague.
After years of working as a writer for conservative and evangelical leaders, including Prison Fellowship Ministries founder and Watergate felon Charles Colson, Mr. Gerson joined the Bush campaign in 1999. Mr. Gerson, an evangelical Christian, wrote with an eye toward religious and moral imagery, and that approach melded well with Bush’s personality as a leader open about his own Christian faith.
Mr. Gerson’s work and bonds with Bush drew comparisons to other powerful White House partnerships, such as John F. Kennedy’s with his speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen and Ronald Reagan’s with aide Peggy Noonan. Conservative commentator William Kristol told The Post in 2006 that Mr. Gerson “might have had more influence than any other White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser” in modern times.
“Mike was substantively influential, not just a wordsmith, not just a crafter of language for other people’s policies, but he influenced policy itself,” Kristol said.
As an impromptu speaker, Bush had a reputation for gaffes and mangling phrases, but Mr. Gerson provided him with memorable flights of oratory, such as the pledge to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in the education of low-income and minority students and the description of democracy – in Bush’s first inaugural address – as a “seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.” As a Bush confidant and head of the speechwriting team, he also encouraged such memorable turns of phrase as “axis of evil,” which Bush used to explain the administration’s hawkish posture as it started long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the chaotic months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Gerson became the key craftsman articulating what became known as the “Bush Doctrine” – which advocated preemptive strikes against potential terrorists and other perceived threats. With his team of writers, he began shaping Bush’s tone and tenor, including addresses at Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 14 and to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20.
“Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution,” Bush told Congress. “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Mr. Gerson and Bush found common ground in the use of religious themes of higher power and light vs. darkness, seeing such rhetoric as part of other historic struggles, including the abolitionist movement. “It is a real mistake to try to secularize American political discourse,” Mr. Gerson told NPR in 2006. “It removes one of the primary sources of visions of justice in American history.”
Before the State of the Union address in January 2002, Bush’s speechwriters were instructed to link Iraq to the wider battles against terrorism – a sign that Bush and his inner circle, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, were gearing up for war.
Speechwriter David Frum said he came up with “axis of hatred” to describe Iraq, North Korea and Iran (even though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was a foe of leaders in Tehran). Mr. Gerson tweaked it to “axis of evil” to make it sound more “theological” – a battle between good and evil – Frum wrote in his 2003 book on Bush, “The Right Man.”
“I thought that was terrific,” Frum wrote about Mr. Gerson’s change. “It was the sort of language President Bush used.” (Writing in the Atlantic, another speechwriter, Michael Scully, said that Mr. Gerson was caught up in his own mythology and that Frum and Scully were more actively involved in formulating “axis of evil.”)
Mr. Gerson also had a hand in pushing the Bush White House’s false assertions about Iraq – including debunked allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – that would seek to justify the 2003 invasion. More than eight years of war claimed the lives of about 4,500 U.S. service personnel and more than 100,000 Iraqi insurgents and civilians, according to monitoring groups. Some place the number of Iraqi deaths far higher.
Mr. Gerson never publicly expressed regrets for having helped sell the Iraq War. His 2007 memoir, “Heroic Conservatism,” declared that U.S. leadership is essential to fight terrorism and global poverty and disease. But he mostly sidestepped the many ethical and legal questions arising from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and such consequences as the waterboarding of prisoners, renditions to Guantánamo Bay and the thousands of civilian casualties.
After a heart attack in December 2004, Mr. Gerson stepped back from the stresses of speechwriting and took on policy advisory roles full time. He often lamented that the Bush administration’s humanitarian initiatives, such as AIDS prevention in Africa, became footnotes in a world changed by 9/11.
Mr. Gerson left the White House in 2006, with Bush’s backing, to pursue outside policy work and writing. The next year, he joined The Post and wrote twice-weekly columns that expanded his reach as a conservative distressed by populism and the politics of anger, and animated by the conviction that religion and social activism are powerful partners.