Post columnist Michael Gerson, who wrote 9/11 speeches for Bush, dies at 58

Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, helped craft a message of grief and determination after 9/11, then as a Washington Post column The author, who explored conservative politics and faith, about President Donald Trump’s destructive grip on the Republican Party and his own battle with depression, died Nov. 17 in a Washington hospital. He is 58 years old.

Longtime friend and former colleague Peter Wehner said the cause of death was complications from cancer.

Mr. Gerson joined the Bush campaign in 1999 after years of working for conservative and evangelical leaders, including Prison Fellowship Ministries founder and Watergate felon Charles Colson. Mr. Gerson, an evangelical Christian, writes with an eye toward religious and moral imagery, an approach that meshes well with Bush’s personality as a leader who is open to his own Christian beliefs.

Mr. Gerson’s work and relationship with Bush has been compared to other powerful White House partnerships, such as John F. Kennedy’s with his speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen, and Rona De Reagan’s partnership with assistant Peggy Noonan. Conservative commentator William Kristol told The Post in 2006 that in modern times Mr Gerson “probably has more influence than any other staff member who is not White House chief of staff or national security adviser.”

“Mike had substantial influence, not just as a wordsmith, not just as a language craftsman of other people’s policies, but he influenced policy itself,” Kristol said.

As an off-the-cuff speaker, Bush was known for his gaffes and phrasing, but Mr Gerson delivered memorable speeches such as a pledge to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in education for low-income and minority students and democracy. The description – in Bush’s first inaugural address – was “a seed in the wind, taking root in many countries”. As Bush’s confidant and head of his speechwriting team, he also encouraged the use of such memorable phrases as the “axis of evil,” which Bush used to explain the administration’s hawkishness as it began long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. attitude.

In the chaotic months following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Mr Gerson became a key craftsman in articulating the so-called “Bush Doctrine” – which advocates preemptive strikes against potential terrorists and other perceived threats blow. He and his team of writers began shaping Bush’s tone and tone, including speeches at Washington National Cathedral on September 14 and to a joint session of Congress on September 20.

“Our grief has turned to anger, and our anger has turned to determination,” Bush told Congress. “Whether it’s bringing our enemies to justice or justice for our enemies, justice will be served.”

Mr. Gerson and Bush have found common ground in their use of higher powers and religious themes of light and dark, seeing such rhetoric as part of other historical struggles, including the abolitionist movement. “Trying to secularize American political discourse is a real mistake,” Mr. Gerson told NPR in 2006. “It removes one of the main sources of visions of justice in American history.”

Opinion: Michael Gerson followed what he believed in — and America is better for it

Ahead of the January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush’s speechwriters were tasked with linking Iraq to the broader fight against terrorism — a sign that Bush and his inner circle, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, is gearing up for war.

Speechwriter David Froome said he came up with the “axis of hate” to describe Iraq, North Korea and Iran (even though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was an enemy of Tehran’s leader). Mr. Gerson tweaked it to “Axis of Evil” to make it sound more “theological” – a struggle between good and evil – Froome in his 2003 book on Bush, The Right Ones wrote in.

“I think that’s fantastic,” Froome wrote of Mr Gerson’s change. “This is the kind of language that President Bush uses.” (Another speechwriter, Michael Sculley, wrote in The Atlantic that Mr. Gerson was caught up in his own mythology, while Froome and Sculley were more aggressive. participated in the formulation of the “Axis of Evil”.)

Mr. Gerson also helped push the Bush administration’s false claims about Iraq — including debunked allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction — that would be used to justify the 2003 invasion. More than eight years of fighting have claimed the lives of some 4,500 US service members and more than 100,000 Iraqi insurgents and civilians, according to the monitoring group. Some believe the death toll in Iraq is much higher.

Mr. Gerson has never publicly expressed regret for helping sell the Iraq war. His 2007 memoir, “Heroic Conservatism,” declared that American leadership was essential to fighting terrorism as well as global poverty and disease. But he has mostly sidestepped the many moral and legal questions raised by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the consequences of waterboarding prisoners, extraditions to Guantanamo Bay and thousands of civilian casualties.

After a heart attack in December 2004, Mr. Gerson took a full-time policy advisory role, taking a break from the stress of speechwriting. He often laments that the Bush administration’s humanitarian initiatives, such as AIDS prevention in Africa, became world-changing footnotes after 9/11.

With Bush’s backing, Mr. Gerson left the White House in 2006 to pursue outside policy work and writing. The following year, he joined The Washington Post, writing a twice-weekly column that expanded his influence as a conservative who agonized over populism and angry politics and was drawn to religious and social activism as powerful Inspired by the beliefs of our partners.

“It’s a different kind of conservatism,” he said on the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Weekly Newsweek” in 2007, “a conservatism for the common good that says we need to target our policies to people who might not even vote.” to our people.”

In his Washington Post op-ed, Mr. Gerson repeatedly attacked President Barack Obama’s two terms, saying his foreign policy was undisciplined, and the Affordable Care Act — and its push to push the country toward universal health care — is confusing. With Trump’s rise, however, Mr Gerson found himself on the sidelines. He lamented that many in the Republican Party — including evangelical Christians — had switched their allegiance to Trump despite his record of lies, infidelity and racist remarks. But he acknowledged that, for now, he is on the weaker side as a critic of Trump.

“It’s been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character,” Mr. Gerson wrote in an essay for the Post last September 1. “Oddly enough, evangelicals have broadly chosen to deny any role to corporate political character for Trump supporters, and to define any useful vice as a virtue.”

Michael John Gerson was born May 15, 1964, in Belmar, New Jersey, and was raised by evangelical Christian parents in and around St. Louis. His mother was an artist; his father was a dairy engineer whose job included developing ice cream flavors.

He studied theology at Wheaton College, an evangelical He attended schools in suburban Chicago, graduating in 1986. He began his career as a ghostwriter for Prison Fellowship Ministries, which was run by Colson, who described himself as President Richard Nixon’s “hitter” during the Watergate crisis. Coulson was jailed for seven months for obstruction of justice.

While in prison, Coulson said, he experienced a religious conversion that changed his life. It proved to be a profound inspiration for the young Mr. Gerson — and a first contact with a man who had heard the president. “I’ve read a lot of books about Watergate in which Chuck is a character with few virtues other than loyalty,” Mr. Gerson wrote in the Post in 2012. “I met a different person.”

In the late 1980s, Mr. Gerson entered politics as policy director for Senator Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), and later wrote speeches for Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kansas) during the 1996 presidential campaign. Mr. Gerson worked as a senior editor at US News for two years before being hired by Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove as a speechwriter on the Bush-Cheney ballot in the run-up to the 2000 election.

At first, it was just a political “tightrope walk”, Mr Gerson said. He then found like-minded Bush at a campaign event in Gaffney, South Carolina, when someone in the crowd asked how to stop undocumented immigrants at the southern border.

Bush “took the opportunity to remind his rural conservative audience that ‘family values ​​don’t stop at the Rio Grande,'” Mr. Gerson wrote, “as long as Mexican ‘mums and dads’ can’t support the children in their homes, They will look for opportunities in the United States.”

Mr. Gerson’s 2010 book, “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Age,” co-authored with former speechwriting colleague Wehner, called for evangelicals to take action and use their influence for broader social and economic planning.

In 1990, Mr. Gerson married the former Dawn Soon Miller. In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons, Michael and Nicholas, and two brothers.

In his Post column, Mr. Gerson candidly describes his battles with cancer and depression. “I have no doubt that I will end up repeating the cycle of depression,” he wrote in February 2019. “But now I have some self-knowledge that I can’t take away. I know — when I’m clear-headed — I’m going to choose hope.”

Post editorial page editor David Shipley called Mr. Gerson “a rare writer whose mind, heart and soul are expressed in equal measure in his work.”

In his 2021 holiday column, Mr. Gerson cites a line from a poem by Sylvia Plath and examines his battle with cancer for an uplifting takeaway. Thought: “Hope will prevail.”

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