RIP Michael Gerson:

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Karen Tumulty
Deputy editorial page editor and columnist |
November 17, 2022 at 7:14 a.m. EST

One of the biblical injunctions sometimes cited by Michael Gerson, who died Thursday at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer, comes from the New Testament book of Colossians: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

That advice works not only for Christian believers such as he was, but also in the sometimes brutal political world in which he made his mark. He was a presidential speechwriter whose own words were, indeed, singularly seasoned and notably full of grace. For the past 15 years, he enriched the pages of this newspaper as a columnist for the Opinions section.
Michael Gerson from 2013: Saying goodbye to my child, the youngster
But civility, as Mike also noted, does not preclude tough-mindedness. Nor should it be mistaken for a lack of principles or perspective. His own were rooted in the faith that fueled and defined his involvement with politics, and he was scorching in his assessment of his fellow evangelicals when theirs took what he saw as a more cynical turn. In a September essay he wrote these supposedly conservative Christians “have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry.”
“This,” Mike wrote, “is inconsistent with Christianity by any orthodox measure.”







Mike and I were colleagues and friends whose paths crossed pretty regularly. One place we spent time together was at semiannual conferences in Florida known as the Faith Angle Forum, where people gather to discuss religion and politics.
It was during one of those meetings in 2014 that, for the first and only time, I saw Mike get angry — really angry.

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I was seated next to him for a session on religious conflict and the future of the Middle East, in which one of the speakers was Elliott Abrams, a fellow George W. Bush White House veteran who had served as deputy national security adviser for Middle East policy.


“It used to annoy me enormously when President Bush, for whom I was working, would say Islam is a religion of peace,” Abrams said, “because the real response to that is, ‘Where is your theology degree from?’ ”
As Abrams continued along those lines — at one point claiming the “average American” was justified in thinking “this is crap … because all these people who are doing beheadings are Muslims” — I could feel Mike grow tense in the chair next to me. He waited his turn to be called upon, and then he confronted his former colleague.
“We praise Islam, and every president from now on will praise Islam on religious holidays because there are millions of peaceful citizens who hold this view,” Mike said. “It’s also a theologically sophisticated view, as opposed to what you’re arguing … every tradition, religious tradition, has forces of tribalism and violence in its history, background, of theology, and every religious tradition has resources of respect for the other.”
He added: “That is a great American tradition that we’ve done with every religious tradition that comes to the United States, included them as part of a national enterprise and praised them for their strongly held religious views and emphasized those portions that are most compatible with those ideals.”



As deep as his own Christian religious beliefs were, Mike was tolerant, accepting, even admiring of those who prayed differently. And while he was by and large a social conservative, Mike knew that not every question involving faith and truth could be resolved along the bright battle lines of the culture wars, or literally be set in scripture.
He celebrated gay pride month and argued that our scientific understanding of the genetic basis of sexual orientation has come a long way since the Apostle Paul’s time. But he also believed that religious institutions, including schools and charities, should have leeway to shape their own standards.
And Mike was open about the times in his life when he had his own doubts about what God had in mind for him. In 2019, he spoke frankly and publicly about being hospitalized for depression, delivering a powerful sermon at the National Cathedral and then a column for The Post.

A few days earlier, Mike and I had lunch. The speechwriter who had written so many words for others told me he was nervous about baring himself so publicly, and he asked if I would read a draft. He also confided that he had been living in a shadow where, at times, he wondered whether those who meant the most to him would be better off — unburdened — if he weren’t around.
In his sermon, he put it this way: “I suspect that there are people here today — and I include myself — who are stalked by sadness, or stalked by cancer, or stalked by anger. We are afraid of the mortality that is knit into our bones. We experience unearned suffering, or give unreturned love, or cry useless tears. And many of us eventually grow weary of ourselves — tired of our own sour company.”
Mike combined his lived faith with his gift for expression to offer a hand to others — showing that they are not alone in the dark. “Even when strength fails, there is perseverance,” he said in his sermon. “And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.”
Now, his unearned suffering has ended, and those he touched, including many who never met him in person, will so deeply miss Michael Gerson’s company. His grace was a blessing, and we need it more than ever.

 

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
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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 as diverse as President Donald Trump’s disruptive grip on the GOP and his own struggles with depression, died Nov. 17 at a hospital in Washington. He was 58.


The cause of death was complications of 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 in modern times, Mr. Gerson “might have had more influence than any other White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser.”
“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.”
Opinion: Michael Gerson followed his faith — and America was better for it
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 be used 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.



“That’s a different kind of conservatism,” he told the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” in 2007, “a conservatism of the common good that argues that we need to orient our policies towards people that might not even vote for us.”
Mr. Gerson’s columns for The Post took many shots at President Barack Obama during his two terms, calling his foreign policy undisciplined and the Affordable Care Act — and its bid to move the nation toward universal health care — shambolic. With the rise of Trump, however, Mr. Gerson found himself outside looking in. He bemoaned the fact that many in the Republican Party — including fellow evangelical Christians — shifted allegiances to Trump despite his record of lies, infidelities and racist remarks. But he acknowledged that, for the moment, he was on the weaker side as a Trump critic.
“It has been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character,” Mr. Gerson wrote in an essay for The Post this past Sept. 1. “Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue.”
Mr. Gerson in September 2002. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)

Studied theology​

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



He studied theology at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in suburban Chicago, graduating in 1986. He began his career as a ghostwriter with Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by Colson, a self-described “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate crisis. Colson spent seven months in prison for obstruction of justice.


 

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
72,976
52,651
113
In prison, Colson said, he experienced a religious conversion that redirected his life. For the young Mr. Gerson, it proved a profound inspiration — and a first brush with someone who once had the ear of a president. “I had read many of the Watergate books, in which Chuck appears as a character with few virtues apart from loyalty,” Mr. Gerson wrote in The Post in 2012. “I knew a different man.”
In the late 1980s, Mr. Gerson moved into politics as policy director for Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), and he later wrote speeches for Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) during his 1996 presidential run. Mr. Gerson spent two years as senior editor at U.S. News & World Report before being recruited by Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove as a speechwriter for the Bush-Cheney ticket in the run-up to the 2000 election.



At first it was just the thrill of the political “high-wire excitement,” Mr. Gerson said. Then he found a kindred soul in Bush during a campaign stop in Gaffney, S.C., when someone in the crowd asked how to block undocumented migrants 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, “and that as long as ‘moms and dads’ in Mexico couldn’t feed their children at home, they would seek opportunity in America.”
Mr. Gerson’s 2010 book, written with former speechwriting colleague Wehner, “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era,” is a call to action for evangelicals to use their influence for broader social and economic programs.

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 columns, Mr. Gerson wrote candidly about his battles with cancer and depression. “I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression,” he wrote in February 2019. “But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that — when I’m in my right mind — I choose hope.”
David Shipley, The Post’s editorial page editor, called Mr. Gerson “the rare writer whose mind, heart and soul came through in equal measures in his work.”
In a holiday season column in 2021, Mr., Gerson quoted lines from a Sylvia Plath poem and examined his fight with cancer to arrive at a single uplifting thought: “Hope wins.”