BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael Gerson, can you remember back when you first had some inkling that you were going to be a speechwriter for George Bush?
MICHAEL GERSON, SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, 2001-2006: Well, it was actually a call that I received out of the blue. I was a journalist at U.S. News & World Report, covered politics. I’d covered the Clinton impeachment and been the – taken a journey into journalism.
And I got a call to meet the then-Governor Bush at the JW Marriott Hotel here in Washington during the National Governors Association. And it was the first time I’d ever met the man.
I had no background with him, and it was pretty much out of the blue. But it was one of those life-changing conversations, where he read some of my stuff that I had sent along when someone had requested it, and asked me to move to Austin immediately and join the campaign.
LAMB: No prior conversation with anybody?
GERSON: Just, actually, a call from his assistant to get some samples, which I sent along. But my first conversation with the Bush campaign was with the candidate.
And he said – this was before he was a declared candidate – and he said, you know, ”I’ve read your stuff. This isn’t an interview. I want you to write my announcement speech, my convention speech and my inaugural.”
And there was an infectious confidence there that I believed in.
LAMB: And this is at the JW Marriott down at 14th …
GERSON: Right. Exactly.
LAMB: … and E Street here in Washington.
Who else was in the room?
GERSON: Well, Karl Rove, in and out, on a cell phone. And Karen Hughes, who was my boss when I moved down to Austin. And Dave Beckwith, who was a communications person, who was involved in the campaign at the time. And that was pretty much it.
LAMB: And had you written speeches for others up to that point?
GERSON: Before journalism, I had. I’d been a policy person and a speechwriter on Capitol Hill. I worked for a senator, Senator Dan Coats of Indiana.
But then had – my first presidential campaign experience had been in ’96, where I went after the convention and worked for Bob Dole as a speechwriter, was on the plane the last few weeks, and actually had a great time.
Kind of caught the presidential bug, but then I had a chance to go into journalism and thought that that was pretty much what I was going to do the rest of my life.
LAMB: Did you give George Bush an answer right there in the room?
GERSON: I couldn’t, because I have a wife, and I had to go and talk with her.
But it was a very persuasive conversation. I mean, he talked mainly on the domestic agenda, talked about his desire to really transform the message of the Republican Party, to give them a message, a content on domestic policy, particularly relating to education and faith-based welfare reform – a lot of things I had been interested in on Capitol Hill.
And so, it was a persuasive conversation. And within a couple of weeks I was down in Austin.
LAMB: Can you remember when you, I assume, fell in love with words?
GERSON: You know, it was early. Like a lot of writers, I had a – started in high school and college newspapers. In fact, got my first writing job, because of a column that I had done in the Wheaton College newspaper, in Illinois.
And so, it was always something – for me it was always a desire to express opinions, and it started pretty early.
LAMB: Where do you think you got the desire to express opinions?
GERSON: I don’t know. You know, I think – I had an early interest in politics. My first president I kind of fell in love with – certainly the first political figure that I really believed in – was Jimmy Carter, who, when I was very young, I supported, debated for him in mock debate, handed out campaign materials.
He really, for me, in many ways represented a contrast to the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon era. He was very forthright about his faith, which appealed to me.
And I remember the first time I ever met a president when I shook Jimmy Carter’s hand down at the riverfront in St. Louis, where I grew up. And so, that made an impression on me.
And then I’ve been attracted over the years to a series of politicians that really combined a passion for social justice with also a social conservatism.
So, very attracted to Governor Casey of Pennsylvania. Very attracted to Jack Kemp, who I worked for for awhile. To Dan Coats, who went to school where I went to school, at Wheaton College, and shared very much that perspective.
So, those were the kind of policy interests that brought me into writing for politicians.
LAMB: When did you know that faith was important to you?
GERSON: Very early. I grew up in a Christian home where these issues and commitments were very close to the surface.
I went – I actually started off in college here in town at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. I was always interested in issues, international relations.
But then, had sort of a crisis of determining what I really believed, and went to study theology at Wheaton College in Chicago, outside Chicago. I was a theology and Biblical studies major, and was headed to seminary, actually. Was accepted at Fuller Theological Seminary out in California before I took a little different path.
LAMB: When did you – can you remember when you first ever spoke in public about your faith? And how hard is it to speak about your faith?
GERSON: Well, it’s not hard, in a certain way. You know I come from an evangelical background. It’s part of the ethos.
LAMB: What does that mean, evangelical?
GERSON: I think there’s a theological meaning. It means a high respect for the authority of scripture. It means a desire to share your faith with others. It means a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
And it also is a great American tradition, not just a theological tradition, but a history – really, in many ways traced to the first Great Awakening in the 1740s, Jonathan Edwards and others.
And there have been a series of great awakenings which have called people to a more authentic form of faith, a more public expression of faith.
And so, I came from that background. Wheaton College where I went is an evangelical institution.
But evangelicalism is a little different than some people seem to think it means. It’s not identical to the religious right, for example. The tradition of Wheaton College, where I went, was – it was founded as an Abolitionist school that educated African Americans and women very early in our history.
It was – it had a passionate concern for issues of social justice, which is also a very strong evangelical commitment.
And some of the great evangelical political figures from American history are people like William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic candidate for president, who was very public about his faith. But his faith led him to be concerned about working conditions and women’s rights and a series of issues that aren’t necessarily identical to the modern religious right.
LAMB: What role did your mother and father play in your interest in social justice?
GERSON: Well, my father was very much a Nixon Republican, was, you know, very positive about Richard Nixon, supported him.
My mother was a little different. She was more of a Kennedy – John Kennedy – sort of Democrat.
But eventually, for many people in my tradition who have been very open to Jimmy Carter, the pro-life issues became decisive issues as the Democratic Party became more radicalized on that set of issues going into Walter Mondale and Dukakis and others. And you have the development of a very strong Democratic consensus in favor of abortion rights, which I think pushed many people like me in the other political direction.
LAMB: Why is abortion important to you?
GERSON: Well, I regard that as a matter of social justice. I guess I take the Hubert Humphrey view that a society is judged by the way it treats the weak, particularly those in the dawn of life, which are the children. And there’s no more vulnerable or voiceless member of our community than developing life.
I don’t think it’s an easy issue. I think there are many conflicting priorities and many difficult tragedies.
But I think, as a whole, that a society should strive in the direction of protecting the weak and vulnerable. And that’s not always possible, but it should be the direction we head.
LAMB: For the first 10 years of your life you grew up where?
GERSON: In New Jersey, actually.
GERSON: Was born in Belmar, New Jersey, the central coast. My father worked in Newark and we were – but then was moved for his business to St. Louis when I was about 10 years old.
LAMB: And what impact did that have on you, moving at 10? What, about the fifth grade?
GERSON: Yes. It was fine. I mean, you’re young enough that it was not a traumatic experience. And came to really enjoy St. Louis.
Went to a Christian high school there, a very good Christian high school, and then Westminster Christian Academy. I spoke two years ago at their commencement, which was great.
So, that was very much home.
LAMB: Are your parents alive?
GERSON: My mother’s alive. She lives in coastal Georgia now. My father died of a heart attack several years ago.
LAMB: And you’ve had your own experience.
GERSON: I did.
LAMB: Age 39. How old are you now?
GERSON: I’m 42, 43.
LAMB: Now, what year did your father die of a heart attack?
GERSON: He died, I guess, about seven, eight years ago. So, that would have been …
LAMB: Did you take any – I mean, you’re not overweight or anything – did you take precautions after that?
GERSON: I did some. You know, I was on Lipitor when I had my heart attack. Had been to the heart doctors, and I knew there was a risk there.
My father died of a heart attack before he was 60. My grandfather died of a heart attack before he was 50. And a lot of this is just genetic.
But I’m on a – you know, see my doctors regularly. I exercise. I try to take care of myself and take a lot of pills.
LAMB: Where were you when you had your heart attack?
GERSON: I was at home in Alexandria. I woke up as usual – you know, I work in the mornings. I usually get up at 4:30, 5:00. And was downstairs and felt faint and sweaty, and found myself on the floor.
And fortunately, called to my wife and she could hear me upstairs, and woke her up. And then was having two stents put in within an hour-and-a-half at Alexandria Hospital.
So, that was a – in a certain way it was not a disastrous heart attack, not a whole lot of serious, long-term damage. So, you view that as a wakeup call to try to do what’s necessary to take care of yourself.
But it was – there were blessings in that experience, too. My children were right upstairs and didn’t wake up – it would have been traumatic if they had – which was good.
Recovery time is short now for these things. My father had open-heart – had bypass surgery and was recovering for months. I was working on the second inaugural in a week-and-a-half. And so, this is a much more manageable chronic disease than it used to be.
LAMB: December of 2004, what was the exact date?
GERSON: Oh, you’d have to ask my wife. I’m not sure.
LAMB: The reason I ask that, though, is, what were you – you say there was the inaugural coming up. What were you in the middle of the moment it happened? And how did that impact the rest of your time as a chief speechwriter for George Bush?
GERSON: Well, it clearly – you know, I was very focused on the run-up to an important speech. There’s a lot of pressure in that process. And it’s the kind of thing where it’s a non-negotiable deadline. You’re not going to delay the inaugural address.
And so, I was able to spend some time in recovery, spend some time at home with my family. But I did start getting calls from the president, where he would say, ”I’m not asking about the speech.” But he was really asking about the speech.
And, you know, he at one point said, ”I’m not asking about the speech. I’m calling to check up on the guy who’s writing the speech.” And he was very kind to me in that whole process, just a very thoughtful man.
But I did eventually start working two days a week and three days a week and pulling together notes and thoughts, and then eventually ending up back at the White House working pretty urgently on the draft.
LAMB: When did you change your status in the White House from chief speechwriter to a policy adviser?
GERSON: Yes, that took – it took place in that process, actually a few months after the inaugural, where I was trying to determine – I was – you know, I had for six years, had been the chief speechwriter and also had a policy role. But mainly was charged with that process.
I had six writers working for me and three fact checkers and, you know, pretty significant staff. We did one to three public events a day, which is a tremendous workload. And I had to either be writing or to edit everything in that process.
And there comes a point where that’s not what you want to spend all your time doing, you know, working on National Music Month and a lot of these other things, which are an important point of the presidency. But you get to a point where you want to try to do something different.
And worked out with the president in the aftermath of, you know, at the beginning of the second term, that I would focus on a series of issues that I was more interested in and remain – hire a new head of speechwriting, Bill McGurn, a very talented writer from the ”Wall Street Journal” – and then focus on some of the larger speeches without having this daily rush. And had that little relief for a year-and-a-half, almost two years.
LAMB: A little over 40 years ago, a man named George Will came to Washington. He was a speechwriter for a senator from Colorado for a couple years.
He then began writing for the ”National Review.” And then the ”Washington Post” picked him up as a columnist next to Meg Greenfield.
And the reason I go through all that is that there is folklore about you being so interested in George Will that you would drive by his house at one point, hoping that you would see him. But now you are going to start a twice-weekly column in the ”Washington Post.”
Make this connection.
GERSON: Well, I started writing in many ways – you asked about influences – because of George Will, reading his column, particularly in college. And deeply appreciated both the elegance of the writing, which was a model that I’ll never reach, but also the intellectual seriousness of the writing, which is not always found in twice-weekly columns.
So, in many ways, that was the model for me, is to combine those two things. And when I got to Washington, that remained a model in a lot of ways.
I eventually did get to – have gotten to know Mr. Will, who has been very kind to me. Have gotten to know his wife, Mari Will, who brought me into the Dole campaign in 1996. She was a close friend and adviser to Senator Dole.
And so, that – but, you know, there are, I guess, some parallels there. But it’s, in my view, an unreachable model. It’s something you strive for, but you have to find a different way, because there’s no way to equal it.
LAMB: What is it about George Will’s writing that got your attention? I mean, you’re not the same philosophically, are you?
GERSON: Well, particularly in his early writing, there are some similarities there. He took an approach to conservatism that was not libertarian.
LAMB: What is the difference?
GERSON: Well, one of his books that influenced me was ”Statecraft as Soulcraft,” talking about the role of government in shaping and encouraging institutions, social institutions, not just encouraging individual freedom.
It talked about the role of government in setting kind of moral ideals. And that’s very different than libertarian strains of conservative thought, which are really about the maximization of individual freedom.
So, for me, that was a philosophic influence, as well, and that’s been consistent over the years.
LAMB: How did you meet him eventually?
GERSON: Well, he’s invited me over to dinner. And he’s – I’ve had lunch with him while I was at the White House. And so, you know – and through his wife I’ve gotten to know him.
LAMB: How did you know Mari?
GERSON: Well, that really came just through the campaign, through the ’96 campaign, because she both – she actually had me write some speeches for the Dole campaign before I worked for them full-time, while I worked on Capitol Hill.
And she was kind of a talent scout in a certain way, brought people into the campaign. And it was a tremendous pleasure to work with her.
We worked together, and she had the predominant role in the speech that Bob Dole gave on Hollywood. I don’t know if you remember that. But where he attacked kind of the values of Hollywood and the role that they had in our society.
So, it was a good experience working with her.
LAMB: When did you leave the White House?
GERSON: I left the White House in July of last year, I think the end of July.
LAMB: And when will you start your column in the ”Washington Post”?
GERSON: Well, I’m working on a book, and it depends on when that finishes up. But it’s going to be in the spring of next year – of this year, actually, now. So, it’ll be in three or four months.
LAMB: And what’s the book?
GERSON: The book is on the future of conservatism. It’s going to deal with some of these issues, about the argument, the debate going on within the conservative movement between libertarian and anti-government conservatives.
And other kinds of conservatives that I would identify more with, I think, conservatives in my view that have been influenced more by Roman Catholic social thought – I’m not a Roman Catholic – but commitments that have to do with subsidiarity, solidarity, concern for the poor, the promotion of civic institutions.
Those are equally conservative approaches, and I want to argue for them.
LAMB: And your religion is Episcopalian?
GERSON: I’m an Episcopalian. I go to the Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia. And so, we’re in the Anglican tradition.
LAMB: If you like what you see in Roman Catholicism, why don’t you just go that way?
GERSON: Go all the way?
GERSON: It’s interesting you mention that. When I was at Georgetown University, I was actually very influenced by a wonderful priest there named Father Durkin, who has influenced generations of people at that institution. And I think he’s still alive.
And was very close to conversion in a lot of ways. And then had some theological barriers, some things that I couldn’t accept and reconcile. But have tremendous respect for the Catholic tradition.
LAMB: So, both you and George Will are now working for the Washington Post Writers Group. How big a goal was that for you at any point? Did you want to do this? Is this a big deal for you?
GERSON: Yes, it is a big deal. They approached me. Fred Hyatt, who is the editorial page editor there, approached me about this.
But it’s a longstanding goal. I mean, it’s a tremendous forum. Write twice a week on issues of the day in one of the best settings. It’s the best editorial page, in my view, in the country.
LAMB: It’ll be syndicated?
GERSON: Yes, it’ll be syndicated through the Washington Post Syndicate.
LAMB: Have you asked George Will for any advice on how to write a column?
GERSON: No, not yet. I’ve been involved with the book.
I talked a little bit with Charles Krauthammer, who works there as well. He’s a good friend. And his advice to me was that I should do one a week, not two. But I’m doing two.
LAMB: And so, what’s your goal? And who are you speaking to? And how influential do you expect the column to have?
GERSON: Well, I want to wade into the debates running up to the 2008 election, on the intellectual debates in both parties.
I also – there are a couple of other areas. The – you know, I was very involved in the White House in a series of foreign policy approaches – promotion of democracy, efforts on development and disease. And I’m going to remain involved on those issues.
Want to do some developing world travel. Want to spend some time in Africa and other parts of the developing world talking about disease, talking about development, other issues like that.
So, those are kind of the moral passions that I’ve developed in my time in government, and I want to continue to be engaged in them.
LAMB: Back to your parents. Your father was a Nixon Republican, your mother a Kennedy Democrat.
If it wasn’t those two – I mean, if it was, mention. But where would you – again, who influenced you about social justice? Who gave you an interest in Africa and AIDS and things like that, that you brought to the White House?
GERSON: You know, some of this is an intellectual interest. It came from examples, people that I respected.
GERSON: Like Mother Teresa, who had a tremendous effect on me as a kind of example of what it means to be a Christian in the world.
Or John Paul II, who I think is perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th century, who combined this radical concern for the poor, for the weak, for human rights and dignity, which brought many of these Christian values and commitments to a global stage, that had an unpredictable impact on the fall of Communism, and his criticisms of American society, and exemplified to me a different way of approaching these issues.
So, much of this was an intellectual interest. Some of it was in people like Chuck Colson, who in many ways has been my mentor and has become my friend.
Chuck hired me right out of college. He was a former political figure, high-ranking administration official caught up in Watergate. But had begun really an extraordinary work of social engagement and justice called Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is a ministry to prisoners and their families in the United States and around the world.
And right out of college I came to Washington to help him with a book and to work at Prison Fellowship, which was a great experience. It exposed me to the important role that nongovernmental and religious institutions play, things government can’t do.
But they worked with some of the most hated and despised people in America. And they worked with them because they believe that every life has dignity and worth.
And some of the people that I met at Prison Fellowship, who had had terrible backgrounds in crime and other things, have become some of the best people I know.
And that’s a testament to the power of faith and the transforming power of faith.
LAMB: How did Chuck Colson discover you?
GERSON: Well, that was a case where somebody sent him one of the – a mutual friend sent him a column that I had done for the Wheaton College newspaper. It was a column on Mother Teresa and about Roman Catholic kind of social thought.
And he was working on a book called ”Kingdoms in Conflict,” where he was looking for some research help. And he called me and met me in the airport in – at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. And we had a great conversation and he asked me to put off of seminary and move out to Reston, Virginia, where they were headquartered, and help him out.
LAMB: How long did you work for him?
GERSON: I think probably about three years before – I’d always had the political bug – before he made the, wrote a recommendation to an incoming senator, Dan Coats, to consider me for a – to be a – for a policy and speechwriting job.
LAMB: You say that Chuck Colson has become your friend. What impact had his jail time had on you? Did you ever talk to him about that? And …
GERSON: Well, it had a huge impact on him, and it set the course of his future life.
He had become a Christian before he went to jail, but it really in many ways deepened his experience.
And I think what it did for Chuck was to remove all of the external props of his self-worth, all of the achievements that he had collected and accumulated in his life, and forced him to confront the reality of – you know, face the reality of life, which is that everyone is in need of grace, that everyone needs to be loved, and that there is a source of those things, of grace and love, that never fails.
LAMB: For six years you were side by side with the president of the United States, George Bush, who, if you listen to certain talk shows or you read certain columnists, is clearly one of the most hated men in the world.
GERSON: It’s always shocked me and surprised me.
I went – when I went to work for him down in Austin, he was a fairly moderate governor, a consensus-oriented governor, who never had engaged in the culture war.
You look at previous examples, somebody like Richard Nixon had been hated, because of the Alger Hiss case, because he had been involved in deep controversies of the Cold War and had divided the intellectual class in the country.
Governor Bush had never had that kind of experience. He won the votes of Hispanics and reached out to African Americans, and was a kind of progressive, reform-oriented Republican governor and very popular with a broad group of people. And so, he didn’t bring any of that baggage.
But I think some of that shift probably took place, because of the war and its aftermath. I mean, that’s – wars are deeply divisive in American history and they tend to put people on one side or another.
But my personal experience with the president was a man that was deeply tolerant, that was genuinely compassionate. And so, it’s hard for me to even process the caricature.
LAMB: Did you ever talk with him about how much some people hate him?
GERSON: You know, I – I’m trying to remember a conversation. It was, of course, the assumption of a lot of the debates that go on.
He has a strong sense of self-worth. He doesn’t get down because of criticism on the editorial page of the ”New York Times.” And that’s a tremendous attribute of leadership, because it would be easy in that job to be affected or crushed by criticism, and he isn’t.
So, that’s one reaction.
I think another one is a strong feeling that he’s in the right on a variety of issues, when it comes to the promotion of democracy and the necessity for victory in Iraq and other issues.
He says he doesn’t read the newspapers very much, you know, for that reason. I think he does have filtered to him a variety of sources, and I think he does occasionally read the newspapers.
But he doesn’t dwell on the criticism. He’s not constantly angry about it.
But it’s – you know, I think it’s something he’s had to deal with.
LAMB: I don’t remember the timing on this, but a couple of months ago it was leaked out by somebody that he was reading Camus’ ”The Stranger.”
Does that track for what you know of George Bush?
GERSON: Sure. First of all, it may well have been a recommendation of Mrs. Bush, who is, you know, has a broad literary interest and is a very interesting thinker when you get to know her.
But also, I mean, the president is a voracious reader and recommended to me a variety of books when I was at the White House, and gave them to me.
He recommended to me the – I think it was – the title was ”A Godly Hero,” the biography of William Jennings Bryan, a book he’d read.
Recommended to me – the name is escaping me – but the book on Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson, the relationship between the two men.
And so, he recommended to me the pope’s book on relativism. That’s one volume that he did on that.
He’s a voracious reader and he recommends a variety of books to the people around him.
LAMB: So, why then is his image one of – you know, people scoff at the fact that he reads. And they say he’s not very intelligent. I mean, you hear that.
Where does that come from? And why? Does he want that kind of an image?
GERSON: I don’t know. Throughout his career, in some ways he’s benefited from being underestimated. I mean, every time we would do one of these major speeches, the buildup would be, is he capable of doing it?
The assumption would be that he, you know, that he would fail. And, of course, we succeeded in a variety of these settings, and certain people always seem to be shocked and surprised.
So, I think he’s sometimes actually benefited from being underestimated. And I think he probably feels that, as well.
Some of this is maybe a Texas idiom, which certain elites may have some contempt for.
I think the president is – he’s not anti-intellectual, but he is anti-elitist. He has very little patience for a kind of elite disdain for the common man.
And he fully inhabits that kind of Texas mythology. I mean, you know, that he’s – for him it’s not a myth. It’s his upbringing in his life.
LAMB: How many conversations do you think you had with him in the six years you worked for him, where you were in the middle of writing a speech and all?
GERSON: Well …
LAMB: How many speeches did you write for him?
GERSON: Several hundred. And he was very active in that process.
We’re in State of the Union season now. He would always ask for an outline – a substantive outline, a five- or six-page outline, that I would do in consultation with the national security people and with domestic policy people – before Christmas, that he would want to read and begin to think about.
And I’d always get a call a day or two after Christmas, where he would start to go through ideas, and this would go better here and why aren’t we dealing with this.
And then when I got back from that break, would go into the season working with some fine writers that I’d hired – people like John McConnell and Matt Scully and others – to put together a draft.
And then he would – the White House speechwriting process is a 50-year-old process created in the Truman administration, by which, once there’s a draft, it’s staffed to a series of senior people at the White House. Maybe – it depends on the speech – but 12, 15 people.
Some of them have a lot of edits, some of them not so many. Karl Rove has a lot of edits, often. And then …
LAMB: Does he predominate when he has an edit?
GERSON: Well, you have to take him seriously, because Karl is a – they’re often very well thought out. Karl is a very serious thinker, and not just a political strategist, but is a policy theorist.
LAMB: Well, how would – let’s just say, for instance, you’ve written a speech and you move it around inside the White House process.
And Karl Rove says, ”no, no, no, no, add, add, add.”
LAMB: Who’s the – who negotiates then with the president on that?
GERSON: Well, that’s the position I had in a lot of ways. I could bring things directly to the president, if I felt strongly enough about them, which sometimes I did.
You always have to make clear, though, that somebody objects. You can’t ignore those kind of objections.
But if there are serious disagreements on an issue of this should be included, this should not be included, then you try to work it out. But then you go to the president, if both sides feel strongly enough …
LAMB: How often did you win, and how often did you lose?
GERSON: I feel like I won pretty often, basically because the president and I often shared kind of an approach – a kind of approach to politics, a set of beliefs and values.
LAMB: How much of that was the religion? Did you – were you two – did you talk much about religion? And did you have that as your thing that put you together?
GERSON: I think that was part of it. I think, you know, the kind of language of religion – I think that there is some truth to that.
But I think it was deeper than that. I’m not saying deeper than religion, necessarily, but it was also maybe a belief in the power and importance of idealism. To set out historic goals and ideals.
He was an – he is an ambitious person. He is disdainful of what he calls ”small ball.” He likes big goals and to set out kind of leadership ideals.
And you saw that, for example, in the process with the second inaugural, where he wanted to set out really in stone this new foreign policy approach that was quite controversial. But it was – you know, it fit his approach.
LAMB: When you first read that scholars were comparing you with Ted Sorensen, as the best speechwriter in 40 years, what was your reaction?
GERSON: I think it’s flattering and probably inaccurate.
GERSON: Because presidents succeed in different ways. And those – you know, Ted Sorensen had a good relationship with his president, but that’s been true of a variety of presidents. I mean, there are extraordinary speeches in that period.
Lyndon Johnson’s speech on civil rights to the joint session of Congress, one of the great speeches of our history. Ronald Reagan’s speeches – just extraordinary.
But I do think – the thing that I think is true in some of that analysis is that I had over the years been able to develop a close personal relationship with the president. And that helps in moments of crisis where you don’t have time for a lot of editing – in the aftermath of 9/11, where some of these speeches we had to put together in a single day.
By that point, I had a good feel for what he wanted, where he wanted to head. And that, I think, ended up being important.
LAMB: Here’s some – an excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s speech, inaugural speech, that I think I probably heard somewhere on some television network once a year for the last 40 years.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN F. KENNEDY, 35th PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let every nation know – whether it wishes us well or ill – that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge, and more.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: As a speechwriting technique, what were they using there? What was Ted Sorensen using?
GERSON: Well, I don’t know the technical terms, but this kind of repetition and cadence that’s a Biblical cadence in a lot of ways. It seems like the Psalms.
The accumulation of kind of a repetitive thought to create an emotional crescendo. And I think that can be very effective. Martin Luther King used to do that, and others.
So, some editors would take and cross out things like that, because they’re repetitive, when, in fact, they’re a very effective technique.
LAMB: We’ve got a clip from George Walker Bush’s first inaugural address. And how much did you have to do with that?
GERSON: I worked on that speech.
LAMB: Let’s watch an excerpt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: America at its best is compassionate. In the quiet of American conscience we know that deep, persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault.
Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God. They are failures of love.
And the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls.
Where there is suffering there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens – not problems, but priorities. And all of us are diminished when any are hopeless.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Proliferation of prisons – did that come from your Colson time?
GERSON: Yes, in some ways it did. I mean, you write from your own experience. And that was a point I thought was worth making.
I mean, we’d in many ways confronted the problem of crime by increasing the number of prisons and the length of sentences, and that was perfectly appropriate. But it wasn’t a complete solution to a deep social problem. There was something deeper to be said.
LAMB: How long did you work on that speech?
GERSON: Thinking about, outlining and other things, a couple of weeks. And then you write in a couple of days. Maybe – that speech probably took three or four days.
LAMB: Why – and I’m not the first person to ask this – does the president not write his own speech?
GERSON: Because he gives one to three speeches a day.
LAMB: But when it comes to the inaugural, though, one of your most important.
GERSON: Well, you know, the president in a lot of ways does put his imprint on every word. He, you know, he – I was a writer for a reason, because presumably I would contribute something, which is a sense of language, ability to go back and spend time looking at historical precedence.
I read – before that speech – I read every inaugural in American history, just to get a feel for the issues. The president doesn’t have time to do that when you’re putting together a transition and attempting to pick Cabinet members and a lot of other, the urgent business of government.
So, I could contribute something. I could – you know, some kind of historical texture and context, some language that I think would be historically memorable.
But the goal, of course, is to do it in ways that express the president’s vision and not your own.
LAMB: So, where were you during that speech?
GERSON: Well, as often in these cases, it’s like being a playwright on opening night. I can’t watch. It’s hard for me to go to the events.
So, I was at home watching the inaugural. My family was all down there. And wanted to see it on television anyway. But it’s too nerve-wracking for me. It’s too difficult.
LAMB: Go back to the fact that you had a heart attack. Is that all part of the tension in your body that you get during – I mean, if you did six years of this.
GERSON: Yes, probably. You put a lot of pressure on yourself when you work at the White House. And as a writer, I’ve always done that.
LAMB: What are you going to do now – or what have you done – since your heart attack to ensure that you don’t get another one?
GERSON: Well, a lot of measures you can take. But part of it is trying to find a different way to work where you don’t – you know, in my White House experience I would sometimes get up at 3:30 in the morning and have five cups of coffee during the course of a day, and really push myself.
And that’s – it’s part of White House life. It’s what I eventually wanted to try to get away from, which I did to some extent.
LAMB: And you’re writing a book right now. Are you still with the Council on Foreign Relations?
GERSON: I’m with the Council on Foreign Relations.
LAMB: Going to stay there?
GERSON: Yes. I’m there for a couple of years, and then – and I also contribute to Newsweek magazine.
LAMB: How old are your two children?
GERSON: They’re 11 and nine.
LAMB: And you met your wife where?
GERSON: We were 10 years old when I moved to St. Louis. I’ve known my wife for a long time.
LAMB: And she’s originally born in Korea?
GERSON: Yes. She’s from South Korea and was adopted when she was about six.
But we’ve – her parents and my parents were good friends. We went to church together, took piano lessons together.
LAMB: So, what’s the reaction of your kids to watching you get all this attention?
GERSON: Not very impressed. I guess that’s the norm with children.
It’s so different than when I was growing up. I had tremendous respect for the presidency from an extraordinary distance, you know, where you would go down and it was a huge honor for me to shake the hand of the president of the United States.
And my children have been to Camp David, and they know the president well. And it’s different. And I don’t know how they’re going to process that later in life.
LAMB: By the way, do you miss being in the White House?
GERSON: I don’t miss the deadlines and pressure of being in the White House, but I miss the president of the United States, who was very good to me and became a friend. So, that’s a part of my life that I miss greatly.
LAMB: Do you still talk to him?
GERSON: Still talk to him occasionally. We had lunch not too long ago. But it’s different when you’re on the outside. It’s – you know, you still can offer your opinions, but they’re not quite as informed.
But that to me has been the hard part, and working with some exceptional people. We had a staff at the White House, getting to know over those same years of intense effort and pressure.
People like Condi Rice, who I have tremendous respect for, and Karl Rove, who could not be more different from the caricature. I mean, he’s just an historian of the presidency, a deep policy thinker.
And people like Josh Bolten. Josh and I were the first non-Texas people really to be brought down to Austin, and we’ve become close over the years.
LAMB: Josh Bolten, the chief of staff.
LAMB: On September the 14th, three days after September 11, 2001, President Bush spoke at the National Cathedral. How important was that speech at the time? And did you write that one?
GERSON: I worked on that with Matt Scully and John McConnell, who were writers that I’ve become very close with. And we had one day to do that speech.
The president decided he wanted to do an address, a national day of mourning, prayer and remembrance. And it was done very, very quickly. I had to – as soon as he told me, I had to put together an outline and pull together some notes and other things and go into the writing process. And we had something by the next morning.
LAMB: As a rule, on a speech like this, how long is it?
GERSON: How long?
GERSON: As in its length?
LAMB: Length of time that you want a president to stand and speak for a …
GERSON: For a service like this?
GERSON: It should be short.
If I remember correctly, I think that speech was probably eight to 10 minutes.
LAMB: Let’s watch just a little excerpt from it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own.
Yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard and understood.
There are prayers that help us last through the day, or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers that give us strength for the journey. And there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own.
This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: Is it fair to say that a lot of those words came from Wheaton College, or your days there or your evangelical studies over the years?
GERSON: I think probably. Not consciously, but subconsciously.
You know, in a moment like that, it’s an extraordinarily important element of presidential leadership to say and to provide hope that the unfair tragedy that’s right before people’s eyes is not the final word, that there’s a hope beyond that tragedy, that life isn’t a meaningless chaos.
And the president has always played that role in times of public grief, to say that there’s a justice beyond the evidence of our senses that provides comfort and hope.
And that’s true of every president, not just this one. So there’s a long historical tradition that goes into that.
LAMB: Where were you that day?
GERSON: On what day?
LAMB: The day that he gave that speech. Where were you at the moment …
GERSON: Well, I actually went to that speech. It was – I actually felt – it was a profoundly emotional experience. I worked on the speech, got in the motorcade, went up to the National Cathedral, sat in that room.
The emotional experience from that day was hearing the ”Battle Hymn of the Republic” – all of the officials in Washington singing the ”Battle Hymn of the Republic” – and realizing we really were at war.
I hadn’t expected that. I had come as a domestic policy person. And you could see that life was going to change, that everything was going to be different.
It also was a good example for me. Usually when you’re a speechwriter, even a speechwriter for the president of the United States, the words don’t make that much difference. They’re – you know, it’s important to have a high standard. It’s important to have some knowledge of the tradition.
But there are a few moments, historical moments in American history where the words really matter and count. And I lived through a couple of them. And if we had not done a good job, it would have hurt the country.
The emotions at that moment were so raw, people were still wandering around the site in New York with pictures of loved ones, hoping they were still alive.
And this was not a reflection on past events. This was trying to give hope and in the midst of these events, and to also begin to chart our way forward in what the president knew was going to be a very difficult historical task.
LAMB: Rank the first four or five speeches of your experience.
GERSON: The ones I worked on?
LAMB: The ones that you worked on that you call your favorites.
GERSON: I think probably the cathedral speech, for all those reasons. It was important to the country.
I think maybe the September 20th speech, which happened not too long after this, where we had to begin to identify who’s al Qaeda. Why do they hate us? What are the next steps? What about Afghanistan? And also, show some – create and show – national unity and resolve in what was going to be a very difficult task.
And I think the first inaugural, which in many ways represents everything I believe about politics.
The second inaugural, which summarized the president’s world view, and the defeat of these threats of our time require something more than military force. They actually require the advance of certain ideals that are the ultimate answer to bitterness and hatred.
And then, you know, some speeches we did that never got any attention at all that I was proud of. We did a speech on Goree Island in Senegal that I went with the president there.
And it was a speech I was proud of, because it was a speech about race in America, even though we were in Africa, about this extraordinary drama, which I think in many ways is the most amazing moral drama outside of the Bible, with extraordinary historical circumstance, where millions of people taken in chains against their will to a foreign country became the instrument by which that country – our country – clarified its own ideals and redeemed itself.
LAMB: Here is a brief excerpt of that speech. Goree Island in Senegal in 2003.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: … did not break.
Yet the spirit of their captors was corrupted.
Small men took on the powers and the 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: What kind of reaction did that speech get? Or did it get the kind of reaction that you expected?
GERSON: Almost no reaction. It’s an indication, to some extent – first of all, it was unexpected. It didn’t fit people’s stereotypes.
But it also – it didn’t have the historical moment in the same way that a lot of the other speeches did.
In the aftermath of 9/11, almost every speech we did was carried live, which is very rare in modern history.
And a speech like that is easy to ignore. The press doesn’t think it’s important, because it doesn’t deal with Iraq or Social Security or other issues.
But it can – people – I’ve known people, I’ve met people who have kept copies of that speech and appreciated it, even though it didn’t get much attention.
LAMB: Most of these speeches can be found still on whitehouse.gov?
GERSON: All of them. Every speech the president’s given is on whitehouse.gov.
LAMB: We’re out of time. A last question for you.
Axis of evil – was it originally axis of hatred?
GERSON: Yes, it was. And that …
LAMB: Those were your words?
GERSON: Well, in a State of the Union process you have a variety of writers who help you and contribute things. David Frum helped in this section.
But eventually, the choice to use the phrase was the president’s and Condi Rice and …
LAMB: But who wanted the word ”evil”?
GERSON: I did. I think it’s a better sounding phrase. And if you looked at the examples here – Saddam Hussein is guilty of genocide, North Korea with its massive system of concentration camps, Iran with its brutal government – I think that word is perfectly appropriate.
LAMB: Michael Gerson, your columns will come in the spring, in the ”Washington Post,” and your book will come out when?
GERSON: By the end of this year. That’s the plan.
LAMB: Thank you very much for joining us.
GERSON: My pleasure.