Michael J. Gerson, Presidential Speechwriter and Columnist, Dies at 58
Michael J. Gerson, who as George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter and one of his closest advisers composed many of the president’s signature addresses and wielded outsize influence on his domestic and foreign policies, and who later, as a regular columnist at The Washington Post, became a sharp critic of the Trump administration, died on Thursday in Washington. He was 58.
Peter Wehner, a close friend and former colleague, said the death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of kidney cancer.
Like President Bush, Mr. Gerson was an unabashed evangelical Christian who believed in the importance of faith in public life. And while the two men could not have been more different — Mr. Gerson was cerebral, reserved and fidgety; Mr. Bush was folksy, outgoing and relaxed — they shared an almost psychic connection, especially when it came to putting their shared values into words.
Rather than trying to bury Mr. Bush’s casual vocal mannerisms under flowery phrases, Mr. Gerson yoked them with concise, plain language, peppered with alliteration and religious references.
He wrote major speeches well ahead of time, often escaping the bustle of the White House to write in a nearby Starbucks.
“People were in Washington passing by this guy who looks like a graduate student at George Washington, frantically scribbling on a pad and a pencil, and have no idea that he’s crafting words that will change the course of history,” Karl Rove, another of Mr. Bush’s closest advisers, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Gerson spent seven years with Mr. Bush, starting with his first presidential campaign, in 1999. He wrote many of Mr. Bush’s most celebrated lines, like his 2000 denunciation of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in education policy. When another speechwriter, David Frum, came up with the phrase the “axis of hatred” for the president’s 2002 State of the Union address, Mr. Gerson tweaked it to the more memorable “axis of evil.”
Mr. Gerson played an equally central role as a policy adviser, for which observers compared him to Theodore C. Sorensen, a speechwriter and close confidant of John F. Kennedy.
Before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Gerson focused on domestic policy, in particular education and faith-based initiatives. After the attacks, he became more involved in foreign policy, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the push for democratic reform in the Middle East, as well as medical and economic assistance to Africa.
Mr. Gerson suffered a mild heart attack in December 2004, and though he was back on the job within two weeks — he had Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address to write, after all — he decided to slow down. He continued to contribute to speeches but took on a more formal advisory role, moving from the White House basement to a plum spot two doors away from the Oval Office.
He left the White House in June 2006. He wrote briefly for Newsweek before being named a twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post, where he worked alongside one of his journalistic heroes, George F. Will.
Always a political centrist, Mr. Gerson was among Donald J. Trump’s earliest and loudest critics within the Republican Party. He used his column to unify fellow never-Trumpers and to excoriate those in the party who did not rise to his moral standard.
“Whatever his political future,” he wrote in June, Representative Kevin McCarthy — who will most likely be the next speaker of the House — “will be remembered as his generation’s most pathetic, unprincipled and contemptible political figure.”
Despite his Republican affiliation, Mr. Gerson was never much for partisan infighting, his political views often mixed ideas from the left and the right.
“I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religion or religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history,” Mr. Gerson told The New York Times in 2005. “Without an appeal to justice rooted in faith, there would have been no abolition movement, no civil rights movement, no pro-life movement.”
Michael John Gerson was born on May 15, 1964, in Belmar, N.J., to Michael Fred Gerson, a dairy scientist who developed ice cream flavors, and Betty (Buckler) Gerson, an artist. When Michael was 10, he, his parents and his brothers, Victor and Chris, moved to St. Louis.
His brothers survive him, as do his wife, Dawn (Miller) Gerson, and his sons, Michael and Nicholas.
His household was evangelical Christian and politically blended — his father was a Republican, his mother a Kennedy Democrat — and Michael’s first political hero was Jimmy Carter.
Even as a White House speechwriter, he listed Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Woodrow Wilson, all Democrats, as his favorite presidents. But he became a Republican, he said, over the issue of abortion, and in 1984 he campaigned for Ronald Reagan’s re-election.
He attended Georgetown University for a year, then transferred to Wheaton College, an evangelical institution outside Chicago, where he majored in philosophy and biblical studies.
After graduating in 1986, he worked for Charles Colson, the disgraced former adviser to President Richard M. Nixon who later founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, and then for Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana.
It was in Senator Coats’s office that Mr. Gerson first began to develop his ideas about compassionate conservatism, mixing the free-market orthodoxy then dominant in Washington with domestic policy ideas aimed at helping poor communities lift themselves up, often with the help of religious organizations.
During the 1996 presidential campaign he wrote speeches for Senator Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, and his running mate, Representative Jack Kemp.
He then jumped the fence to work as a journalist. James Fallows, the editor of U.S. News & World Report and himself a former speechwriter, for Mr. Carter, hired him to cover politics. He was still there in 1999 when the Bush campaign identified him as a potential speechwriter. Mr. Bush interviewed him for less than an hour before offering him the job.
Almost immediately, he brought discipline and polish to the president’s previously shambolic, malapropistic speaking style. He provided the words, and also added advice about poise and delivery, most of which Mr. Bush took without question.
“George W. Bush didn’t start out being a very skillful deliverer of set speeches, which is its own particular craft,” Mr. Fallows said in a phone interview. “He became good at that. And I think that a lot of it was his relationship with Michael.”
Journalists took notice of the leveling up of Mr. Bush’s oratorical skills. Frank Bruni, who covered the White House for The New York Times, called Mr. Gerson “the Cyrano beyond the spotlight’s edge.”
Mr. Gerson was at his home in Northern Virginia on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, writing a speech about “communities of character” for the president to deliver in Cleveland. When he heard about the attack on the World Trade Center, he jumped in his car and drove toward Washington. He was approaching the city just in time to see American Airlines Flight 77 headed toward the Pentagon.
The attacks transformed his role. He received a White House security upgrade. Instead of writing about tax cuts and faith-based policy, he was charged with writing words that would rally the country behind America’s first war of the 21st century.
Mr. Gerson wrote the speech that the president delivered on Sept. 20, 2001, before a joint session of Congress. It is widely regarded as one of Mr. Bush’s best, thanks to classically Gersonian lines like “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”
He wrote in a similarly idealistic vein for the second inaugural, which is remembered for Mr. Bush’s full-throated defense of interventionist foreign policy, even as the war in Iraq deteriorated.
“All who live in tyranny and helplessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors,” Mr. Gerson wrote. “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”
Long after many in the party began to abandon Mr. Bush and the national-greatness conservatism he espoused, Mr. Gerson remained loyal. He defended the president in his 2007 book, “Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don’t),” and in “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (2010), which he wrote with Mr. Wehner.
Mr. Gerson also began to speak openly about his struggles with major depressive disorder, including in a sermon at the National Cathedral in February 2019.
Had he given the speech a few weeks earlier, he said, he “would have been considerably less interesting, because I was, at that point, hospitalized for depression. Or maybe it would have been more interesting, though less coherent.”
His last column for The Post appeared on the morning of his death. In it he reflected on the emotional pain of sending his younger son to college, and what being a father had taught him about life.
“Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice,” he wrote. “But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough.”