By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Michael J. Gerson, one of President Bush's most trusted advisers and the author of nearly all of his most famous public words over the past seven years, plans to step down in the next couple of weeks in a decision that colleagues believe will leave a hole in the White House at a critical period.
Gerson said in an interview that he has been talking with Bush for many months about leaving for writing and other opportunities but waited until the White House political situation stabilized somewhat. "It seemed like a good time," he said. "Things are back on track a little. Some of the things I care about are on a good trajectory."
Since first joining the presidential campaign as chief speechwriter in 1999, Gerson has evolved into one of the most central figures in Bush's inner circle, often considered among the three or four aides closest to the president. Beyond shaping the language of the Bush presidency, Gerson helped set its broader direction.
He was a formulator of the Bush doctrine making the spread of democracy the fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy, a policy hailed as revolutionary by some and criticized as unrealistic by others. He led a personal crusade to make unprecedented multibillion-dollar investments in fighting AIDS, malaria and poverty around the globe. He became one of the few voices pressing for a more aggressive policy to stop genocide in Darfur, even as critics complained of U.S. inaction.
"He might have had more influence than any White House staffer who wasn't chief of staff or national security adviser" in modern times, said William Kristol, who was top aide to Vice President Dan Quayle and now edits the Weekly Standard. "Mike was substantively influential, not just a wordsmith, not just a crafter of language for other people's policies, but he influenced policy itself."
"He is the best and most influential presidential speechwriter since Ted Sorenson," said Peter H. Wehner, director of White House strategic initiatives, referring to the adviser to President John F. Kennedy. "Mike is one of the key intellectual architects of the Bush presidency, whether we're talking about compassionate conservatism at home or the freedom agenda abroad."
Gerson is the latest in a series of longtime Bush aides to leave, following White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., press secretary Scott McClellan and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow. But newly installed Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said in an interview that the departure is not part of his broader shakeup of the president's operation. No one is being tapped to take Gerson's most recent assignment as senior adviser.
"He's one of the few people who is irreplaceable," Bolten said. "He's a policy provoker, a grand strategist and a conscience who in many cases has not only articulated but reflected the president's heart."
Gerson, 42, said he had originally planned to leave after Bush's 2004 reelection but decided to stay when he was asked to shift from chief speechwriter to senior adviser with an office a few doors from the Oval Office. He had a heart attack in December 2004 but said his health is now fine and was not an issue in his decision. "It was never my intention to stay to the end," Gerson said.
He plans to look at writing, speaking and think-tank opportunities, with help from Robert B. Barnett, the high-powered lawyer who represents major figures such as former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Gerson stood out in a White House known for swagger. A somewhat slight, pale, bespectacled and soft-spoken Midwesterner, he nonetheless forged a strong bond with the outgoing, backslapping Texan president, in part through their shared conservative Christian faith. He found a way to channel Bush's thoughts, colleagues said, transforming a sometimes inarticulate president into an occasionally memorable speaker.
Gerson wrote or co-wrote every major speech Bush gave since announcing his candidacy, including convention and inaugural addresses and State of the Union messages. He crafted the two speeches after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that will probably be recorded as Bush's signal moments of national leadership: the service at the Washington National Cathedral and the address to Congress.
He crafted the State of the Union language that labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil" and the inaugural address that committed the United States to "ending tyranny in our world." He came up with the phrase "soft bigotry of low expectations" to focus on minority education problems.
Gerson believed strongly in the "compassionate" part of Bush's "compassionate conservatism," saying he wanted to pursue liberal goals through conservative means. To that end, he helped promote the president's No Child Left Behind education initiative, the Medicare prescription drug program and grants to faith-based charities. "It's a more activist approach," Gerson said. "That was a major change from what came before."
He also pushed for a $15 billion program to combat HIV and AIDS worldwide, telling Bush in the Oval Office that they would never be forgiven if they passed up the chance. Although he kept a hand in major speeches during the second term, he became increasingly focused on Africa and traveled there four times to see Darfur and other places firsthand, returning to describe searing scenes to his White House colleagues.
While toiling for an uncommonly polarizing president, he made few, if any, enemies, even finding admirers in circles often not friendly to Republicans.
"Mike Gerson has been an important voice," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a global anti-poverty organization.
Although groups have grievances about how some programs have been administered, it did not redound on Gerson, said David Gartner, policy director for the Global AIDS Alliance. "He's been committed and effective," Gartner said. "To get a moral issue the kind of attention it deserves, I'm sure is not easy to do."