By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007
He has been hailed as the best White House speechwriter since Kennedy's Theodore Sorensen, the muse behind President Bush's most famous phrases, the moral conscience of the West Wing. But now Michael J. Gerson is accused by a former colleague of taking credit for words he did not write.
According to Matthew Scully, who worked with him for five years, Gerson is not the bard of Bushworld but rather a "self-publicizing" glory hog guilty of "foolish vanity," "sheer pettiness" and "credit hounding." In Scully's account, Gerson did not come up with the language that made him famous. "Few lines of note were written by Mike," Scully says, "and none at all that come to mind from the post-9/11 addresses -- not even 'axis of evil.' "
Scully's blistering portrait of one of the president's most prominent former advisers in the new issue of the Atlantic touched off an intense pushback by the White House yesterday as top Bush aides jumped to defend Gerson as the victim of a jealous associate. But the internecine feuding may signal something broader than pride of authorship. Scully's 10-page indictment represents the sort of classic Washington tell-all once rare in an administration known for discipline and loyalty.
As Bush heads toward the final months of a presidency mired in troubles at home and abroad, onetime insiders increasingly have turned on people or policies they had supported. Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief reelection strategist, has disavowed him. John R. Bolton, his former U.N. ambassador, has led the charge against key foreign policy decisions. Kenneth Adelman, a close friend of Vice President Cheney, has denounced what he calls the worst administration in modern times.
In taking aim at Gerson, Scully targets a figure who emerged from service to Bush with his reputation enhanced. Gerson served as chief speechwriter since the early days of Bush's campaign in 1999 and later as a senior adviser; he left the White House last year, regarded not only as a master wordsmith but also as the torchbearer for "compassionate conservative" policies fighting AIDS, poverty and genocide in Africa.
His renown landed him a senior fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, a column in The Washington Post, a regular spot in Newsweek and a contract for a book on the future of conservatism. But Scully says it is an image puffed up by an unrelenting talent for self-promotion that ignored the contributions of two fellow speechwriters, Scully and John McConnell.
"The narrative that Mike Gerson presented to the world is a story of extravagant falsehood," Scully writes. "He has been held up for us in six years' worth of coddling profiles as the great, inspiring, and idealistic exception of the Bush White House. In reality, Mike's conduct is just the most familiar and depressing of Washington stories -- a history of self-seeking and media manipulation that is only more distasteful for being cast in such lofty terms."
Reached by telephone yesterday, Gerson expressed shock at the portrayal and denied claiming credit for work by Scully and McConnell. His voice was filled with emotion. "The last acknowledgment in the book I did was to Matt Scully and John McConnell, who I called the finest of writers and the finest of men," Gerson said, referring to his book "Heroic Conservatism," to be published in September. "So you can imagine how I feel. I feel heartsick about it. It's very difficult."
Gerson, a deeply religious man who to outsiders comes across as quiet and sometimes shy, said he did not seek publicity and could not help the fact that news organizations profiled him. "I wasn't out there looking for attention all the time," he said. "They're the president's words, and I was the chief speechwriter."
In a separate interview yesterday, Scully said he found much to like and admire about Gerson, praising his "intellectual energy and the hard work and the discipline." "I would like to count him a friend," Scully said. "All this piece attempts to do is set the record straight on a public matter. Year after year, when you see a false account of these events, there's a natural desire to want to correct it."
Scully, a speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) who worked for Bush from 1999 to 2004, cites a variety of media accounts, including in The Post and in books by The Post's Bob Woodward, that credit Gerson with writing several memorable lines uttered by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- such as "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing." Gerson wrote none of them, Scully says. And Gerson wrote "at best a third" of each of Bush's most famous post-attack speeches, he says.
Scully recounts the story of the "axis of evil" phrase, which Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Scully notes that colleague David Frum originally came up with "axis of hatred," as reported before. Scully says he suggested changing it to "evil." He does not cite any examples of Gerson explicitly claiming the phrase as his own, pointing instead to news accounts attributing it to him that have gone uncorrected.
Most speeches were written as collaborations of Gerson, Scully and McConnell. But Scully says Gerson once instructed him not to copy himself or McConnell on a draft speech that was being e-mailed to senior White House staff, because "they don't know you're involved." Gerson credited the other two only on the more pedestrian texts, Scully writes.
"I think they look at my writing as the fine china, to be taken out on special occasions," Scully says Gerson once told him.
Gerson also had a way of making himself prominent in accounts of key moments. Scully recalls Bush telling aides on Sept. 13, 2001, "We're at war." But when the scene was later described in The Post, it was "Mike, we're at war." Likewise, while Scully and McConnell drafted a State of the Union, Gerson disappeared to a coffee shop to pose for cameras "pretending to craft" the speech. Scully says that sort of self-aggrandizement was known in the West Wing as "pulling a Gerson."
"I don't remember some of those instances," Gerson said yesterday. He said he went to the coffee shop at the request of NBC, which was filming a White House special. He said he did not remember ordering speeches not to be copied to Scully and McConnell but added that the White House generally tried to restrict the number of copies available.
Moreover, Gerson said, Scully did not complain to him. "He never came to me and confronted me about it," he said. "Not that I remember. I think he may have had some asides after some of the profiles, but I had no idea the depth of the concern."
The Scully article prompted a counteroffensive by Gerson allies. Peter Wehner, a former White House director of strategic initiatives who worked closely with Gerson, posted a defense of his friend on National Review Online and cited several instances when Gerson publicly credited McConnell and Scully. He also quoted several citations from Gerson's upcoming book that praise the two writers. "The idea of Mike as a press-hungry, glory-claiming monster just doesn't square with reality," Wehner said by telephone.
White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove both called unsolicited yesterday to offer testimonials to Gerson's character. "In all my dealings with the speechwriting team," Rove said, "I saw a close-knit group of close friends do a fantastic job together, and Mike Gerson was one of the first always to . . . call attention to the contributions and skills of his colleagues."
Bolten said everyone in the White House understood that the speeches were joint products. But he noted: "Mike's role was a little bit different than the other two guys'. For one thing, he was the head of the team, and so the head of the team tends to get more of the credit. . . . Mike's role was unique and particularly strong because he served as a kind of counselor to the president as well."
McConnell did not return telephone or e-mail messages.