By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
For Michael Gerson, the pattern became discouragingly familiar. A proposal to help the poor or sick would be presented at a White House meeting, but Vice President Cheney's office or the budget team or some other skeptical officials would shoot it down. Too expensive. Wrong priority.
By the time he left the White House as President Bush's senior adviser last year, Gerson by his own account had grown weary of the battle, becoming an irritable colleague disillusioned by the conventions of a political party and a government that seemed indifferent to the plight of the downtrodden. Now he is back with a new book and a publicity tour intended to fight for the identity of the Republican Party.
"Traditional conservatism has a piece missing -- a piece that is shaped like a conscience," he notes in "Heroic Conservatism." His ambition, he says, is to help "save conservatism from its worst instincts" and build "a conservatism elevated by a radical concern for human rights and dignity."
Gerson, who now writes an op-ed column for The Washington Post, was best known as the speechwriter who helped a famously inarticulate Texan find words to define his presidency at key moments. He was also an apostle of "compassionate conservatism," Bush's effort to shave the harsh edges off the party of Newt Gingrich.
Gerson's book, part memoir and part political treatise, opens a window on the internal debates that marked the first six years of Bush's presidency, from the response to the mass killing in Darfur to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Time and again, Gerson depicts a lonely struggle to advance measures that would benefit AIDS patients, impoverished children or prisoners reentering society. He rues the Bush team's failure to do more to stand up to autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to further its "freedom agenda." And he laments that the war in Iraq has sabotaged the president's efforts to redefine the Republican Party.
"Right now, there's a significant backlash against these ideas," Gerson said in an interview at his office at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. "If Republicans adopt a mean, anti-government message, they're not going to be able to win."
Gerson said he also wants to push Democrats to recognize genuine security concerns in an age of terrorism and the value of spreading democracy. But as he hits the talk-show circuit, including Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," his main message seems aimed at fellow conservatives.
A devout evangelical Christian, Gerson was a powerful if soft-spoken and sometimes dour presence in the Bush White House, more comfortable with the Bible studies of his alma mater, Wheaton College, than the towel-snapping Texas environment that surrounded Bush in the early days. Gerson talks in rapid-fire bursts, nervously doodling until his pen has literally ripped the page off a pad of paper.
He describes his initial, awkward relationship with Bush as the Texas governor assembled his campaign team in 1999. "He had a penchant for crude humor," Gerson writes, "that made me uncomfortable; not blasphemous language, but the vulgarity of the locker room."
Yet, he says he grew to admire Bush for his convictions and sincerity, and whatever blame Gerson has for the administration's failings is focused elsewhere.
Gerson was widely -- but not universally -- admired within the West Wing. One of his top two speechwriting deputies, Matthew Scully, wrote a scathing piece in the Atlantic magazine this summer accusing Gerson of "foolish vanity," "sheer pettiness" and "credit hounding." Scully complained that Gerson had assumed authorship of speeches he did not write, at least not alone. The other top speechwriter, John McConnell, still works at the White House and has declined to comment, but he has shared similar grievances with colleagues.
In his book, Gerson has nothing but praise for Scully and McConnell in passages that a friend who had read the galleys said were in the text before the Atlantic piece came out. Gerson describes Scully as "an elegant writer with a gentle manner" and refers to the involvement of Scully and McConnell in key speeches at many points in his narrative.
"For seven years these two speechwriters would be my friends and partners, and hardly a cross word ever passed between us," he writes.
Gerson is more critical of Cheney's office, former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and two Texas Republicans who served as House majority leaders, Tom DeLay and Richard K. Armey.
Gerson writes that he urged Bush to fire Rumsfeld after the 2004 election, but that Cheney opposed the move. He recounts meetings in which Cheney's office tried to kill proposals to increase training of death-row defense lawyers, transition assistance for prisoners and aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.
"The storm had also revealed a political and moral chasm in the Republican Party," he writes. "The president and I saw Katrina as an opportunity to open a debate on race and poverty. Anti-government Republicans saw Katrina as an opportunity to cut off medicine to old people. It confirmed the worst image of Republicans as the party of shriveled hearts."