A writer of great faith and passion is gone:
Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush who helped craft messages of grief and resolve after 9/11, then explored conservative politics and faith as a Washington Post columnist writing on issues ranging from President Donald Trump’s disruptive grip on the GOP to his own struggles with depression, died Nov. 17 at a hospital in Washington. He was 58.
The cause of death was complications from cancer, said Peter Wehner, a longtime friend and former colleague.
After years of working as a writer for conservative and evangelical leaders, including Prison Fellowship Ministries founder and Watergate felon Charles Colson, Mr. Gerson joined the Bush campaign in 1999. Mr. Gerson, an evangelical Christian, wrote with an eye toward religious and moral imagery, and that approach melded well with Bush’s personality as a leader open about his own Christian faith.
Mr. Gerson’s work and bonds with Bush drew comparisons to other powerful White House partnerships, such as John F. Kennedy’s with his speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen and Ronald Reagan’s with aide Peggy Noonan. Conservative commentator William Kristol told The Post in 2006 that Mr. Gerson “might have had more influence than any other White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser” in modern times.
“Mike was substantively influential, not just a wordsmith, not just a crafter of language for other people’s policies, but he influenced policy itself,” Kristol said.
As an impromptu speaker, Bush had a reputation for gaffes and mangling phrases, but Mr. Gerson provided him with memorable flights of oratory, such as the pledge to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in the education of low-income and minority students and the description of democracy — in Bush’s first inaugural address — as a “seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.” As a Bush confidant and head of the speechwriting team, he also encouraged such memorable turns of phrase as “axis of evil,” which Bush used to explain the administration’s hawkish posture as it started long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the chaotic months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Mr. Gerson became the key craftsman articulating what became known as the “Bush Doctrine” — which advocated preemptive strikes against potential terrorists and other perceived threats. With his team of writers, he began shaping Bush’s tone and tenor, including addresses at Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 14 and to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20.
“Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution,” Bush told Congress. “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Post writer Karen Tumulty had this appreciation:
That advice works not only for Christian believers such as he was, but also in the sometimes brutal political world in which he made his mark. He was a presidential speechwriter whose own words were, indeed, singularly seasoned and notably full of grace. For the past 15 years, he enriched the pages of this newspaper as a columnist for the Opinions section.
But civility, as Mike also noted, does not preclude tough-mindedness. Nor should it be mistaken for a lack of principles or perspective. His own were rooted in the faith that fueled and defined his involvement with politics, and he was scorching in his assessment of his fellow evangelicals when theirs took what he saw as a more cynical turn. In a September essay he wrote these supposedly conservative Christians “have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue. In the place of integrity, the Trump movement has elevated a warped kind of authenticity — the authenticity of unfiltered abuse, imperious ignorance, untamed egotism and reflexive bigotry.”
“This,” Mike wrote, “is inconsistent with Christianity by any orthodox measure.”…
… As deep as his own Christian religious beliefs were, Mike was tolerant, accepting, even admiring of those who prayed differently. And while he was by and large a social conservative, Mike knew that not every question involving faith and truth could be resolved along the bright battle lines of the culture wars, or literally be set in scripture.
He celebrated gay pride month and argued that our scientific understanding of the genetic basis of sexual orientation has come a long way since the Apostle Paul’s time. But he also believed that religious institutions, including schools and charities, should have leeway to shape their own standards.
And Mike was open about the times in his life when he had his own doubts about what God had in mind for him. In 2019, he spoke frankly and publicly about being hospitalized for depression, delivering a powerful sermon at the National Cathedral and then a column for The Post.
Treasure these words he wrote, from President Bush’s remarks at the National Cathedral after 9/11:
America is a nation full of good fortune, with so much to be grateful for, but we are not spared from suffering. In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender, and the commitment of our Fathers is now the calling of our time.
On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask Almighty God to watch over our nation and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him …