Scribe moves up: Will Bush's God-talk change?

BushgersonWhite House speechwriter Michael Gerson told a funny but poignant personal story as he began his Dec. 6 presentation at an Ethics & Public Policy Center seminar in Key West, Fla.

While describing the pace and pressure of his job, Gerson said that he was really looking forward to an upcoming root-canal procedure — because it would mean having a few days off from work. He said he needed the rest, no matter what the medical cost.

Afterward, journalists standing around during a reception talked about the future of this high-profile scribe. The consensus was that no one would be surprised if Gerson moved up into a domestic policy post very early in the second Bush administration. That way, he would still be around to help shape some of the language and contents of the speeches, while no longer riding out the deadlines 24/7.

Thus, the following “web exclusive” in Newsweek is not a major surprise, especially considering that Gerson soon developed heart problems, as well as dental problems. Gerson is moving up into a new White House post and new writers are moving in.

Reporter Tamara Lipper writes:

Gerson is expected to move into the policy arena and be replaced as head speechwriter by Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer William McGurn. Gerson’s job change cements the breakup of Bush’s speechwriting team that included deputies John McConnell and Matthew Scully.

Gerson is one of the best-known presidential speechwriters, on par with Ronald Reagan’s Peggy Noonan or John Kennedy’s Theodore Sorenson. One sign that he was no ordinary speechwriter is the fact that instead of being housed, as speechwriters usually are, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Gerson shared an office suite with Bartlett on the second floor of the West Wing. A Christian evangelical and a former theology student, Gerson shares his boss’s brand of compassionate conservatism. His trademark has been the religious language and Biblical references that populate Bush’s speeches. To those who believe the president uses his speeches to send signals to conservative evangelicals, Gerson is the master of the code.

In the wake of the Gerson talk in Key West, several journalists (including me) wrote stories about his defense of the religious and moral themes in major Bush speeches. See also these columns by Kathleen Parker and Terry Eastland.

It seems clear that, to one degree or another, Gerson will remain in the mix when it comes to helping the president find the right words and images. As Lipper reported: “A source says White House officials have prepared Bush to adjust his expectations to the speechwriters’ changing of the guard, but on important occasions it is good to know Gerson will be just down the hall.” Bingo.

Journalists who are interested in this topic also need to know that the Ethics & Public Policy Center plans to post, in the near future, an edited transcript of Gerson’s presentation. This will also, I imagine, include large chunks of the more than two hours of questions he took from two dozen journalists from America and abroad. You can look for that transcript here in the very near future.

I will, in particular, be interested in reading the section in which Gerson says that, time after time, the key to debates in this White House is the tension between those advocating a more “Catholic” — with a large C — approach to public life and those taking a more Libertarian approach. Yes, it will also be interesting to see how that tension affects the speechwriting, with Gerson moving into a new office.

Update, Jan. 14: The transcript of Gerson’s speech, though not of the Q&A session, is availabe here.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://kellneronline.blogspot.com Mark Kellner

    Bill McGurn is a very, very decent and Christian fellow. I would not be surprised to see the Gersonian (?) line of thought continue under his guidance.