Michael Gerson, Post columnist who crafted 9/11 speeches for Bush, dies at 58

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 as diverse as President Donald Trump’s disruptive grip on the GOP and his own struggles with depression, died Nov. 17 at a hospital in Washington. He was 58.

The cause of death was complications of 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. 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 in modern times, Mr. Gerson “might have had more influence than any other White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser.”

“Mike was substantially 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 grievance 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.”

mr. Gerson and Bush found common ground in the use of religious themes of higher power and light vs. darkness, seeing such rhetoric as part of other historic struggles, including the abolitionist movement. “It is a real mistake to try to secularize American political discourse,” Mr. Gerson told NPR in 2006. “It removes one of the primary sources of visions of justice in American history.”

Opinion: Michael Gerson followed his faith — and America was better for it

Before the State of the Union address in January 2002, Bush’s speechwriters were instructed to link Iraq to the wider battles against terrorism — a sign that Bush and his inner circle, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, were gearing up for war.

Speechwriter David Frum said he came up with “axis of hatred” to describe Iraq, North Korea and Iran (even though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was a foe of leaders in Tehran). mr. Gerson tweaked it to “axis of evil” to make it sound more “theological” — a battle between good and evil — Frum wrote in his 2003 book on Bush, “The Right Man.”

“I thought that was terrific,” Frum wrote about Mr. Gerson’s change. “It was the sort of language President Bush used.” (Writing in the Atlantic, another speechwriter, Michael Scully, said that Mr. Gerson was caught up in his own mythology and that Frum and Scully were more actively involved in formulating “axis of evil.”)

mr. Gerson also had a hand in pushing the Bush White House’s false assertions about Iraq — including debunked allegations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — that would be used to justify the 2003 invasion. More than eight years of war claimed the lives of about 4,500 US service personnel and more than 100,000 Iraqi insurgents and civilians, according to monitoring groups. Some place the number of Iraqi deaths far higher.

mr. Gerson never publicly expressed regrets for having helped sell the Iraq War. His 2007 memoir, “Heroic Conservatism,” declared that US leadership is essential to fight terrorism and global poverty and disease. But he mostly sidestepped the many ethical and legal questions arising from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and such consequences as the waterboarding of prisoners, renditions to Guantánamo Bay and the thousands of civilian casualties.

After a heart attack in December 2004, Mr. Gerson stepped back from the stresses of speechwriting and took on policy advisory roles full time. He often lamented that the Bush administration’s humanitarian initiatives, such as AIDS prevention in Africa, became footnotes in a world changed by 9/11.

mr. Gerson left the White House in 2006, with Bush’s backing, to pursue outside policy work and writing. The next year, he joined The Post and wrote twice-weekly columns that expanded his reach as a conservative distressed by populism and the politics of anger, and animated by the conviction that religion and social activism are powerful partners.

“That’s a different kind of conservatism,” he told the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” in 2007, “a conservatism of the common good that argues that we need to orient our policies towards people that might not even vote for us.”

mr. Gerson’s columns for The Post took many shots at President Barack Obama during his two terms, calling his foreign policy undisciplined and the Affordable Care Act — and its bid to move the nation toward universal health care — shambolic. With the rise of Trump, however, Mr. Gerson found himself outside looking in. He bemoaned the fact that many in the Republican Party — including fellow evangelical Christians — shifted allegiances to Trump despite his record of lies, infidelities and racist remarks. But he acknowledged that, for the moment, he was on the weaker side as a Trump critic.

“It has been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character,” Mr. Gerson wrote in an essay for The Post this past Sept. 1. “Strangely, evangelicals have broadly chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful villainy as virtue.”

Michael John Gerson was born in Belmar, NJ, on May 15, 1964, and raised in and around St. Louis by evangelical Christian parents. His mother was an artist; his father was a dairy engineer whose work included developing ice cream flavors.

He studied theology at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in suburban Chicago, graduating in 1986. He began his career as a ghostwriter with Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by Colson, a self-described “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate crisis. Colson spent seven months in prison for obstruction of justice.

In prison, Colson said, he experienced a religious conversion that redirected his life. For the young mr. Gerson, it proved a profound inspiration — and a first brush with someone who once had the ear of a president. “I had read many of the Watergate books, in which Chuck appears as a character with few virtues apart from loyalty,” Mr. Gerson wrote in The Post in 2012. “I knew a different man.”

In the late 1980s, mr. Gerson moved into politics as policy director for Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), and he later wrote speeches for Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) during his 1996 presidential run. mr. Gerson spent two years as senior editor at US News & World Report before being recruited by Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove as a speechwriter for the Bush-Cheney ticket in the run-up to the 2000 election.

At first it was just the thrill of the political “high-wire excitement,” Mr. Gerson said. Then he found a kindred soul in Bush during a campaign stop in Gaffney, SC, when someone in the crowd asked how to block undocumented migrants at the southern border.

Bush “took the opportunity to remind his rural, conservative audience that ‘family values ​​don’t stop at the Rio Grande,’” Mr. Gerson wrote, “and that as long as ‘moms and dads’ in Mexico couldn’t feed their children at home, they would seek opportunity in America.”

mr. Gerson’s 2010 book, written with former speechwriting colleague Wehner, “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era,” is a call to action for evangelicals to use their influence for broader social and economic programs.

In 1990, mr. Gerson married the former Dawn Soon Miller. In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons, Michael and Nicholas, and two brothers.

In his Post columns, Mr. Gerson wrote candidly about his battles with cancer and depression. “I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression,” he wrote in February 2019. “But now I have some self-knowledge that can’t be taken away. I know that — when I’m in my right mind — I choose hope.”

David Shipley, The Post’s editorial page editor, called Mr. Gerson “the rare writer whose mind, heart and soul came through in equal measures in his work.”

In a holiday season column in 2021, Mr., Gerson quoted lines from a Sylvia Plath poem and examined his fight with cancer to arrive at a single uplifting thought: “Hope wins.”

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