Ballot Box

The Guy Reading Mike Gerson’s Speeches

It was the criticism of conservatives in George W. Bush’s big speech on education last week that got all the attention. Far more interesting, though, was the idea of conservative activist government that the shrub articulated. “Our Founders rejected cynicism and cultivated a noble love of country. That love is undermined by sprawling, arrogant, aimless government. It is restored by focused and effective and energetic government,” W. said. “And that should be our goal: a limited government, respected for doing a few things and doing them well.”

This phraseology recalled a series of articles written by David Brooks and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard in 1997 calling for what the authors dubbed “national greatness conservatism.” The echoes of their writing in Bush’s speech were very clear indeed. Brooks and Kristol cited examples of this kind of government from Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Reagan, citing the Homestead Act, the national parks, and the Panama Canal. Bush used the same presidents and the same examples. Kristol and Brooks called for “limited and energetic government.” Bush called for “effective and energetic government.”

Brooks and Kristol: “Instead of arguing that government should be limited … [Republicans] have often argued that government is itself evil.”Bush: “Too often my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself.”

What this shows, I think, is that Bush wasn’t simply “triangulating” or “pushing off” right-wing conservatives like Robert Bork and Tom DeLay. He was tapping in (candidates being allowed to plagiarize from journalists) to a line of intelligent, moderate conservative argument about the federal government’s rightful responsibilities. But the question arises: How did W. come to adopt the Brooks-Kristol concept of national-greatness conservatism? Or perhaps the question should be how the Brooks-Kristol concept found its way into his speech.

The answer is Bush’s chief speechwriter and senior policy adviser, Mike Gerson.

Gerson is an evangelical Christian and one of the original champions of “faith-based social programs,” an idea he promoted when he worked for Indiana Senator Dan Coats. Gerson’s–I mean Coats’–idea, was to allow tax credits (and not just a deduction) for contributions to charities. Speechwriter Gerson is also credited with Bob Dole’s attack on Hollywood in 1996 as well as the address Steve Forbes gave to the Christian Coalition in 1997, the one that convinced the religious right to accept Forbes’ conversion from the supply side to the Lord’s side. After a stint working as a journalist for U.S. News, he joined the Bush campaign this year. Gerson didn’t return my phone calls, but the assumption that he is responsible for most of the intellectual and historical references in Bush’s speeches–such as a tribute to Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers in last week’s address–is widespread among conservative insiders. Bush doesn’t mention Al Shanker when speaking off the cuff.

Of course, Bush is not the only politician who uses a speechwriter. What’s troublesome is the evidence that Bush has an unusually distant relationship to the material in his speeches. Did Bush even read the Brooks and Kristol articles? His boast to the Washington Post a few months ago that he doesn’t waste his time reading policy tomes, combined with the way he delivers his speeches, might lead you to suspect otherwise. Bush squints into the teleprompter, sounding out the words streaming by as if encountering them for the first time. In his education speech, he tripped over the term “exemplary,” which came out of his mouth as “exemplarary,” and he referred to the Walter Sisulu Children’s Academy, a charter school named after the late ANC leader, as “Sizzle-oo.” He called the Manhattan Institute, one of the more influential conservative think tanks, simply “Manhattan Institute,” without the definite article, a minor-seeming mistake that suggests he doesn’t fully grasp what he’s saying.

Bill Bennett unwittingly provided some additional support for this suspicion when he appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday and tried to defend Bush from the charge of conservative-bashing. Asked about Bush’s slight against Bork, Bennett described it as “unfortunate.” He continued:

And I, as somebody who read that speech beforehand–and I will take some responsibility for not seeing that. The line is “Republicans who talk as if we’re slouching toward Gomorrah.” It was to represent a line of thought, not a personal attack on Bob Bork’s book. But that’s the title of the book. I think notes are going to Bob Bork, saying, you know, “It wasn’t about you, Bob Bork, it was about a certain line of thinking.”

Bennett assumes Bush himself wouldn’t know–and couldn’t be expected to know–that someone named Bork wrote the book Slouching Toward Gomorrah that Bush referred to. He makes it sound as if Bush has no more responsibility for what he says in a speech than Tom Brokaw does for a report he delivers on the nightly news. Bennett doesn’t even think Bush is the one who owes Bork an apology!

So who does? Must be Mike Gerson.