Is Mike Gerson a Glory Hog?

Or is his former colleague, Matthew Scully, just unhinged?

Michael Gerson with President George W. Bush and Karen Hughes

Memo to self: Be nice to Matthew Scully. I’ve never met the former Bush speechwriter and author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call To Mercy, but on the off chance that I’ve ever done anything to offend him let me say right now how sorry I am. I don’t know what I was thinking. It won’t happen again. And may I add, Matt, you’re looking awfully fit these days. Have you been working out?

The occasion for this genuflection is an article in the September Atlantic (blandly titled, “Present at the Creation“; subscription required) in which Scully does to Bush’s former chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, what Scully wants the Inuit to stop doing to baby seals. The essence of Scully’s indictment of his former boss is that he’s a glory hog.

In a more innocent time, Scully would have chided Gerson for allowing the American public to notice that President Bush was not the author of his own speeches. Former political consultant Robert Shrum commits a minor version of this sin in his memoir  No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner when he debunks the Gore campaign’s strenuous claim in 2000 that Gore wrote his own convention speech. Actually, Shrum explains, he wrote it, with help from Gore, Eli Attie, Tad Devine, Carter Eskew, Stan Greenberg, and—unbeknownst to Gore—President Bill Clinton, with whom the vice president was barely on speaking terms. Two years later, the conservative writer Danielle Crittenden sent out an e-mail to various friends making the indiscreet boast that “my husband [Bush speechwriter David Frum] is responsible for the ‘Axis of Evil’ segment of [the] State of the Union address.” The e-mail leaked to this column, and when the dust had cleared we learned that Frum had actually coined the phrase, “axis of hate,” subsequently amended by others to “axis of evil.”

Gerson stands accused not of wrenching credit from the president, as Shrum and Crittenden did, but rather of wrenching credit from his fellow speechwriters. The latter is a lesser offense in the sense that it doesn’t undermine the president’s authority (though only theoretically, since hardly anyone these days believes that presidents write their own speeches). But it’s a greater offense in the sense that anyone who would do such a thing would be petty and untruthful. Presidents may not write their own speeches, but speechwriters most definitely tend to collaborate, and Scully claims that Gerson made an enormous effort to promote the idea that he, Gerson, was the sole author of anything memorable that Bush ever said in a speech. One particularly vivid example concerns a State of the Union speech:

We were working on a State of the Union address in [fellow speechwriter] John [McConnell]’s office when suddenly Mike was called away for an unspecified appointment, leaving us to “keep going.” We learned only later, from a chance conversation with his secretary, where he had gone, and it was a piece of Washington self-promotion for the ages: At the precise moment when the State of the Union address was being drafted at the White House by John and me, Mike was off pretending to craft the State of the Union address in longhand for the benefit of a reporter.

Zoinks! Scully further accuses Gerson of hiding from the senior Bush staff the role that Scully and McConnell played in writing major speeches:

I happened to be sitting at Mike’s laptop when it came time for us to send the very last draft [of Bush’s 2000 convention speech] to senior [campaign] staff, and Mike, noticing that I had cc’d John  and myself, stopped me: “Don’t do that! You can print copies from here!” I said, “Michael, why can’t I copy John and me?” This brought a frantic admission: “Because they don’t know you’re involved!” “And why is it a secret that we’re doing this together?” Because it was all very confidential, Mike explained as he rushed off—senior staff didn’t want anything leaking out. This performance was repeated at the White House, when Mike insisted that the usual author identifications not appear on drafts going to the president, or pouted when our department secretary put all three names there anyway.

Scully also says that Gerson, “in a rapture of self-congratulation,” told him and McConnell that Bush and his senior staff “viewed his contributions, well, differently from ours: ‘I think they look at my writing as the fine china, to be taken out on special occasions.’ ” Ouch. The boast left Gerson’s colleagues speechless.

Are these accusations true? Was Bush’s much-praised chief speechwriter, a seemingly self-effacing and bookish evangelical Christian, truly the Eve Harringtonof the West Wing? The anecdotes have a haunting specificity. On the other hand, the Atlantic reader sees flashes here and there of an unreliable narrator. For example, Scully’s portrayal of President Bush seems fawning even after you’ve reminded yourself that yes, there are a few people who walk this earth who still admire the guy. Bush was, Scully writes, “the actual conscience of the White House.” Okay, sure, Bush possesses a deeply felt (if frequently misguided) sense of right and wrong. After 9/11 Bush expressed himself in a “clear, manful, and gracious tone.” That’s laying it on a bit thick, but I’ll grant that Bush seemed resolute (if not necessarily conversant with the facts) in the run-up to the Iraq war. But when Scully writes of Bush, “I think I recognize greatness when it steps before me, and the sight of George W. Bush in those days left an impression that has never worn off,” I found myself wondering whether Scully’s true purpose was to illustrate, for dramatic effect, how much more devoted he, Scully, was to the 43rd president than a certain Bible-toting wordsmith he could name. (Alternatively, Scully might just be one of those people to whom brown-nosing the big boss is second nature. For evidence supporting this hypothesis, see his embarrassing New York Times op-ed from Oct. 2005, “The Harriet Miers I Know,” in which Scully defended Bush’s nomination of Miers to the Supreme Court: “Maybe [Bush] has looked around every so often and noticed that the least assuming person in the room was also the most capable and discerning.” Yuck.)

The question of motive arises. Why did Scully write this hatchet job? Honest gall at some claims he spotted in the first chapter to Gerson’s forthcoming tome, Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve To Fail If They Don’t) can’t be discounted. (Scully apparently saw only this first chapter, which was circulated by the publisher.) But when Scully sputters that “the Washington establishment has raised [Gerson] up as one of its own—a status complete with a columnist’s perch  at the Washington Post,” I can only wonder where Scully got the idea that residence on the Post’s op-ed page is God’s reward for a life well-lived. Dude, Robert Novak appears on the Post op-ed page! Might professional jealousy torque Scully’s fury? I’ve heard it whispered that Scully himself aspired to a columnist’s perch at the Post or the New York Times after he left the Bush White House, and that he was disappointed when the highly favorable critical reception accorded Dominion failed to vault him there.

An Aug. 11 Page One article about the Atlantic piece by the Washington Post’s Peter Baker observes that Gerson is “that rare figure who emerged from service to Bush with his reputation enhanced.” Baker quotes Gerson, in a voice “filled with emotion,” saying, “I feel heartsick” about Scully’s piece. Gerson tells Baker that he doesn’t remember some of the incidents Scully described, including the one where he ordered that a speech not be cc’d to Scully and O’Connell, but that the White House tried to restrict the number of speech copies available. In a rebuttal to the Atlantic piece posted on National Review Online, Peter Wehner, who served as Gerson’s deputy from 2001 and 2002, calls Scully’s version of the facts “deeply unfair to Mike” and “misleading.” Wehner cites counterexamples from the press and from Gerson’s book in which Gerson gives Scully and McConnell full credit. “For seven years,” Gerson wrote in Heroic Conservatism, “these two speechwriters would be my friends and partners, and hardly a cross word ever passed between us.”

Perhaps Scully should have stilled his pen until he had a chance to read Gerson’s entire book. On the other hand, if Gerson had such high regard for Scully, why didn’t he ask Scully to review the manuscript, which presumably recounts many events in which Scully played a crucial role? Might Gerson have had some inkling of the depth of Scully’s resentment? If so, could Gerson guess its source?

Far be it for me to referee this pissing match. To repeat, I’ve never met Scully. I did know Gerson slightly a decade ago when the two of us worked at U.S. News and World Report. One of my duties was to write the “Washington Whispers” column. Every week I’d make the rounds to the magazine’s political reporters seeking fresh gossip. Stopping at Gerson’s door, I’d say, “Hey Mike, got anything for me? I know you’re well-sourced with the GOP.” (Gerson had previously been a speechwriter on Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and an aide to Sen. Dan Coats, R.-Ind.) Every week Gerson would greet my query with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze and a nervous shrug. After awhile I felt sorry for him and stopped asking. He seemed like a nice fellow, perhaps a little too nice for his new profession, and I wasn’t surprised a couple of years later to hear that he’d gone back to speechwriting, a job in which he could apply his considerable writing talents without having to betray friends.

Scully, of course, would say I got that last part wrong. In his piece, Scully relates an anecdote about Bush praising Gerson for speaking truth to power in an Oval Office meeting. “That’s Gerson being Gerson!” the president told some budget officials with whom Gerson had argued. The anecdote, Scully writes, “found its way into a Washington Whispers item by a friend of Mike’s at U.S. News & World Report,” and “I have a feeling it wasn’t the keepers of the budget” who conveyed it there. The friend wasn’t me; I’d left U.S. News years earlier. But it occurs to me now that if Scully’s guess is correct, then Gerson refused to leak to Washington Whispers when he was paid to do so, but gladly leaked to Washington Whispers when he was paid not to do so. That thought inspires in me a mild vestigial pique. Maybe there’s a little Matthew Scully in all of us.

[Update, July 13: Peter Baker reports in today’s Washington Post that Scully has a history of accusing White House colleagues of self-aggrandizement. On Jan. 17, 1993, Scully published a piece in the Post “Outlook” section headlined “Bush League of Their Own; An Inside Story of Self-Promotion.” (The Bush here was the current president’s father; Scully was a speechwriter to Vice President Dan Quayle.) In this earlier instance Scully swatted Richard Darman, Jim Pinkerton, Torie Clarke, Mary Matalin, and John Frohnmayer, and various anonymous arrivistes. The Bush administration, Scully wrote, was plagued with “a staff of self-promoters” engaged in “sycophancy and self-aggrandizement.” Forbearance, clearly, is not Scully’s strong suit. I must say that after reading this earlier screed I have a much harder time taking seriously his hatchet job on Gerson. Scully appears to be a guy who likes to establish his own moral superiority by trashing his colleagues.]