LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Michael Gerson might be the highest profile ghostwriter in the country. He's written most of President Bush's important speeches, including two inaugural addresses, the president's much-admired speeches after 9/11, as well as several State of the Union messages and many, many policy statements.
Gerson has been called the moral compass of the White House, a policy-provoker. He certainly is a presidential phrase-maker who's had a hand in just about everything thing we've heard from the president, starting with the soft bigotry of low expectations from the speech President Bush gave when announced his intention to run. Michael Gerson is leaving the White House, and before he does, we asked for a few minutes of his time. He's in his office in the West Wing. Mr. Gerson, thank you very much for joining us on the radio.
Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Presidential Speechwriter): Glad to be with you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, perhaps the most important speeches you wrote for the president were his statements after 9/11. Just three days removed from these events, the president said - this was at the National Memorial service - our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. I remember thinking at the time, that it was an extraordinary thing to talk about war and retribution right from the pulpit of the National Cathedral.
Mr. GERSON: Right. We also talked about comfort in a time when America was really shaken. But we did go further than that and talk about the beginnings of a campaign against terrorist networks that was going to dominate the president's term.
This was a case where one of my most vivid memories at the White House was sitting there, not just hearing that speech, but with all of official Washington singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic at the start of something that was very different than what we expected, but important to history.
WERTHEIMER: Your use of the word evil in that speech - I mean, that's a - if it's the biblical term, it's something you don't normally hear coming from the mouths of presidents.
Mr. GERSON: Well, it's not just a biblical term, it's a moral term. There was no other language except that moral language that was equal to the moment.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.
WERTHEIMER: I understand that one of the bonds between you and President Bush is your shared faith.
Mr. GERSON: Mm hmm.
WERTHEIMER: There were a number of religious references in the speeches you write for the president. I wondered if that's the reason.
Mr. GERSON: Well, first of all, you know, I'm something of a student of presidential rhetoric, and it's consistent - strongly consistent with our history. You'll find the same in John Kennedy, and you'll find the same in Franklin Roosevelt and other American presidents who understood that there's a moral context for political events.
But I would say, I think we've tried to be careful - even though sometimes we use religious language - that not to be sectarian. The goal is to be welcoming to all faiths and their important role in our common life, but it is a real mistake to try to secularize American political discourse. It removes one of the primary sources of visions of justice in American history. It's the vision that was behind the abolition movement and the civil rights movement and other movements for social justice in our history.
WERTHEIMER: You count Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt among your heroes...
Mr. GERSON: Mm hmm.
WERTHEIMER: How did that fit with this White House?
Mr. GERSON: Well, I think the president's approach on many issues is, actually, a moral approach - a concern for, you know, for the weak, for the oppressed. I think it comes out, for example, in the second inaugural.
President BUSH: Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.
Mr. GERSON: I think that in many ways, the president is representing strong, internationalist, foreign policy traditions that would have been familiar not just to Reagan, but to Roosevelt.
WERTHEIMER: You've written extraordinary statements for President Bush, who I hope you will forgive the observation, is not nearly so eloquent on his own. I wonder how you make him comfortable with language like the language you were just using yourself - language that is not exactly his own style.
Mr. GERSON: You know, the good thing about the relationship we've had for seven years is that I had to change a lot about the way that I write and was perfectly willing to do that. He likes straightforward constructions and active language rather than passive language, and he likes directness. But he's also been willing to incorporate an element of elevation.
WERTHEIMER: The New Yorker profile of you which was published a few months ago pointed out that on occasion, you've given the president something so memorable to say that everybody does remember it, and then it does not compare favorably to reality.
Mr. GERSON: Mm hmm.
WERTHEIMER: The example the magazine used was the speech in New Orleans when he said that the American people have come back from fire, flood, and storm to build anew and to build better than we had before.
Mr. GERSON: Mm hmm.
WERTHEIMER: So far, that hasn't happened.
Mr. GERSON: Right. Well, I hope it does. You know, this is a case where, I believe - I know the president believes - that it's an essential part of presidential leadership to set out an ideal. Reality can be difficult and can take and long time and can be messy and complicated. And that requires a president and a government to be realistic about the limits of government's power. But I don't think that argues against setting out the ideal.
And I do have some disappointment in the aftermath of Katrina. I think that America is going to have to open up a new national dialogue about race and poverty, because Katrina revealed people, you know, that we were attempting to give benefits who had never had a bank account, who had no connection to our mainstream economy of any kind. And that shouldn't be in America. It's morally offensive. It's something that has to change.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you have actually shared some space in the bully pulpit, working so closely with the president...
Mr. GERSON: Mm hmm.
WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you see this as the pentacle of Michael Gerson's achievement.
Mr. GERSON: Yeah, I can't view it that way, because - and not to get too religious - but as a person of faith, I know the pinnacle of my achievement lies elsewhere. I know it lies with my family. I know it lies with my children. I know it lies with faithfulness to the call that I think I've been given, and that's the call to serve others.
WERTHEIMER: Michael Gerson, thank you very much.
Mr. GERSON: My pleasure.
WERTHEIMER: Speechwriter Michael Gerson. He leaves the White House after more than five years as the president's chief speechwriter, and most recently as his policy adviser. You can review memorable moments of President Bush's speeches and hear more from Michael Gerson at npr.org.
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