Putting words in Bushs mouth

Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2001

WASHINGTON It is a man of faith and nerves who dares phrases like an angel still rides in the whirlwind to glide from presidential lips that more often speak a vocabulary all their own: subliminable, Hispanically, electrifly, proculation.

That man is White House speechwriter Michael Gerson.

An evangelical Christian and former theology student, Gerson infuses his work for President Bush with a gentle spirituality.

For a recent speech about Pope John Paul II, Gerson wrote and Bush spoke of a servant of God who possesses the unexpected power of a baby in a stable, of a man on a cross ... .

For the cornerstone address of Bushs European debut, Gerson wrote about the only Polish monument to survive first the Nazis and then the Soviets: It is the figure of Christ falling under the cross and struggling to rise.

Some of Bushs most-repeated signature phrases, such as the soft bigotry of low expectations or the armies of compassion, are Gersons handiwork.

Obsessive doodling and caffeine (a Starbucks near the White House is a favorite workshop) help Gerson wring out the words. Forcing himself to hear them delivered is the bigger challenge, colleagues say.

When Bush accepted the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, Gerson left his wife at the Philadelphia convention hall and walked to a nearby park. In January he would not go to the Capitol for Bushs address to Congress, but did tune in on television. He keeps coming closer, quipped press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Hes too nervous to watch, said Dan Bartlett, another White House colleague who hastened to add: Its not because hes afraid.

While Bartlett contends that Gersons quirk has nothing to do with Bushs mangled syntax (At this point, you just kind of laugh about it, Bartlett said), outsiders say it must.

All serious speechwriters dread seeing their speeches delivered; it never matches the sound and the rhythm in your head, said Eli Attie, who was former Vice President Al Gores chief wordsmith.

At least with President Bush fairly or not they dont have to worry about anyone blaming the speechwriter, Attie said. He credits Gerson with beautifully written and well-argued prose. Gerson did not reply to invitations to speak for himself.

He and his team of writers David Frum, who wrote for the conservative Weekly Standard; Peter Wehner, former aide to conservative activist Bill Bennett; and Matthew Scully, one-time speechwriter to Dan Quayle now take turns traveling with Bush to get a better feel for his voice and cadence.

Gerson was in Poland for what veteran GOP speechwriter Tony Dolan called Bushs greatest speech yet.

That address at Warsaw University library was a collaborative effort by Gerson, former ambassador to Poland Dan Fried and John Gibson, speechwriter to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.

The bells of victory have rung, Bush declared. The Iron Curtain is no more. Now, we plan and build the house of freedom, whose doors are open to all of Europes peoples and whose windows look out to global challenges beyond.

Dolan, who wrote for President Reagan, praised Bushs speech for essentially codifying the humble and plain-spoken foreign policy that he promised during last years campaign. This is not a bunch of writers, this is a reflection of Bushs consciousness, said Dolan.

Gerson has a West Wing basement office the first speechwriter since President Kennedys Ted Sorenson to claim such prized real estate and a seat in the daily senior staff meetings. He also has regular audiences with the president, where Gerson tapes Bush as he talks through his ideas for big speeches.

He has worked for Bush for little more than two years. Gerson formerly helped Watergate figure and Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson write a book and was a policy strategist working on compassionate conservatism for former GOP Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana long before Bush coined the term.

Where Dolan perceives synergy between speaker and speechwriter, others hear a disconnect.

Presidential counselor Karen Hughes, who has been with Bush since 1994, frequently rewrites Gersons elegant phrasing into plainer Bush-speak.

Typical of Gerson: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side. ... An angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm. (Inaugural address.)

Typical of Hughes: The people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, I am here asking for a refund. (First speech to a joint session of Congress.)

When Bush reaches for the profound without a script, as he did on an outing to the Jefferson Memorial, he is liable to such garble as: Uh, I, uh, its Im a proud man to be the nation based upon such wonderful values.

To Wayne Fields, Washington University English professor and author of Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence, Bushs delivery of Gersons words is more than hard on the ears. It is politically damaging.

The ill fit undermines the message, emphasizes the distance between the crafting of the words and the speaking of them. The disjunctions, breaks and gaps make it even more difficult for Bush to build credibility as someone who is sure of himself and belongs there in the White House, Fields said.

A speechwriter can try to blend in with the personality hes writing for, or he can try to lead it in certain ways and I think thats what Gerson does. Hes trying to create a persona of someone who has vision.

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