January 5, 2005


Bush Gets a New Voice for Second Term: Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter during the president’s first term, is expected to be replaced by William McGurn of The Wall Street Journal. How will the change impact the White House message? (Tamara Lipper, 1/05/05, Newsweek)

President Bush will start his second term with many of his closest and longtime aides by his side including chief of staff Andrew Card, senior adviser Karl Rove and Communications Director Dan Bartlett. Although the visual picture will largely look the same after Jan. 20, Bush's words may sound very different. Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter, who has helped craft nearly every one of Bush's speeches during his first term, is leaving his job. Gerson is expected to move into the policy arena and be replaced as head speechwriter by Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer William McGurn. Gerson's job change cements the breakup of Bush's speechwriting team that included deputies John McConnell and Matthew Scully.

Gerson is one of the best-known presidential speechwriters, on par with Ronald Reagan's Peggy Noonan or John Kennedy's Theodore Sorenson. One sign that he was no ordinary speechwriter is the fact that instead of being housed, as speechwriters usually are, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Gerson shared an office suite with Bartlett on the second floor of the West Wing. A Christian evangelical and a former theology student, Gerson shares his boss's brand of compassionate conservatism. His trademark has been the religious language and Biblical references that populate Bush's speeches. To those who believe the president uses his speeches to send signals to conservative evangelicals, Gerson is the master of the code. He was a major proponent of Bush directly confronting America's shameful history of slavery on a visit to Senegal's Goree Island in 2003. With the House of Slaves as his backdrop, Bush delivered one of Gerson's most memorable speeches that included the passage, "In America, enslaved Africans learned the story of the exodus from Egypt and set their own hearts on a promised land of freedom. Enslaved Africans discovered a suffering Savior and found he was more like themselves than their masters."

Bush's speeches will not only be missing Gerson's religious undertones. His move will radically alter the speechwriting process. Gerson, McConnell and Scully came together during Bush's 2000 campaign. Since their earliest days in the White House the three men sat in one room writing together entire speech texts from the opening "Thank you" to the closing "God bless America.” Bush even nicknamed the speechwriters "triune," a word that means three in one and also refers to the trinity. Scully, who left the White House late last summer, had wanted to leave earlier but was persuaded to stay on through the election to keep the team intact. According to a former administration official, the president has grown so familiar with the Gerson-headed speechwriting process he demands all of his prepared texts mirror that style, organization and tone.

Because the changes have not yet been announced, White House officials refused to comment on the record about them. But insiders think Gerson will stay on in an elevated role involving policy and message.

Hopefully he finished the State of the Union first.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2005 7:46 PM

That poor bastard. You can understand why the guy is leaving. It hardly matters who they get to replace him. It must be nerve-wracking to write an important speech for the leader of the free world, knowing that he may well say the exact opposite of what you've written.

When Junior said the line "...never stop searching for ways to destroy us, and neither do we.", you could almost hear a forehead-slap from somewhere off camera. Does a writer have to add all of the grammatical errors, or does Junior just ad-lib those? Say, do they get to read their own speeches nowadays? You know, into the earpiece?

Posted by: Bogu at January 5, 2005 11:41 PM

Yet at least ten of his set piece speeches are among the best ever given by an American president. For that, as you point out, Mr. gerson surely deserves great credit.

Posted by: oj at January 5, 2005 11:49 PM

Hmmm, nah. I cringe when Bush speaks without notes, for obvious reasons, but when he's scripted, it's even worse. I am not just here to slang Bush. It's just habit. I like speeches and speechwriters.

Which is your favourite speech? The only one which jumps to mind was the state of the union with the mushroom cloud smoking gun in it, and that didn't impress, really.

Posted by: Bogu at January 6, 2005 1:12 AM

An unusual choice of words.

Posted by: Bill at January 6, 2005 3:29 AM

He'll go into history books for "misunderestimate".

Posted by: h-man at January 6, 2005 7:25 AM

Actually, there's an embarrassment of riches. His London speech was very good and his speech to the '04 convention won him reelection. It's not really what you're looking for, but his comments on the rubble pile at the WTC were probably the most effective, and effecting, words ever spoken by a US President.

But for great speeches, I'm torn between his September 02 speech to the UN and the State of the Union speech Boqu is referring to. The UN speech probably wins out by a nose.

By the way, the famous "16 words" were absolutely true, Wilson's story has been widely discredited and he, himself, has now said that he couldn't know if the allegations were true.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 6, 2005 8:17 AM

Okay, I'll accept that. I'm bailing from this argument though, because the speeches you point to are okay, but they contradict the person giving them at every paragraph.

The story of a gang initiation, for example? This man oversaw branding of frat pledges during hazing.

I can't take talk of 'richness in justice and compassion' from someone who is still holding hundreds of people extrajudiciously, and intends to do so forever.

"And it will be a government truly by the people and for the people." Why did he exclude 'of'?

I guess you need to believe the speaker to fully appreciate a speech.

Posted by: Bogu at January 6, 2005 9:20 PM


Posted by: oj at January 6, 2005 9:43 PM

> The story of a gang initiation, for example? This man oversaw branding of frat pledges during hazing.

Well, boys will be boys. But you're right that Bush shouldn't have made such a big deal of a brief beating.

> I can't take talk of 'richness in justice and compassion' from someone who is still holding hundreds of people extrajudiciously, and intends to do so forever.

I agree that it isn't just in the Old Testament sense, but fortunately for the terrorists, Bush is a mainline Protestant.

Posted by: Odoreida at January 6, 2005 10:46 PM

Yeah, those fraternities at Yale are pretty much indistinguishable from the Crips and the Bloods.

Posted by: oj at January 6, 2005 11:15 PM