Cover Story

Republican bards

From the aftermath of 9/11 to this month's State of the Union address, an elite group of conservative speechwriters is helping to mold a wartime presidency

Issue: "Fighting words," Jan. 12, 2002

in Washington-The State of the Union address is a Washington tradition. Every January, the sitting president steps into the House chamber to provide a laundry list of legislative proposals, interrupted only by numerous and predictable standing ovations from the assembled representatives and senators. Networks interrupt their prime time schedules to show the spectacle live. Later this month, George W. Bush will give his first State of the Union speech, and this year's event might be a little different. Not only is the Union currently in a state of war, but since Sept. 11 Mr. Bush's speeches have been anything but routine. Mocked as a lightweight a year ago, Mr. Bush now has the aura of a statesman, and his top speechwriters are now known for helping their boss rise to the occasion. Think back to Sept. 20, when the United States was still numb with shock over the Sept. 11 attacks. Reporters whispered among themselves about the president's uncertain steps in the first hours of the disaster. When President Bush took to the podium in the House of Representatives for a joint address to Congress, he faced almost unprecedented good news and bad news. He could count on an audience that palpably wanted him to lead effectively. But the price of rhetorical bungling or tentative half-heartedness with these heightened stakes could be high. Mr. Bush came armed with a speech crafted by Michael Gerson and his team of White House speechwriters. Pundits had already noticed that unlike anyone since Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorenson, Mr. Gerson has great access and rapport with the president. His office is in the West Wing-unusual for a speechwriter-and he attends the daily senior staff meetings in the early morning, both signs of clout. He even traveled to Shanghai with the president last fall to help polish a well-received address there. When Mr. Gerson was ordered to draft what became the Sept. 20 address, he and his team met in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to develop a draft quickly. The speech began by celebrating the rallying of a nation through many acts of charity and love. It carefully explained who the enemies are, and how they must be defeated. It closed with a note of faith, declaring that good will triumph over evil. The president declared: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." It helped that President Bush didn't merely read the address off the Teleprompter, but delivered it with steely confidence and passionate feeling. The audience's natural sympathies overflowed, with nearly universal applause from anchormen and experts. "This was exactly what the country needed," former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan told WORLD. But she felt there was more at work than a speechwriting team. "We all know that literally tens of millions of people prayed for Bush in the days leading up to the speech and the day of the speech. That was a God-touched moment, and a God-touched speech, and he was a God-touched president." The president faces a very different atmosphere for this month's State of the Union address. With the United States having wrung Taliban rule and al-Qaeda influence out of Afghanistan, advisers worry that the nation's appetite to continue the battle will wane with success. Every victory is matched with warnings of tougher challenges to come. The difficult writing task is to marry Mr. Bush's military and strategic overview with a more typical address, complete with a laundry list of domestic initiatives. Mr. Gerson on Jan. 2 told WORLD that the speech must both impress the American people with "how much is left to do in the war, which is considerable, and at the same time, talk about the economy and other domestic issues in a compelling and urgent way." He said he had already had a couple of chats with the president laying down ideas and an outline, but the writing was coming in January. Advisers have hinted that the president will ask for a large increase in homeland security spending (which Congress is expected to enlarge further), but will also address key social conservative issues that are awaiting action in the Senate, from the faith-based initiative to a ban on human cloning. Mr. Gerson is a bookish, bespectacled man known for nibbling the ends off his pens and threatening the dress shirts and family pictures of colleagues with splashes of ink. One secret of his success is his long tenure with Mr. Bush. While other speechwriters are hired by personnel directors after inaugurations, Mr. Gerson noted that he "went down to Austin when there were just half a dozen people on the campaign," early in 1999. Mr. Gerson and Mr. Bush also share the bond of their Christian faith. A graduate of St. Louis' Westminster Academy, an evangelical high school, as well as a theology student at Wheaton College, Mr. Gerson attends the Falls Church, an evangelical Episcopal church, and participates "when I can" in a Thursday White House Bible study. While Mr. Gerson says he spends plenty of time in his windowless West Wing office (one nearby inspiration is a book of T.S. Eliot poems), he doesn't like to write there. "I like to write in restaurants and coffee shops," he explained, and one favorite is the Starbucks shop a block down Pennsylvania Avenue. Before joining the Bush campaign, Mr. Gerson wrote for Chuck Colson and Sen. Dan Coats, and pitched in for the autumn months of the Bob Dole campaign. (He treasures that experience-despite its gloomy finish-for introducing him to presidential politics and speechwriting.) When Gov. Bush hired him, he was writing for U.S. News & World Report, where his beat was philanthropy and civil society, so he fit well with Mr. Bush's attempts to explain "compassionate conservatism." Mr. Gerson said he was attracted to Mr. Bush because he "understood that biblical faith has a lot to say about morality, also a lot to say about the poor and also about racial reconciliation." Mr. Gerson credits Mr. Colson for mentoring him and leading by example: "He combined tremendous personal integrity with a passion for social justice and for the powerless, and that has been an example to me and a lot of people in knowing that's the appropriate biblical priority." Once in the White House, Mr. Gerson assembled an impressive and intellectual supporting cast: deputy speechwriting director Peter Wehner, a longtime aide to Bill Bennett; David Frum, an author and Weekly Standard writer who focuses mostly on economic issues; and Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for Dan Quayle. Other speechwriters contribute on major addresses. The Sept. 20 address drew on John Gibson, who writes speeches for the president on national security issues, and John McConnell, a writer assigned to Vice President Cheney. "Clearly, they're an extraordinary group of speechwriters," said Philanthropy Roundtable president Adam Meyerson, who's known them for years. "They look at all the great issues, and base their approach in first principles going back to the great traditions of Judeo-Christian civilization." Like Mr. Gerson, Mr. Wehner is a dedicated Christian, and his writings on religion and politics have pushed Christian conservatives to ponder whether they're in danger of pushing conservatism while leaving Christ behind. In one widely circulated essay, he wrote a C.S. Lewis-style "Screwtape" letter describing how the devil's tempters could spoil Christians with political passions. Mr. Wehner helped script another often-praised Bush speech, his brief seven-minute address at the National Cathedral for the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance just three days after the terrorist attacks. The president comforted the assembled, in the church and across the nation, with the goodness of God: "This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end." William Bennett is not shy in praising his former aide: "I've met a lot of people, famous and not famous. He is the single most impressive human being I've ever met." But Mr. Bennett says the real secret of the Bush speechwriters' recent success is that they've found the president's own voice, that they've given voice to his thoughts: "Pete has been my brain. I'm not embarrassed to admit it." These writers have also been important in recasting conservatism with Bush's embrace of compassion and faith. Some of that is programmatic, but much of it is rhetorical. Peggy Noonan likes how Bush speeches are "grounded in providence, like Washington and Lincoln. They've revived rhetoric that has been missing from conservatism and conservatism has suffered for it." When Newt Gingrich embraced "compassionate conservatism" in 1995, liberal opponents capitalized on Gingrich's braininess and made it sound like a clever spending-cut scheme instead of a real policy approach. President Bush's addition of the humility of his faith, and some rhetorical slaps at allies for "balancing budgets on the backs of the poor," have given the philosophy added credibility in Washington. "The President has an authentic faith and it comes across not as arrogant or judgmental, but as very, very real," Mr. Gerson said. "We've tried very hard to express moral and religious language in ways that unite people.

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