Michael Gerson grew up in Illinois, graduating from Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis and Wheaton College outside Chicago. He wrote speeches and articles for evangelicals such as Chuck Colson and Indiana Senator Dan Coats. He worked for President George W. Bush as chief speechwriter and then policy advisor from 1999 through 2006. He has a lovely wife and two cute children.
Public service in Gerson's case really was service. Long, long hours. A heart attack at age 39 in December 2004. Putting up with secular liberals who believe, as Gerson writes in his new book, Heroic Conservatism (HarperOne, 2007), "that religion is a private eccentricity or secret vice" and that "religious people should shut up." Putting up with mainline conservatives such as Jeffrey Hart who sneered at Gerson's "form of religious expression, with its roots in the camp revival."
Gerson writes that he often received tepid support within the White House: "The vision of compassion and freedom that seemed so clear in speeches and in the president's mind was sometimes poorly implemented. And some who served in the administration did not share the vision at all." One of the generally untold stories of the Bush administration is the hostility to evangelicals among some of its high-ranking members.
The sense that the United States is at war, but we refuse to admit it, suffuses Heroic Conservatism. Gerson writes that "America is called to confront a new totalitarian threat to human liberty-the political ideology of radical Islam, given form and power in outlaw regimes and terrorist networks." He sees the crucial role of leadership, yet "the gap between the frightening reality of this war and the indifference of the public and political class is wide and dangerous."
Gerson, who now writes a Washington Post column, sees some GOP leaders as part of that political class. Note the word temporary in the following sentence: "The Republican Party has been at least a temporary home for people like me because of its openness to religious influence and its unapologetic assertion of American ideals."
Gerson learned in Washington how temporary political friendships can be. One fellow Bush speechwriter, Matthew Scully, accused Gerson of egotism in taking sole credit for Bush speeches that were collaborative efforts, and sometimes portraying himself as a lone speechwriting hero.
Gerson touched on that wound but talked mainly about his vision of politics and the world during a question-and-answer session with students, professors, and me at The King's College, New York City. Here are edited excerpts from the discussion.
WORLD: What is heroic conservatism?
GERSON: I was looking for a term that would encompass the idea of taking universal human rights and dignity seriously here and abroad. I'm a conservative, I believe in free markets. But I also believe in an active role in fighting poverty and disease abroad. I'm a very strong social conservative. But I also, as a part of that, believe that there needs to be an active effort to combat poverty, hopelessness in the United States.
WORLD: If you call this heroic conservatism, are other forms of conservatism cowardly conservatism?
GERSON: Yeah, well, pretty much. (Laughs) No, it's just drawing a distinction.
STUDENT: Heroic conservatism seems opposed to libertarianism.
GERSON: It's the standard debate about whether unrestricted markets lead to just social outcomes. . . . [Some people] have a natural disaster and their whole lives are destroyed because they have no cushion. There is no safety net.
PROFESSOR: A jaw-dropping hit piece in The Atlantic basically called you a plagiarizer, a liar. What's your reaction to that and how has your reputation been damaged by that?
GERSON: It's not pleasant, but it's not an unknown Washington experience. As a Christian how do you respond to these things? You have a friend for seven years who's been taking notes on you and puts the worst thing you ever did and I think distorts some things-and you had no idea. That's a very difficult thing.
STUDENT: How do you deal with individual problems of the poor?
GERSON: Some people have problems like addiction, homelessness, and other things, which are deeply complicated social problems that have to do with psychological problems. Some have radical disconnection from family and other sources of community. For those people you can't just say markets are going to work.
WORLD: Can't markets work for health care?
GERSON: We have a market health-care system that doesn't work for poor people. They go to hospital emergency rooms. I want to reform that. I'd want to make it much more individual-based, and subsidize individuals to purchase their own health insurance.
WORLD: But one reason the current system doesn't work is because the tax structure allows deductions in certain ways for businesses and not individuals. Is the problem the market system or the lack of a market?
GERSON: The reforms to pursue would subsidize the individuals to buy their own health care. You'd make a refundable kind of tax credit-something like that. But if you were to just remove government entirely, you wouldn't get a just outcome in health care. It's expensive. Poor people would just get health care in emergency rooms. Government-run health-care systems are disastrous, particularly when it comes to innovation. You need a predominantly private health-care system, but you also need an ethic of common provision, as some people aren't going to be able to afford this.
WORLD: So a conservatism that respects mixed-up reality.
GERSON: This is consistent with a conservatism that takes real circumstances seriously. It's not rigidly ideological like libertarianism is. I find much libertarian thought to be utopian, and that's not the way that markets and individuals work. To me the proper mix is to essentially have predominantly private market-oriented systems that also make a provision for those who have particular challenges.
PROFESSOR: The New York Times magazine had an article about shifting definitions in evangelicalism and how quickly it's falling apart . . .
GERSON: The Times as usual wants to cover it as a "crack-up" when in fact there's at least some maturity in it. . . . Evangelicals are still pro-life and pro-family. I haven't found much disagreement on that, but a belief that there has to be a broadening of your conception of social justice and it has to include economic and racial justice at home, not through coercive government means but through some means.
An amazing number of people have been engaged in African issues. That is also a reflection of one of the large unreported historical trends of our time, the movement of the center of gravity of Christianity to the global south. I find people in the evangelical community exhausted with Iraq just like the rest of Americans. But I don't find them turning to pacifism. I don't find a lot of people turning to the religious left.
PROFESSOR: Let's say your ideas for heroic conservatism become the consensus view of the conservative movement. What do you think the movement has to accomplish in order to actually have its message heard?
GERSON: I believe in rhetoric. I love the history of American political rhetoric, but one lesson I brought out of government is that sometimes there is a limit to the power of words. Americans eventually respond to the situation on the ground. The media pounce on you when you're down. They go after the weak.
WORLD: Many students here are good writers. Do you recommend speechwriting? How did you get into it?
GERSON: I actually always recommend Capitol Hill as the best place to get an introduction to American politics. I worked for Sen. Dan Coats. Capitol Hill is a great place to learn a variety of issues and to be a writer, because it allowed me not to be a health-care expert (which is fairly narrow) but to deal with international and domestic issues and to get a good grounding in American politics.
The ability to write is a rare ability in America. It is not generally taught to lawyers, and there are a lot of lawyers on Capitol Hill. Congressional offices are always looking for someone with the ability to write.
-For some excerpts on foreign policy from the Gerson interview, please go to WorldontheWeb.com