Last week, presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson announced he was moving on to greener pastures. And thus, the White House lost the man who did perhaps the most to fill the president’s famous eloquence gap. Guest host Mike Pesca speaks with New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who profiled Gerson earlier this year.
MIKE PESCA: When presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson announced that he was leaving the White House last week, the administration lost the man who did the most to fill the president's famous eloquence gap. From announcing the then Texas governor's presidential aspirations to coining "axis of evil" and hundreds of policy statements in between, Gerson wrote the words that made the whole world listen. New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg profiled Gerson last February, and Jeffrey joins us now. Welcome back to the show.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you for having me.
MIKE PESCA: So to best understand Michael Gerson, I think we have to hear his words, and this is George W. Bush delivering them at the second inaugural.
GEORGE W. BUSH: 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.
MIKE PESCA: Jeffrey, what, to you, stands out about that speech?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: The sheer eloquence of it. It's the summation of the president's best instincts and the ideology that he has adopted. You could trace a line back all the way to Wilson through Roosevelt and Truman and to Reagan, and this is his adoption of that core idea.
And the thing about it that always struck me was you have a fairly inarticulate president speaking these beautiful sentences, just beautiful sentences. Really, they are. So I became intensely curious [LAUGHS] about the guy who was writing those sentences, who I think is really considered one of the best speechwriters of the last 45 years or so.
MIKE PESCA: And is he one of the best speechwriters because what he has to work with in terms of the — let's be charitable — plain-spoken president isn't like Theodore Sorenson working with JFK, who could, at the drop of a hat, just be eloquent?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: That's a very interesting question. With Sorenson and Kennedy, you had an eloquent Harvard-educated president having on his staff a very eloquent speechwriter. Here, you have a guy who must translate, in essence, a somewhat inarticulate president's thoughts into rhetoric. So that's where people in Washington became so impressed with Gerson.
MIKE PESCA: I know from reports that George W. Bush does redline speeches and say things like, well, I wouldn't say this, and this isn't me. He seems to give Gerson much more latitude than he does anyone else who tries to put words in his mouth.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: It's one of the strangest editor/writer relationships in the world. The speechwriter is the guy who sits in the basement and draws pictures of what his president should be. People always talk in the White House of a mind meld between George Bush and Michael Gerson, and I think that existed because both men think in these sweeping moral terms of freedom and of the transformative powers of American force to make the world a better place.
Both are committed Christians. They're also, by the way, in harmony on issues of race and racial justice. I mean, the best speech, in my mind, that Gerson ever wrote was a speech that Bush delivered at Goree Island, a former slave-trading station in Senegal. It deals with American guilt and the redemptive powers of American democracy to fix what was wrong.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. A republic founded on equality for all became a prison for millions. And, yet, in the words of the African proverb, no fist is big enough to hide the sky.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: There are people on the left and even in the center who would say that Bush might not be personally racist, but he can't be considered a friend of African-Americans. But you look at this speech, and as a speech, it's flawless.
MIKE PESCA: That speech in Senegal, that was an instance where the words really mattered a lot. In fact, there wasn't too much policy behind it. There wasn't supposed to be. It was the equivalent of a reef-laying ceremony.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Exactly.
MIKE PESCA: To go back to the second inauguration -
GEORGE W. BUSH: When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.
MIKE PESCA: Now, if I live in Burma or if I live in Darfur and the United States drags its feet, I could look back on that speech and say, you lie. Maybe Gerson, in trying to establish this soaring rhetoric, soared too far.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: That's an interesting question, and we actually talked about this. And he said, what's the choice? We're not going to tell the people of the world that sometimes we're going to be on your side when it's convenient, and we believe in freedom in a sort of contingent way. That doesn't make a speech.
But you hit on something that's incredibly serious, which is the issue of fecklessness. Sharansky speaks of 20, you know, 25 years ago, hearing of President Reagan describe the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and Sharansky sitting in the gulag, and everybody becoming electrified by this because they felt that finally an American president really understood what was going on.
So you're right. You've [LAUGHS] got to be careful with this because we're an extraordinarily powerful country. And it's a reminder, by the way, of George Bush 41, who, right after the first Gulf War, called for the uprising of the Kurds and the Shiites, [LAUGHS] only to pull out his support for that uprising in Iraq.
MIKE PESCA: Do you think the words themselves have ever changed the policies?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Oh, I think so, yeah. I know this from conversations inside the White House, that there have been times when people have gone to the president and said, you've said this. We've got to try here to match the rhetoric a little bit more. On AIDS — and this is an example where Gerson said in very stark terms in meetings with the president, we will not be forgiven if we don't do more.
MIKE PESCA: And finally, I don't know who's going to replace Gerson, if anyone can, but do you want to see the next person inspire George Bush to great flights of rhetoric, or, after six years, in your opinion, has the time for that come and gone, and maybe we could spend the last two years with more straight talk?
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: There's nothing wrong with great rhetoric that calls out our better angels. What you'd hope for — Katrina might be the perfect example — is if it's a choice between beautiful rhetoric and building some levees, you'd rather see the levees built.
MIKE PESCA: Well, Jeffrey Goldberg, with the wind at your back, this interview has certainly taken flight, and for that, I thank you.