The Gap between Rhetoric and Reality
The President's speechwriter on the challenges of practicing what we preach.

You may think writing a sermon every week is challenging work, but imagine writing speeches everyday for the leader of the free world. That was Michael Gerson's job for six years under President George W. Bush. Last night I attended a benefit dinner in Chicago where Gerson was the keynote speaker. Prior to the dinner I participated in a small roundtable discussion with Gerson about his time in the White House and his perception of current challenges - domestic and international - facing the country.

Much of the conversation focused on Gerson's responsibility in crafting the President's response in the days following 9/11. Leading a nation in shock and grief is not easy, but simultaneously showing strength and resolve is a challenge few presidential speechwriters have faced. Gerson was almost universally praised for shaping Bush's tone in a way that comforted the nation and rallied the world. The President's address at the National Cathedral, which Gerson and his team wrote with less than one day's notice, has been celebrated as one of the finest moments of the Bush presidency.

A theology grad from Wheaton College, Gerson's faith has been a factor both in Bush's speeches and policy. U2's Bono, a friend of Gerson's, has said, "Mike is known as a ?moral compass' at the White House." As a senior policy advisor to Bush, Gerson was instrumental in the push to triple aid to Africa, and he's filled the President's remarks with passionate rhetoric about compassion, the spread of democracy, and the God-ordained dignity of freedom for all people. But at Thursday night's gathering Gerson was critical of the administration's execution of these ideals.

Gerson said his worst day at the White House was when the Abu Ghraib prison story hit the wires. The criminal actions of a handful of US soldiers were graphically displayed for the world to see. One of Gerson's speechwriting colleagues at the White House commented that Abu Ghraib, "undid everything we've done." The President's rhetoric was contradicted by the images coming from Iraq.

Similarly, Gerson believes the administration's policy of detaining enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay has become an obstacle throughout the world. He said virtually everywhere administration official travel to advance the President's ideals of democracy and freedom they are assaulted with questions about Guantanamo Bay. Critics believe the holding of enemy combatants without access to legal representation or oversight by multinational agreements (the Geneva Convention) contradicts the President's desire to bring democratic liberties to the Middle East. Once again, the rhetoric doesn't match reality.

September 21, 2007

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments


October 02, 2007  2:46pm

And some here in the Church have asked, "what happens when you surrender the moral highground?" and the answer is..."The world recognizes it's own, and will harshly point out our hypocrisy."

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Steve Rheingans

September 25, 2007  8:26pm

We lost any moral authority we may have claimed for invading Iraq when there were no WMD's. Strike two was when we guarded the oil ministry but let lots of other government agency's get looted. Strike three was Abu Graib. How could people in the ME believe we really cared about them when we lied, tortured, and guarded all things oil? Since then we have rushed landmines to Israel for use in Lebanon where civilians have been blown up with landmines made in the USA. If its a war of ideas primarily we need to practice our stated ideals. The values that drive our foreign policy should be the same ones that drive our domestic policy otherwise our foreign policy will not export well. Jews, Muslims and Christians agree that God is a God of justice and peace. Is anybody living up to justice and peace that transcends ethnic and religious divisions? Could Christians lead the way in speaking truth to power and to each other? We are the ones with the most spiritual and material resources. Will Christian leaders lead?

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Michael Wade

September 25, 2007  1:22pm

Just as an aside - there is an interesting article about Michael Gerson in the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic Taken with a grain of salt. And maybe a drop of lemon.

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Jeremy McKim

September 25, 2007  1:05pm

I think this article illustrates how placing our hope in anything other than Jesus, be it democracy, winning a war, or 'securing peace' via military dominance, is completely futile and disappointing. Can't we see that the world's most powerful nation is completely incapable of saving the world? Why do we place so much hope in presidents and armies and diplomacy. It is all for not. Only Jesus can save us from death and deliver us into a kingdom of life and peace. And we will never realize the fullness of this until Jesus returns. Presidents don't disappoint me because I don't place messianic hopes in them. Politicians and their policies don't frustrate me because i do not place messianic hopes in them. My hope is in Jesus. Jesus is the only hope for Americans and Iraqis and Islamic militants and millionaires and those dying of AIDS. Let us give the world Jesus or nothing.

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Paul J.

September 24, 2007  5:56pm

Excellent article...I appreciate your presenting the facts without politicizing...which of course will happen freely in the comments. :-) Gerson is certainly a great talent, and it's interesting to see inside his work.

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mike rucker

September 24, 2007  11:53am

"It has been the administration's inability to translate its rhetoric into reality that has led to the President's unpopularity both at home and abroad." Let's see... that's the first time I've ever heard "lying" defined as "the inability to translate rhetoric into reality." but i kind of like it. might even start using it. at least we now know that Dick Cheney isn't the only one feeding words to W. i don't know about you, but right now i don't believe anyone any more, and it is pretty disconcerting. i heard an npr program this morning about how iraq is nothing like what petraeus and bush said a week ago. i wanted to write my senator and say, "who are some neutral people we could send over to iraq to get an honest assessment of what's going on?" but then i remembered i didn't trust saxby chambliss, either. i trusted sam nunn, but there seem to be few like him any more. and all of this is on top of the realization i came to this weekend that there are really two jesus figures in the bible, and one of them is satan in a pretty darn clever disguise. i dunno - everyone's a liar except me and thee, and i'm not so sure about thee... mike rucker

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September 21, 2007  2:23pm

"In an age when pastors are becoming increasingly isolated from their flocks..." I certainly agree with this. The chief shepherd ALWAYS maintains a mutual, two-way relationship with His sheep. He is never a one-way communication God. The quality of relationship between the professional shepherd and "his sheep" has always been one with large amount of relational distance - ever since the beginning of the "clergy" notion. It's a systemic flaw, not one merely of new beginnings with mega-churches. It is part of the system of the professionalized pastor. 1. It takes 100-150 attenders to pay one man. One man cannot maintain mutual personal relationships with that many people, even if 75 of them are children. 2. The system is set for one-way communication to dominate the notion of "teaching and preaching", even though the scripture never defines it as such. The notion of "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom" is almost completely absent in the program of gathered believers. 3. The system requires such a high percentage of the giving to go to the one man. It brings on many bogus qualities among believers - pedestalizing, passivity, perpetual dependency, false expectations, etc. People are looking for a ROI on their money to benefit themselves, even though it is supposed to be "giving". It's not giving till the gift and it's benefit go beyond yourself. The solution is to better observe the scripture that calls us beyond the box of our institutionalized traditions. It's all there. Our traditions are just trumping it so we swish it under the rug with rationalizations. There is much systemic reforation yet to occure to live out God's design.

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