Michael Gerson is a conservative op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. An evangelical Christian who served as a chief aide and speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House, Gerson's columns cover both domestic politics and foreign affairs. Arguing that "evil exists and it has to be confronted," he promotes a highly moralistic vision of U.S. foreign policy that eschews realism. His starkly religious beliefs may have played a role in leading Gerson to embrace some of the more radical prescriptions promoted by neoconservatives in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, like the invasion of Iraq.
In the Bush White House
Although not a neoconservative like many of his colleagues in the Bush administration, Gerson played an important role crafting President Bush's messages. Describing the similarities between Bush's and Gerson's outlooks, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in 2006 that he was "an influential figure in the White House, in part because he shares Bush's belief in the power of faith—both men are evangelical Christians—and because he possesses a preternatural ability, his friends say, to anticipate Bush's thinking." One Bush adviser told Goldberg that there had been a "mind meld" between the two men.
Working with a team of other speechwriters, Gerson helped verbalize the country's mission in the "war on terror," as Bush phrased it in his second inaugural: "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."
According to Goldberg: "The three most famous words [Gerson] has ever set to paper are 'axis of evil,' a phrase referring to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea that made its first appearance in the 2002 State of the Union Message. A speechwriter then on Gerson's team, David Frum, had proposed 'axis of hatred,' but, according to Frum, Gerson substituted 'evil' for its more theological resonance."
Gerson was a champion of the Iraq War. Explaining his support for the war, he once said, "The people of the Middle East are not exceptions to this great trend of history, and, by standing up for these things, we are on the right side of history." In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Gerson was charged with writing speeches "that would offer vivid evidence to the American public of the risk posed by Hussein, yet try to convince voters that Bush would not attack Iraq rashly. He had to scare people and reassure them at the same time."
On the other hand, Gerson opposed some of the policies promoted by the Bush administration's hawks and neoconservatives, including on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wrote Goldberg, "In 2002, a senior White House official told me, Gerson outflanked Dick Cheney, who didn't want Bush to declare unambiguously his support for a Palestinian state, as Gerson had urged him to do—and as Bush did, in a speech that Gerson wrote."
Summarizing his tenure at the White House, the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin wrote in June 2005, "As Bush's chief speechwriter in the first term, Gerson gets credit for soaring oratory that often transcended its pedestrian delivery. As an evangelical Christian, Gerson also gets credit for the injection of Christian themes, imagery and language into the White House communications strategy."
Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in the conservative National Review, referred to him as "Bush's Soul," noting that "Bush's spokesman and press conferences have not done much of the work of defending his most important policies or defining his central themes. His prepared speeches took on that task, and Gerson more than anyone else, wrote them."
On Foreign Affairs
Since leaving government service and becoming a columnist for the Post, Gerson has continued to defend the actions of the Bush administration, as well as champion his own moralistic vision on foreign affairs. In one illustrative column, Gerson used the hardnosed—and often brutal—"realism" of the President Nixon and Henry Kissinger as a backdrop for promoting his own worldview, writing: "[I]t is clear that repeated doses of foreign policy realism can deaden the conscience. In President Nixon's office, a lack of human sentiment was viewed as proof of mental toughness—an atmosphere that diminished the office itself. Realists are often dismissive of Manichean distinctions between good and evil, light and darkness. But in the world beyond good and evil, some may be lightly consigned to the gas chambers."
Before the election of Barack Obama, some critics accused Gerson of using his position at the Post as a shill for Bush administration policies. In July 2007, for example, as the White House was pressuring Iran for interfering in Iraq, Gerson appeared to echo administration talking points. Pointing to both Iran and Syria as the sources of U.S. woes in Iraq, Gerson wrote: "In a kind of malicious chemistry experiment, hostile powers are adding accelerants to Iraq's frothing chaos. Iran smuggles in the advanced explosive devices that kill and maim American soldiers. Syria allows the transit of suicide bombers who kill Iraqis at markets and mosques, feeding sectarian rage. This is not a complete explanation for the difficulties in Iraq. Poor governance and political paralysis would exist whether Iran and Syria meddled or not. But without these outside influences, Tony Blair told me recently, the situation in Iraq would be 'very nearly manageable.'"
Although wary of taking military action against Iran at that time, Gerson did favour "limited but forceful action against Syria's Ho Chi Minh Trail of terrorists."
More recently, Gerson has been critical of the Obama administration's national security strategy, characterizing President Obama's statement that "America must move off a permanent war footing" a "triumph of speechwriting over experience." Writing for the Post in January 2015, Gerson emphasized that "Americans need to be prepared for years of conflict—and for the strong possibility of terrorist escalations." He added that while "Obama is correct that this war requires a variety of non-military strategies" the "task that remains is a global armed conflict of uncertain duration." He claimed that this conflict would entail "maintaining a technological edge to monitor the communications of potential terrorists. It will involve arming, training and guiding (sometimes with American boots on the ground) proxies to fight battles. It will involve targeted killings with drones, bombers and special operations forces."
After the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Gerson sharply rebuked President Obama's "doctrine of leading form behind." "Recent history yields one interpretation: If the United States does not lead the global war on terrorism, the war will not be led," Gerson wrote for the Post in August 2014. "But he still refuses to broaden his conception of the U.S. role in the Middle East."
Gerson had previously characterized Obama's foreign policies as the Bush Doctrine in disguise. "As a candidate, Obama defined his approach as the opposite of everything Bush. Whatever the issue, Obama would be the photographic negative. But as president, Obama's foreign policy has been slowly evolving toward the views of his predecessor. Obama's pride will not allow him to admit it. His rhetorical imprecision obscures it. But behind the fog is the Bush Doctrine."
Among the evidence cited by Gerson for this conclusion were Obama's tamping down of the language of the "war on terror" while at the same time boosting troop levels in Afghanistan and significantly ramping up drone attacks in Pakistan—both situations, Gerson failed to note, were legacies of Bush decision-making in the "war on terror." Gerson also cited Obama's purported embrace of Bush's "freedom" agenda. Arguing that the Obama administration initially "sneered at the whole idea" of human rights and freedom, Gerson claimed, "the spreading heroism of Middle Eastern protesters has been enough to melt the indifference of even the most frosty realists. History has pushed Obama toward a binary choice: Betray freedom or embrace it. With reluctance, he has embraced it."
Gerson's at times one-dimensional moralism that has drawn criticism from the likes of former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who once argued that Bush's speeches were too morally simplistic: "Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth."
Since his time studying at the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, Gerson has been involved in Christian-based activism on issues including poverty and global health issues, notably AIDS. One of his early efforts was to join Charles Colson, who had served prison time for his role in the Watergate scandal, in his prison ministry.
Gerson carried his activism into conservative politics, serving as an advisor to Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) and then as a speechwriter for both the Steve Forbes and Bob Dole/Jack Kemp campaigns during the 1996 presidential race. In 1999, George W. Bush, then Texas governor, hired Gerson, who was at the time a senior editor for U.S. News and World Report, where he was covering the Clinton impeachment, among other issues. Gerson, a onetime Jimmy Carter supporter (he left the Democratic Party largely over abortion), was immediately attracted to Bush's "compassionate conservatism." Before joining the Bush administration, Gerson worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
In 2006, shortly after leaving the White House, Gerson become a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist for the Washington Post. "Mike is well-known as an eloquent writer and provocative thinker, and I'm thrilled he's decided to do this," said editorial page editor Fred Hiatt in a statement. "I'm sure that, with other recent additions such as Eugene Robinson and Ruth Marcus, Mike will contribute to the liveliness, thoughtfulness and unpredictability of our op-ed page."
Gerson's activism, particularly on issues like poverty and AIDS, has at times led him to challenge other conservative Christian factions. In a 2006 Newsweek piece entitled "The New Social Gospel," Gerson sought to move beyond the "narrowness of the religious right," writing: "During my time in the White House, the most intense and urgent evangelical activism I saw did not come on the expected values issues—though abortion and the traditional family weren't ignored—but on genocide, global AIDS, and human trafficking. The most common request I received was, 'We need to meet with the president on Sudan'—not on gay marriage. This reflects a head-snapping generational change among evangelicals, from leaders like Falwell and Robertson to Rick Warren, focused on fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa, and Gary Haugen, confronting rape and sexual slavery in the developing world. Since leaving government, I've asked young evangelicals on campuses from Wheaton to Harvard who they view as their model of Christian activism. Their answer is nearly unanimous: Bono."
Gerson's Washington Post bio emphasizes his numerous humanitarian endeavors: "Gerson serves as Senior Advisor at ONE, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. He is the Hastert Fellow at the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He serves on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience, the Board of Directors of Bread for the World, the Initiative for Global Development Leadership Council, and the Board of Directors of the International Rescue Committee. He is co-Chair of The Poverty Forum and Co-Chair of the Catholic/Evangelical Dialogue with Dr. Ron Sider. … Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as Assistant to the President for Policy and Strategic Planning. He was a key administration advocate for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI), the fight against global sex trafficking, and funding for women's justice and empowerment issues."