Subscribe for 17¢ / day

WASHINGTON (AP) – It is a man of faith – and nerves – who dares phrases like “an angel still rides in the whirlwind” to glide from presidential lips that more often speak a vocabulary all their own: subliminable, Hispanically, electrifly, proculation.

That man is White House speechwriter Michael Gerson.

An evangelical Christian and former theology student, Gerson infuses his work for President Bush with a gentle spirituality.

For a recent speech about Pope John Paul II, Gerson wrote – and Bush spoke – of a servant of God who possesses “the unexpected power of a baby in a stable, of a man on a cross … .”

For the cornerstone address of Bush’s European debut, Gerson wrote about the only Polish monument to survive first the Nazis and then the Soviets: “It is the figure of Christ falling under the cross and struggling to rise.”

Some of Bush’s most-repeated signature phrases, such as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” or “the armies of compassion,” are Gerson’s handiwork.

Obsessive doodling and caffeine (a Starbucks near the White House is a favorite workshop) help Gerson wring out the words. Forcing himself to hear them delivered is the bigger challenge, colleagues say.

When Bush accepted the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, Gerson left his wife at the Philadelphia convention hall and walked to a nearby park. In January he would not go to the Capitol for Bush’s address to Congress, but did tune in on television. “He keeps coming closer,” quipped press secretary Ari Fleischer.

“He’s too nervous to watch,” said Dan Bartlett, another White House colleague who hastened to add: “It’s not because he’s afraid.”

While Bartlett contends that Gerson’s quirk has nothing to do with Bush’s mangled syntax (“At this point, you just kind of laugh about it,” Bartlett said), outsiders say it must.

“All serious speechwriters dread seeing their speeches delivered; it never matches the sound and the rhythm in your head,” said Eli Attie, who was former Vice President Al Gore’s chief wordsmith.

“At least with President Bush – fairly or not – they don’t have to worry about anyone blaming the speechwriter,” Attie said. He credits Gerson with “beautifully written and well-argued” prose.

Gerson did not reply to invitations to speak for himself.

He and his team of writers – David Frum, who wrote for the conservative Weekly Standard; Peter Wehner, former aide to conservative activist Bill Bennett; and Matthew Scully, one-time speechwriter to Dan Quayle – now take turns traveling with Bush to get a better feel for his voice and cadence.

Gerson was in Poland for what veteran GOP speechwriter Tony Dolan called Bush’s “greatest speech yet.”

That address at Warsaw University library was a collaborative effort by Gerson, former ambassador to Poland Dan Fried and John Gibson, speechwriter to Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser.

“The bells of victory have rung,” Bush declared. “The Iron Curtain is no more. Now, we plan and build the house of freedom, whose doors are open to all of Europe’s peoples and whose windows look out to global challenges beyond.”

Dolan, who wrote for President Reagan, praised Bush’s the speech for essentially codifying the “humble and plain-spoken” foreign policy that he promised during last year’s campaign.

“This is not a bunch of writers, this is a reflection of Bush’s consciousness,” said Dolan.

Gerson has a West Wing basement office – the first speechwriter since President Kennedy’s Ted Sorenson to claim such prized real estate – and a seat in the daily senior staff meetings. He also has regular audiences with the president, where Gerson tapes Bush as he talks through his ideas for big speeches.

He has worked for Bush for little more than two years. Gerson formerly helped Watergate figure and Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson write a book and was a policy strategist working on “compassionate conservatism” for former GOP Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana long before Bush coined the term.

Where Dolan perceives synergy between speaker and speechwriter, others hear a disconnect.

Presidential counselor Karen Hughes, who has been with Bush since 1994, frequently rewrites Gerson’s elegant phrasing into plainer Bush-speak.

Typical of Gerson: “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side. … An angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.” (Inaugural address.)

Typical of Hughes: “The people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, I am here asking for a refund.” (First speech to a joint session of Congress.)

When Bush reaches for the profound without a script, as he did on an outing to the Jefferson Memorial, he is liable to such garble as: “Uh, I, uh, it’s – I’m a proud man to be the nation based upon such wonderful values.”

A proclamation was recently “proculation.” In Warsaw, electrify became electrifly and the line “Today, Poland’s own Golec Orchestra” came out as “Today’s own, Poland’s orchestra, called Golec’s.”

To Wayne Fields, Washington University English professor and author of “Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence,” Bush’s delivery of Gerson’s words is more than hard on the ears. It is politically damaging.

“The ill fit undermines the message, emphasizes the distance between the crafting of the words and the speaking of them. The disjunctions, breaks and gaps make it even more difficult for Bush to build credibility as someone who is sure of himself and belongs there in the White House,” Fields said.

“A speechwriter can try to blend in with the personality he’s writing for, or he can try to lead it in certain ways and I think that’s what Gerson does. He’s trying to create a persona of someone who has vision.”

Copyright © 2001, Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

0
0
0
0
0