A Memorial to a Writer and His Now-Lonely Message of Compassion

From a New York Times story by Peter Baker headlined “A Memorial to a Writer and His Now-Lonely Message of Compassion”:

In the middle hour of their grief, they gathered in the majestic Washington National Cathedral, where presidents and cabinet secretaries and other titans of America’s ruling class are traditionally memorialized in the nation’s capital.

The man they came to mourn, Michael John Gerson, was no president or cabinet secretary. He was a wordsmith, a presidential speechwriter turned columnist. But he was more than the author of memorable addresses. He was an author of an idea that some fear will be buried along with him.

During seven years as chief speechwriter and senior adviser to President George W. Bush, Mr. Gerson was a singular architect and the most eloquent exponent of a brand of politics that he and his client in the Oval Office called “compassionate conservatism” — the notion that caring for the disadvantaged could be a hallmark of the political right as well as the political left.

The most tangible legacy of compassionate conservatism had been highlighted just two nights earlier in the State of the Union address when President Biden hailed the 20th anniversary of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, conceived and initiated by Mr. Bush and Mr. Gerson. PEPFAR is credited with saving more than 25 million lives in Africa and around the world, a generation of people that would otherwise have been wiped out.

But how far Mr. Gerson’s Republican Party has come from his vision of a more decent, humanitarian style of governance was on stark display that same night. The party of Donald J. Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene jeered and heckled the president, calling him names, shouting an expletive and turning the annual speech to Congress into a cafeteria food fight. That was not Mr. Gerson’s idea of forming a more perfect union.

“In honor of Mike, we need a renewed commitment to that legacy that he nurtured, cultivated, so beautifully over his life and gave voice to,” John Bridgeland, a friend from the Bush White House, said after Thursday’s service. Much of the nation, he added, hungers for something more noble. “The contrast between that appetite in the country and what we’re seeing the U.S. Congress focus on today is remarkable.”

The service at the cathedral, then, seemed like a remembrance of a different era, one when Republicans and Democrats could come together to fight AIDS or improve health care even as they fought vigorously on other issues, an era when Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of Mr. Gerson’s chief collaborators, was popular on both sides of the aisle.

Among those honoring Mr. Gerson, who died of cancer at 58 in November, were Bush White House veterans like Karl Rove, Stephen J. Hadley, Peter H. Wehner and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as admirers like William A. Galston from the Clinton White House, Jonathan Finer from Mr. Biden’s White House and Tim Shriver from the Kennedy family.

“As compelling as Mike’s words were,” Joshua B. Bolten, Mr. Bush’s last chief of staff, said, “he was always much more.”

Mr. Bush did not coin the term compassionate conservatism. Other Republicans like Bob Dole and Jack Kemp had used it for years; so had the father of Mr. Gerson’s boss, President George H.W. Bush. As John A. Farrell recounts in his new biography, “Ted Kennedy: A Life,” conservatives like Dole, Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson, John McCain and both Bushes were willing to work with a famously liberal senator on health care, education and immigration.

But the younger Mr. Bush made compassionate conservatism a centerpiece of his 2000 campaign for president, an effort to turn the corner on the hard edge of Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution. Instead of what Karen Hughes, a Bush adviser, called “grinchy old Republican” promises to cut aid to the poor and deport illegal immigrants, Mr. Bush advocated more federal assistance to schools to fight the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” one of Mr. Gerson’s signature phrases.

The idea was to advance liberal goals with conservative means — mobilizing, for instance, faith-based institutions to help the needy or tying increased education aid to increased testing or incorporating free-market principles while expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs.

Mr. Gerson was the oracle of this approach, becoming the most celebrated presidential speechwriter since Theodore C. Sorensen and Peggy Noonan. He helped Mr. Bush find his voice at key moments, notably at the same cathedral on Sept. 14, 2001, three days after terrorist attacks stunned the nation. In one of the most memorable addresses of his presidency, Mr. Bush opened with the words, “We are here in the middle hour of our grief.”

Mr. Gerson, a low-key, bespectacled Midwesterner who was uncomfortable with Texas swagger and locker-room humor, forged a bond with Mr. Bush even though “I am not much of a towel snapper,” as he put it. He had a poignant pen, the evidence of which could often be seen on lips turned blue from nervously chewing the top of his ballpoint.

As Mr. Bolten recalled, Mr. Gerson attacked a yellow pad “like an angry calligrapher” but was too anxious to watch the president deliver his speeches — which became awkward since Mr. Bush typically called immediately afterward to ask how it went.

Driven by his Christian faith, the kind that emphasizes caring for “the least of these,” as the Bible puts it, Mr. Gerson in a memoir summed up his philosophy as “a conservative respect for the institutions of family and community paired with a radical uncompromising concern for the poor and weak.”

That eventually led him to the scourge of AIDS then ravaging Africa. At Mr. Bush’s direction, aides developed a plan to devote billions of dollars to treatment, advised by Dr. Fauci, a renowned AIDS researcher long before he became a lightning rod for today’s right wing.

At the key meeting, Mr. Bush asked Mr. Gerson what he thought. “If we can do this and we don’t,” Mr. Gerson answered, “it will be a source of shame.” Mr. Bush agreed and persuaded Congress to finance the program, which over the last two decades has devoted $100 billion to curbing the disease.

“It’s been a huge success,” Mr. Biden said in his State of the Union address this week, crediting Mr. Bush. “He thought big, he thought large. He moved.” Mr. Bush plans to make a rare visit to Washington on Feb. 24 for a ceremony marking the anniversary.

Mr. Gerson’s vision of compassionate conservatism, however, has not endured with the same success. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed Mr. Bush’s presidency into a wartime administration and his decision to invade Iraq, with the resulting casualties and devastation, dispelled any sense of a compassionate time. Mr. Gerson, who helped craft the “axis of evil” address, never publicly expressed regret for his role in selling the war.

Mr. Bush returned to the theme late in his presidency, seeking immigration changes allowing millions to stay in the country. But he failed and in fact the conservative backlash helped fuel Mr. Trump’s later rise, which then transformed the party into a more combative culture war movement with little interest in the goals Mr. Gerson espoused. Through his column in The Washington Post, Mr. Gerson became a passionate critic of Mr. Trump.

But they were not easy years for him. He was hospitalized for depression and in 2019, from the same pulpit where he was remembered on Thursday, he delivered a raw and vulnerable sermon about being “stalked by sadness.”

“Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess,” he said. “But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And even when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.”

Left to carry his banner are allies like Mr. Bridgeland, who served as Mr. Bush’s domestic policy adviser and the first director of USA Freedom Corps, an agency promoting volunteerism. Mr. Bridgeland has been an active apostle of civic engagement ever since, working with Republicans and Democrats to resettle Afghan and Ukrainian refugees; re-envision policing; develop better strategies to combat Covid-19; and bring together nine presidential centers to promote democracy.

The challenge, according to Mr. Bridgeland, is that while great change in America has historically come from the bottom up, it still takes government to bring it to scale. But the days of interest in that on Capitol Hill, he said, seem long past.

“There’s no energy for it up there,” he said. “There’s Mitt Romney and a few others, but not much else. The nation needs to get back to its struggle to do its great works.”

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last five presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He is the author of seven books, most recently “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” with Susan Glasser.

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