Holding Gerson to a higher standard

mike gersonEveryone back in Washington is getting all excited about The Atlantic's article on President Bush's former speechwriter Mike Gerson by a former colleague of Gerson's, Matthew Scully. Scully's main point is that Gerson sucked up to reporters, promoted himself over his colleagues and took credit for work that wasn't solely his. That Gerson didn't write all the speeches that he is frequently credited for writing doesn't surprise me. Gerson told a reporter for his alma mater's Wheaton Record in early 2005 that a team of around eight people worked on all of Bush's speeches and he merely oversaw the process. I was privileged to sit in on the interview, and the contrast between the media's portrayal of Gerson -- the shy genius writer who wrote nearly every memorable line that Bush ever said -- clashed with what I observed that morning (except for the shy part). But more on that later.

Over the course of the 8,500-word article, Scully gives us plenty of juicy insider stuff that many Washington types would probably love to tell everyone about self-inflated authorities but no one wants to hear. Of course in this case people actually care about the outing of Gerson as a self-promoter since he has been credited as the silver-tongued speechwriter who made the bumbling Texan sound eloquent.

The article is informative and reasonably well-written (the part about Harriet Miers is hilarious), but it makes a big deal out of a bunch of stuff that goes on in Washington all the time. The article gets silly at times as Scully engages in the typical speechwriter credit fight that I can't imagine very many people caring about.

Of course there is the typical problem with first-person tell-alls, in which it is hard to verify all of the facts, unless there is genuine documentation. I am interested in reading Gerson's response, which is partially contained in this Washington Post story, but I get the feeling that there could be more from him if he wants to defend himself. I hope he lets this pass, since it would result in a silly tit-for-tat that would never get resolved. Here's Gerson in the Post on Saturday:

Reached by telephone yesterday, Gerson expressed shock at the portrayal and denied claiming credit for work by Scully and [John] McConnell. His voice was filled with emotion. "The last acknowledgment in the book I did was to Matt Scully and John McConnell, who I called the finest of writers and the finest of men," Gerson said, referring to his book "Heroic Conservatism," to be published in September. "So you can imagine how I feel. I feel heartsick about it. It's very difficult."

That Gerson did things his colleagues saw as self-promoting should not be surprising. That was the White House's goal, and Scully pretty much tells us that:

Harder to explain than one man's foolish vanity is the gullibility of those who indulged him. Mike had the benefit, I suppose, of presenting an easy positive story to reporters generally hostile to President Bush. If only to keep up appearances or reward a faithful source, reporters had to find a happier angle on the administration. They needed something nice to say, and some color to go with it, and why not start with the bookish evangelical?

The Gerson story was great for the White House's image, and who can fault that? And now look at how they all have cashed in: A nice piece of weekly real estate in The Washington Post that can be relied on to defend White House policies (most of the time).

The outrage from The Atlantic's Matthew Yglesias -- calling on the Post to reconsider Gerson's column -- is over the top. Yes, the White House allowed Gerson and the White House to create an image of himself that was several times larger than what was actually going on, and that's wrong. But hey, welcome to Washington and politics. People claim credit for others' work all the time:

There are rewards for such behavior, and in Mike's case the Washington establishment has raised him up as one of its own -- a status complete with a columnist's perch at The Washington Post. There is a downside, too, measured in the lost esteem of friends and in the tainting of real gifts and achievements. At his best, Mike is a serious man, with an active Christian faith that could be seen in his work as an adviser in the president's program for helping AIDS and malaria victims in Africa -- a vital contribution and well deserving of praise. Yet being a part of such efforts was never reward enough for Mike, and there was always more to the story, always an angle.

Scully fails to consider that Gerson appeared to have a fairly unique relationship with President Bush. As tmatt says, that tends to promote jealousy and plenty of nods from the man in charge. Maybe that was part of the alleged ruse. But Scully could have at least mentioned it. Here's the Post again, talking to White House chief of staff Josh Bolton:

Bolton said everyone in the White House understood that the speeches were joint products. But he noted: "Mike's role was a little bit different than the other two guys'. For one thing, he was the head of the team, and so the head of the team tends to get more of the credit. ... Mike's role was unique and particularly strong because he served as a kind of counselor to the president as well."

The Washington Times White House beat reporter, Jon Ward, picked up the story in a short item that contains this interesting commentary:

Mr. Scully will open himself up to charges of jealousy and envy, but others will likely welcome a different perspective on Mr. Gerson, who has developed quite a persona through what Mr. Scully calls "six years' worth of coddling profiles."

Overall the article is several thousand words longer than it needed to be and falls more into the genre of Beltway political snipping. Who is more at fault in this case: Gerson and the White House for perpetuating the inaccurate Gerson mystique, or the Washington media for perpetuating it? Maybe the compelling part of this story is Gerson's status as the White House evangelical. Do the gods of Washington hold him to a higher standard because of that?

UPDATE: more on this subject here at National Review Online from Peter Wehner, Beliefnet's David Kuo here and here and Slate's Timothy Noah (Kuo and Wehner are both former Bush Administration officials).

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