Bush Speechwriter Flogs Horse, Re-fights the Culture Wars

lehmann bush1v Bush Speechwriter Flogs Horse, Re fights the Culture WarsHEROIC CONSERVATISM: WHY REPUBLICANS NEED TO EMBRACE AMERICA’S IDEALS (AND WHY THEY DESERVE TO FAIL IF THEY DON’T)
By Michael J. Gerson
HarperOne, 302 pages, $26.95

For George W. Bush, “the speech was the thing,” writes Michael Gerson. “He used major speeches to push his own policy processes for new ideas; to clarify his thinking as he edited; to announce his commitments in serious detail; and to drive the news of the day.”

Like much of the fawning insider anecdotage collected in Mr. Gerson’s new book—indeed, like the book’s sonorous title—this sounds at first like an agreeable virtue, until you start to consider just what the writer is actually saying. What, for example, does it mean to “push … policy processes” in the hope of fleshing out new ideas? Shouldn’t the ideas be in place before policy processes are pushed, so that the pushers have a basic sense of what they’re up to? Shouldn’t the time for clear thinking come before a chief executive edits, not as he careens through the text with his blue pencil?

Sadly, there’s no reason to doubt the substance of Mr. Gerson’s rather mush-mouthed claim. Even casual observers of the Bush presidency know that it’s largely driven by sloganeering—not just the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, but all sorts of other glib formulations, from the catchphrase-masquerading-as-legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” (and its allied talking point, “the soft bigotry of low expectations”) to the White House’s “ABC” global AIDS prescription: “Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms.”

And Mr. Gerson, the former chief White House speechwriter lately employed as the 400th conservative political columnist for The Washington Post, is not about to let his readers forget about the many transporting passages in the many major speeches he drafted for Mr. Bush.

Heroic Conservatism is most strikingly a heroic act of self-promotion. It follows Mr. Gerson as he composes speech after speech, from the millennial “freedom”-based foreign policy agenda outlined in the president’s second Inaugural Address to the urgent post-9/11 address to both houses of Congress—“a heroic effort,” Mr. Gerson writes, before qualifying himself in a burst of unconvincing self-effacement: “if striking computer keys in a quiet room can ever be called heroic.”

In the midst of all this oratorical drama, Mr. Gerson pauses to admire the heroic lineage of his erstwhile boss. In adumbrating the tradition of foreign-policy idealism, George W. Bush is in the lineage of Truman, Kennedy and Reagan; in coordinating his Iraq war strategy with Tony Blair, he is a latter day F.D.R. (to, yet more absurdly, Blair’s Churchill); in advancing the Declaration of Independence’s pledge of universal equality, he’s an heir to Martin Luther King Jr.

Mainly, though, Mr. Bush is cut from the same cloth as the G.O.P.’s founding leader, Abraham Lincoln (conveniently pictured in statue form on the cover of Heroic Conservatism): His 2000 campaign position on abortion rights, stressing shifts in cultural attitudes over legal absolutism, was “sophisticated, Lincolnian.” And since Lincoln was attacked by waspish journalists for using explicit religious themes in his second inaugural, so, too, is our 43rd president. “This kind of controversy seems to be the fate of all moral principle expressed in public affairs,” Mr. Gerson sighs in stoic resignation.

THERE’S A POLITICAL a political argument of sorts buried under this heap of executive-wing self-regard, but it emerges fully only in the final chapter. He argues that the G.O.P., by turning away from high-minded interventionism and appearing to reject a passionate commitment to social justice and reform that “mainly comes from religious faith,” is in danger of undermining the heroic legacy that George Bush has erected for the conservative movement. (Too bad that the Declaration of Independence, the text Mr. Gerson most loves to cite in connection with Mr. Bush’s passion for social justice, is the work of a deist.)

Mr. Gerson’s account justly stresses initiatives for which the Bush White House hasn’t received sufficient credit—chiefly its Africa AIDS program and the broader aim of promoting democracy around the world (though the resurrection of this objective would be a long shot for either party, given the botched occupation of Iraq). In the main, however, Mr. Gerson can make his case only by setting it up against absurdly broad caricatures of the administration’s opponents. He grossly distorts, for example, the anti-foundationalist philosophy of the late neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty (his favorite straw man stand-in for “liberalism” and its hateful relativist cast of mind, even though Rorty represented a political persuasion accounting for perhaps one-quarter of the subscription base of Dissent magazine): Mr. Gerson wrongly contends that Rorty’s ideas amount to an outright rejection of social constraints derived from “truth or morality.” In an even more counter-empirical vein, Mr. Gerson insists—without producing even a shred of anecdotal evidence—that “students and faculty” at American universities reject the Declaration of Independence as “a text written by dead white males” and that “few” prestigious academics would “accept the existence of a moral truth that applies to all cultures.”

In other words, for all his righteous evocation of faith and idealism, Michael Gerson is flogging the long-dead horse of 90’s-era culture-war alarmism. In that respect—as in many others—Heroic Conservatism reads like a 300-page George Bush campaign speech. Let it go gently into the night, unmourned.