There's a lot to say about Michael Gerson's new book, "Heroic Conservatism." It has moments of lyricism; it is sometimes moving; it contains a concise and effective summation of the case for war with Iraq; and it has been slapped with a plagiarism charge by another former Bush speechwriter. In the current print edition of National Review, David Frum reproduces side-by-side the lines that appeared in his book, "The Right Man," and in Gerson's book. There is little room for doubt.
Gerson will choose how to respond to Frum's allegation. But there are other reasons to be distressed by this book.
Michael Gerson is certainly one of the most gifted speechwriters in history. It's an irony that he crafted language for one of the least literary and least articulate presidents in living memory. That this marriage came off at all is a minor miracle, and credit belongs both to the writer who adapted his prose for a Texas sensibility and to the president who stretched himself to master the eloquence Gerson and others provided.
There were some rhetorically soaring moments in this presidency. At the National Cathedral, three days after 9/11, the president spoke these words to a grieving country:
"On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask almighty God to watch over our nation, and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come.
"As we have been assured, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from God's love. May He bless the souls of the departed. May He comfort our own. And may He always guide our country."
Beautiful. And perfectly suited to the occasion.
Alas, Gerson's agenda in "Heroic Conservatism" is not to reprise the greatest hits of the Bush presidency but to scold his fellow Republicans for their miserly, cruel and indifferent conservatism, which he contrasts with his own -- well, you've seen the title he gives his version.
This is such an old, old story. Conservatives have been accused of cold-heartedness at least for several generations and maybe longer. But it is a little startling to see this old chestnut revived by a Bush administration insider.
It's as if Gerson were asleep during the 1970s when a long series of liberal intellectuals departed the Democratic Party after witnessing the harm that can come of unrestrained good intentions and sloppy follow-through in government. (They were called neoconservatives -- a word whose meaning has changed since then.) It's as if he never grappled with the practical limitations of government, or the corrupting effects of too much paternalism. At one point he writes, "Anti-government Republicans saw Katrina as an opportunity to cut off medicine to old people." Yes, and to grind the faces of the poor. Please.
Gerson cheerleads for a Gulf Opportunity Zone without acknowledging that it was just a renewal of an earlier Republican idea, the enterprise zone. And he chafes at the "budgetary constraints that made creativity on the domestic agenda nearly impossible."
His ambitions on the domestic front are Johnsonian (Lyndon). He would repair the racial and social ills of New Orleans. The Gerson healing balm would restore those "who had never had a bank account, never flown in a plane." There would be new job training programs -- though the Bush administration itself has acknowledged (on the White House website) that the federal government already spends "$23 billion annually for 30 different job training programs spread over 10 different departments and agencies."
The accusation of heartlessness against Republicans is silly and immature. Over the past two decades, a significant number of initiatives, from school choice to urban homesteading to health care reform to crime fighting to welfare reform, have emerged from conservative think tanks and been championed by Republican politicians. All of these ideas were intended to improve the lives of the poor, and some have succeeded remarkably well.
Toward the end of this book, Gerson eerily denies that he is falling into the trap of "blaming colleagues and enemies for blocking the arrival of [my] own private millennium." But that is exactly what he seems to have done. And for all his eloquence and piety, he has been deeply ungracious in the process.