Michael Gerson, the president's speechwriter, has packed up his stacks of yellow legal pads, books, papers and mementos and made a long, fond farewell to the man who has spoken the words, for better and for worse, that he has been writing for George W. Bush since he announced in early 1999 that he was running for president.
Some of his phrases are etched in incandescent memory:
"The success of America has never been proven by cities of gold, but citizens of character. Men and women who work hard, dream big, love their family, serve their neighbor. Values that turn a piece of earth into a neighborhood, a community, a chosen nation."
In nearly every farewell interview, Gerson has been asked about the religious faith he shares with the president. Both are evangelical Christians, and their spiritual connections are targets of criticism in Washington, where the secular catechism of cynicism is meant to be beyond challenge. The speechwriter defends the Biblical references as a way of placing current events in a moral context, and cites precedent in the rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and other leaders for justice, social and otherwise. (He could have cited every other president since Washington.)
But such references are suspect today, as if they were a code for proselytizing. This is obviously wrong-headed, because religious language is not used in a sectarian way, and the goal of such language is to embrace all faiths as the strands that tie together our nationhood. In contrast to certain polls that suggest hostility to the president's references of faith, Gerson argues that his personal idealism has been strengthened by working for this president because public service is both meaningful and ennobling. "It can play a very important moral role in the lives of Americans," he told Fox News Sunday.
This is the formidable impulse toward political balance, stemming from what Leo Strauss calls the pull of both Athens and Jerusalem, the roots of Western civilization. Democratic governance was bequeathed by Athens, with certitudes running through revolutionary and reform movements based on reason and flowing from the Enlightenment. But it's the Biblical truths of the Judeo-Christian faiths born in ancient Jerusalem that temper self-righteous political polarization with considerations of the soul and spirit.
In a symposium of the Pew Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Gerson observed that the president is frequently called on to offer hope in moments of national crisis, consoling grief and leading the mourning, beginning on a certain September morning early in his presidency: "A president generally can't say that death is final, and separation is endless, and the universe is an echoing, empty void." What kind of solace would that be? He cites the words spoken by the president at the National Cathedral three days after the destruction of the World Trade Center:
"This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn."
Such appeals inevitably attract the sneers of the faithless and disbelieving, no doubt in envy of those who draw comfort from such words in a time of terror and sorrow. These references draw particular ridicule from the ignorant and the ignoble. The New York Times, in a front page dispatch, attributed a passage from the Sermon on the Mount to "a cliched proverb." President Bush, at the funeral of Ronald Reagan, recalled St. Paul's promise that "now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face." This was, after all, a Christian funeral for a Christian man in a Christian cathedral, but Tom Shales, a TV critic more familiar with the high-minded language of prime-time sit-coms, sneered that "George W. Bush chose to proselytize that Reagan is now in heaven playing cards with Jesus Christ."
We live in times both parlous and perilous, and religious rhetoric must be measured carefully lest it lapse into platitudes. Not with a man of words, steeped not only in the moral context of language but with concern for the impact of words on public policy. He defends the faith that focuses attention on the poor, underlying the compassionate side of compassionate conservatism, and cites George W.'s call for spending $15 billion dollars to eradicate AIDS in Africa.
The church, said Martin Luther King, should be neither the master nor the servant of the state: "It should be the conscience of the state." Amen. Hail and farewell, Mike. We'll miss you.