Matthew Scully has a significant piece in the September Atlantic entitled “Present at the Creation,” which is essentially an accounting of the meteoric rise of Michael Gerson as a print media personality. At its core is the story of a shameless self-promoter, accurately described in the subheading: “The only person the speechwriter Michael Gerson made look better than President Bush was Michael Gerson. The shaping of a Washington reputation, as witnessed by a White House colleague.”
Of course, we expect those engaged in media management to be shameless self-promoters, don’t we? That aspect of the story isn’t so surprising. What really impressed me about Gerson is the way he was able to work his will with the established media. He parlayed his work at the White House into a powerful position as an op-ed writer for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As Scully writes, “Harder to explain than one man’s foolish vanity is the gullibility of those who indulged him.” The list of Gerson-dupes is amazing: U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Times (London), Time Magazine, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Assuming that Scully’s account is right (and I don’t think he’d get by The Atlantic with the accusations he makes without meeting a serious fact-checking threshold), then Gerson is the kind of confidence artist who could put Felix Krull to shame.
At one level the Gerson tale points to enormous gullibility in the media. But is that all? There is a lot of one-hand-washes-the-other-here. What Scully hints at is a comprehensive system: Gerson feeds information to his friends on the inside of major periodicals. In exchange, they report the leak, without fact-checking it in any way, and with Gerson’s full spin. In addition, they publish mini-hagiographies of Gerson. My own assessment of Gerson is that he’s quite a mediocrity, and I was astonished when he landed the position at the Council on Foreign Relations, as his résumé didn’t have the credentials the post called for and his presentations consistently showed a weak grasp of the subjects he discussed. He rarely expresses himself in a way that’s not pedestrian or predictable.
Gerson got where he got, Scully tells us, by taking credit for some speeches which were good, and some which even had flashes of the enduring about them (the post-9/11 speech before Congress met classical standards; similarly the National Cathedral speech was significant). Scully denies that any major presidential speech was Gerson’s work alone and he portrays Gerson as a fringe player in the speechwriting game.
If we scan the horizon of Washington’s political media today, we find a lot of figures who seem to fit the Gerson pattern. Their careers did not start in journalism, and their claim to being journalists is thin at best. Instead their careers started as political operatives, and after service at suitably high levels in the Washington shark tank, they transitioned into “respectable” media positions. I don’t doubt that there are a number of exceptionally good journalists who spent time in political slots in Washington. But I’m convinced we’ve seen a steady and downward slide in journalistic quality over the last several decades. Political coverage in Washington today is severely corrupted.
Of all the Bush speechwriters, Gerson is the one connected most closely with the notion of “compassionate conservatism.” Scully suggests this was viewed by Rove, but also by Gerson, as a political tactic pure and simple. Gerson comes off as a charlatan, not a person of religious or ethical conviction. And in the end the real test of the naïveté of the Washington media is how they interacted with and were taken in by such a figure. We trust the media to be a guard dog, but what has emerged in the course of the last six years is a different breed: the lapdog.