September 21, 2007
The Gap between Rhetoric and Reality
The President’s speechwriter on the challenges of practicing what we preach.
You may think writing a sermon every week is challenging work, but imagine writing speeches everyday for the leader of the free world. That was Michael Gerson's job for six years under President George W. Bush. Last night I attended a benefit dinner in Chicago where Gerson was the keynote speaker. Prior to the dinner I participated in a small roundtable discussion with Gerson about his time in the White House and his perception of current challenges - domestic and international - facing the country.
Much of the conversation focused on Gerson's responsibility in crafting the President's response in the days following 9/11. Leading a nation in shock and grief is not easy, but simultaneously showing strength and resolve is a challenge few presidential speechwriters have faced. Gerson was almost universally praised for shaping Bush's tone in a way that comforted the nation and rallied the world. The President's address at the National Cathedral, which Gerson and his team wrote with less than one day's notice, has been celebrated as one of the finest moments of the Bush presidency.
A theology grad from Wheaton College, Gerson's faith has been a factor both in Bush's speeches and policy. U2's Bono, a friend of Gerson's, has said, "Mike is known as a ?moral compass' at the White House." As a senior policy advisor to Bush, Gerson was instrumental in the push to triple aid to Africa, and he's filled the President's remarks with passionate rhetoric about compassion, the spread of democracy, and the God-ordained dignity of freedom for all people. But at Thursday night's gathering Gerson was critical of the administration's execution of these ideals.
Gerson said his worst day at the White House was when the Abu Ghraib prison story hit the wires. The criminal actions of a handful of US soldiers were graphically displayed for the world to see. One of Gerson's speechwriting colleagues at the White House commented that Abu Ghraib, "undid everything we've done." The President's rhetoric was contradicted by the images coming from Iraq.
Similarly, Gerson believes the administration's policy of detaining enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay has become an obstacle throughout the world. He said virtually everywhere administration official travel to advance the President's ideals of democracy and freedom they are assaulted with questions about Guantanamo Bay. Critics believe the holding of enemy combatants without access to legal representation or oversight by multinational agreements (the Geneva Convention) contradicts the President's desire to bring democratic liberties to the Middle East. Once again, the rhetoric doesn't match reality.
This was the thrust of Gerson's remarks. As a speechwriter for the most powerful political figure on Earth, he takes seriously the impact and transforming power of words. But he says, "The facts on the ground always trump words." It has been the administration's inability to translate its rhetoric into reality that has led to the President's unpopularity both at home and abroad. Nonetheless, Gerson is proud of the major advances made by this White House in humanitarian efforts, and he still believes strongly in the President's agenda to spread democracy as a way of securing peace for future generations.
As a pastor, not a politician, I realized Michael Gerson was reminding us of a basic truth - we've got to practice what we preach. Eloquent sermons, well-composed articles, and even popular podcasts are not enough. Ultimately our credibility as communicators of the gospel is displayed by the content of our characters - the fruit of our lives. In an age when pastors are becoming increasingly isolated from their flocks - whether by the enormity of our sanctuaries or the psuedo-intimacy of video preaching - the temptation to separate rhetoric from reality is more seductive than ever before.