Magazine article The American Conservative

The Gospel According to Gerson

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Gospel According to Gerson

Article excerpt

BOOKS [Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Heed to Embrace America's Ideals, Michael J. Gerson, HarperOne, 292 pages] The Gospel According to Gerson

By Kara Hopkins

IF YOU RECOGNIZE Michael Gerson's name, it's because he wasn't very good at his job. The second task of a speechwriter is to make an ineloquent boss sound Uke he's channeling Cicero in his own accent. The first is to disappear.

But Gerson isn't one for the wings. The profile writers' darling wasn't content to script a president; he wanted to shape poUcy-and claim credit In the opening scene of his new book, Hemic Conservatism, Gerson recaUs a November 2002 Oval Office meeting about a plan to spend $15 bifiion to fight AIDS in Africa-"the largest health initiative to combat a single disease in history." Predictably, the money men were opposed, but then the president asked his scribe's opinion. "If we can do this, and we don't," Gerson recalls himself saying, "it will be a source of shame." U.S. News & World Reportthe speechwriter's former employer charitably declined to name its sourcepublished Bush's reply: "That's Gerson being Gerson."

Gerson being Gerson gushes on about the "humanitarian conspiracy": "I saw one of the high points of pol iti cal idealism in modern history: an American president, out of moral and religious motivations, pledging bilUons to save the lives of non-citizens. ... here was the living, dancing evidence of what ambitious moral, effective government can accomplish."

His book is an ode to that grand vision, as unencumbered by modesty as the author's White House tenure was. It bids to couple Christianity and conservatism in the service of great good, but in so doing diminishes both.

Gerson seems an unlikely hero: describing Bush, he writes, "He was athletic, outgoing, likeable-I was none of these things." He acknowledges "a certain seriousness and moral intensity," "debilitating shyness," and discomfort with small talk-traits weU-suited to the writer's garret but ill-fit for a revolutionary.

He's also an unlikely conservative: his earliest political experience was representing Jimmy Carter in a high school debate, and, when asked by the New Yorker to name his favorite president, he praised FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Wilson before mentioning Reagan-"to some extent."

But that is what heroic conservatism is about: moral fervor meets global ambition. Perhaps the former senses its prickliness-its tendency to joyless parochialism-and longs to widen its confines. The latter may perceive instabiUty in its enthusiasm and want a tether. Together they make a potent pair-and a dangerous one.

Gerson goes on:

I am convinced that the bold use of government to serve human rights and dignity is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing. I beUeve the security of our country depends on ideaUsm abroad-the promotion of liberty and hope as the alternatives to hatred and bitterness. I believe the unity of our country depends on idealism at home-a determination to care for the weak and vulnerable, and to heal racial divisions by the expansion of opportunity.

It's easy to see how from the same expansive pen flowed presidential promises to "end tyranny," "spread freedom," and "break the reign of hatred."

Discerning a conservative pedigree is more difficult, for the defining instincts of the Old Right-its preference for particular community, its caution against chasing Utopia, its keen sense of the limits of poUtics-don't cloud his vision. Not that Gerson is deterred. He avows, as if the saying makes it so, "I am a conservative," even offering a Burkean rationale that would pass muster with most keepers of the flame: "because I beUeve in the accumulated wisdom of humanity-a kind of democracy that gives a vote to the dead-expressed in the institutions and moral ideals we inherit from the past." But then he takes a decidedly radical turn, for the "moral ideals" Gerson has in mind-"liberty, tolerance, and equality"-echo the Jacobins' own, and our pact appears to be with every inhabitant of the planet. …

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