Things used to be chummy between Matthew Scully and his former boss, Michael Gerson. Together with John McConnell, the three worked long hours together as George W. Bush’s speechwriters, first on the campaign, and then in the administration.
Somewhere on the way to the White House, a president who was not known for his oratorical gifts, to say the least, began giving widely praised speeches. Gerson, who held the title of chief speechwriter, got much of the credit in media profiles.
But in the September issue of the Atlantic, Scully, who left the White House in August 2004, came forward to say that Gerson was a credit hog, an inveterate self-promoter, and a hypocrite. And he said the press fell for a Gerson-as-genius narrative that Gerson himself cooked up.
Scully makes a vivid anecdotal case that the press simply resorted to “printing the legend” when writing about Gerson. But the job of a political speechwriter is often to spin an emotionally powerful, seemingly airtight case from fairly thin threads. So CJR went back to three of the journalists whose work Scully mentions in his article to get their thoughts on the piece.
At the heart of Scully’s complaint about the press is that when profiling his old boss, journalists would glide over the team’s collaborations and assign credit to Gerson alone. “The three of us,” Scully writes, “spent two of our best days laboring over a speech delivered on Goree Island in West Africa, only to have The New Yorker pronounce it ‘perhaps Gerson’s most extraordinary speech.’”
The author of that New Yorker piece, Jeffrey Goldberg, acknowledges attributing speeches solely to Gerson, even though he very well knew that they were collaborative efforts. “Did Gerson ever say, ‘I and I alone wrote the Goree Island Speech?’ No, of course not,” says Goldberg. He describes the omission as “the sin of shorthand.” To adequately describe the speech-writing process would, he reasons, require a sentence like “the speech was supervised by Michael Gerson and written by Scully and McConnell, and vetted by Andy Card and Karl Rove…”
“I suppose we should be a little more careful about these issues, but at some point, you don’t want to bore your reader.”
Goldberg wrote his piece—which was mostly about Gerson’s later role as an administration anti-poverty and faith-based initiative adviser—after Scully had left the White House. Goldberg says Gerson passed on Scully’s phone number and that he “had nothing but nice things to say about Gerson” during their hour-long conversation.
“It’s a little much for him to say The New Yorker didn’t get the truth when he didn’t tell us,” Goldberg says.
Another reporter who Scully calls out is Chris Bury, who interviewed Gerson in December 2002 for “Up Close,” a short-lived interview program that aired after “Nightline” on ABC. “I actually think it’s a pretty damn good interview,” says Bury. “At the time it was a good get,” especially since the White House wasn’t offering much access.
Bury says that the program was designed to give viewers some “atmosphere” in the run up to the State of the Union speech. For the most part he asked general questions about Gerson’s speech-writing process. Five years later, Scully dissects and sets up Gerson’s responses in ways that make Gerson look like he’s taking credit for work Scully says he didn’t do.
It would be easy to get that impression from the segment. Bury plays a clip of the president speaking, and then asks Gerson about the words. When Bury directly asks if Gerson wrote a particularly famous phrase, Gerson demurs: “Well, I won’t talk about the lines.”
“By its very nature, this program was only about one person at a time,” says Bury, acknowledging that this narrow focus could give the impression of that Gerson was solely responsible for Bush’s words. “In Washington, everyone can’t always get credit. Senators’ staffers don’t get credit for writing the bills.
“We’ve got to tell stories in the most compelling way, and sometimes storylines are clearer with just one person. It’s a time-honored way of doing journalism,” he says.