The cause of death was complications from cancer, said longtime friend and former colleague Peter Wehner.
After years of writing for conservative and evangelical leaders, including Prison Fellowship Ministries founder and Watergate criminal Charles Colson, Mr. Gerson joined the Bush campaign in 1999. Mr. Gerson, an evangelical Christian, wrote with an eye toward religious and moral imagery, and that approach meshed well with Bush’s personality as a leader open to his Christian faith.
Mr. Gerson’s work and his ties to Bush have drawn comparisons to other powerful White House partnerships, such as those of John F. Kennedy with his speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen and Ronald Reagan with aide Peggy Noonan. Conservative commentator William Kristol told The Post in 2006 that in modern times, Mr. Gerson “may have had more influence than any other White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser.”
“Mike was fundamentally influential, not just a wordsmith, not just a language maker for other people’s policies, but he influenced politics itself,” Kristol said.
As an impromptu speaker, Mr. Bush had a reputation for blunders and missteps, but Mr. Gerson gave him memorable oratorical flights, such as a promise to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in the education of the poor and minorities. students and the description of democracy — in Bush’s first inaugural address — as “a seed in the wind, taking root in many nations.” As a Bush confidant and head of the speechwriting team, he also encouraged such memorable turns of phrase as “axis of evil,” which Bush used to explain the administration’s hawkish stance as it embarked on long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the chaotic months after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Gerson became a key master in articulating what became known as the “Bush Doctrine” — which advocated pre-emptive strikes against potential terrorists and other threats. With his team of writers, he began shaping Bush’s tone and tenor, including addresses at the Washington National Cathedral on September 14 and a joint session of Congress on September 20.
“Our grief has turned to anger, and our anger has turned to relief,” Bush told Congress. “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be served.”
Mr. Gerson and Bush found common ground in using religious themes of a higher power and light versus darkness, seeing such rhetoric as part of other historical struggles, including the abolition movement. “It’s a real mistake to try to secularize American political discourse,” Gerson told NPR in 2006. “It’s removing one of the primary sources of a vision of justice in American history.”
Opinion: Michael Gerson followed his faith – and America was better for it
Before the January 2002 State of the Union address, Bush’s speechwriters were instructed to link Iraq to the broader battle against terrorism — a sign that Bush and his inner circle, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney are being prepared for war.
Speaker David Froome said he came up with an “axis of hatred” to describe Iraq, North Korea and Iran (even though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was an enemy of the leader in Tehran). Mr. Gerson tuned it to the “axis of evil” to make it sound more “theological” — a battle between good and evil — Frum wrote in his 2003 book on Bush, The Real Man.
“I thought it was great,” Froome wrote of Mr. Gerson’s change. “That was the kind of language that President Bush used.” (Writing in the Atlantic, another speechwriter, Michael Scully, said Mr. Gerson was trapped in his own mythology and that Frum and Scully were more actively involved in formulating the “axis of evil.”)
Mr. Gerson was also able to push through the Bush White House’s false claims about Iraq — including debunked claims of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — that would be used to justify the 2003 invasion. More than eight years of war have claimed the lives of about 4,500 US service members and more than 100,000 Iraqi insurgents and civilians, according to monitoring groups. Some believe the death toll in Iraq is far higher.
Mr. Gerson has never publicly expressed regret for helping to sell the Iraq war. His 2007 memoir, “Heroic Conservatism,” declared that American leadership was essential to the fight against terrorism and global poverty and disease. But he largely sidestepped many of the ethical and legal issues that arose from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and consequences such as waterboarding of prisoners, surrenders at Guantanamo Bay and thousands of civilian casualties.
After a heart attack in December 2004. Gerson retired from the stress of speechwriting and took on full-time policy advisory roles. He has often lamented that the Bush administration’s humanitarian initiatives, such as AIDS prevention in Africa, have become footnotes in a world changed by 9/11.
Mr. Gerson left the White House in 2006, with Bush’s support, to pursue foreign policy work and writing. The following year, he joined The Post and wrote twice-weekly columns that expanded his reach as a conservative troubled by populism and the politics of anger, animated by the belief that religion and social activism are powerful partners.
“It’s a different kind of conservatism,” he told the PBS show “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” in 2007, “a common-good conservatism that says we should direct our policies toward people who might not even vote for us.”
Mr. Gerson’s columns for The Post have been highly critical of President Barack Obama during his two terms, calling his foreign policy undisciplined and the Affordable Care Act — and his push to move the nation toward universal health care — bogus. However, with the rise of Trump, Mr. Gerson found himself outside and looking inside. He lamented the fact that many in the Republican Party — including fellow evangelical Christians — have pledged allegiance to Trump despite his record of lies, infidelity and racist remarks. But he admitted that at this point he was on the weaker side as a Trump critic.
“It has been said that when you choose your community, you choose your character,” Mr. Gerson wrote in an essay for The Post last Sept. 1. “Oddly enough, evangelicals have largely chosen the company of Trump supporters who deny any role for character in politics and define any useful meanness as a virtue.”
Michael John Gerson was born in Belmar, NJ, on May 15, 1964, and was raised in and around St. Louis by evangelical Christian parents. His mother was an artist; his father was a dairy engineer whose job involved developing ice cream flavors.
He studied theology at Wheaton College, Evangelical school in suburban Chicago, from which he graduated in 1986. He began his career as a ghostwriter at Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by Colson, a self-proclaimed “ax man” for President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate crisis. Colson spent seven months in prison for obstruction of justice.
In prison, Colson said, he experienced a life-changing religious conversion. For the young Mr. Gerson, it proved a profound inspiration — and a first encounter with someone who once had the ear of the president. “I’ve read many books about Watergate, in which Chuck appears as a character with few virtues other than loyalty,” Mr. Gerson wrote to The Post in 2012. “I knew a different man.”
In the late 1980s, Mr. Gerson moved into politics as political director for Sen. Daniel Coats (R-Ind.) and later wrote speeches for Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) during his 1996 presidential bid. Mr. Gerson spent two years as a senior editor at US News & World Report before being hired by Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove as a speechwriter for the Bush-Cheney ticket ahead of the 2000 election.
At first it was just the excitement of the political “big excitement”, Mr Gerson said. Then he found a kindred spirit in Bush during a campaign rally in Gaffney, SC, when someone in the crowd asked how to block undocumented migrants at the southern border.
Bush “took the opportunity to remind his rural, conservative audience that ‘family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande,'” Mr. Gerson wrote, “and that as long as ‘moms and dads’ in Mexico can’t feed their children at home , they would look for an opportunity in America.”
Gerson’s 2010 book, written with former speechwriter colleague Wehner, “The City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era,” is a call to action for evangelicals to use their influence for broader social and economic agendas.
In 1990, Mr. Gerson married the former Dawn Soon Miller. In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons, Michael and Nicholas, and two brothers.
In his Post columns, Mr. Gerson wrote candidly about his battles with cancer and depression. “I have no doubt that I will end up repeating the cycle of depression,” he wrote in February 2019. “But now I have some self-knowledge that cannot be taken away. I know that – when I’m sane – I choose hope.”
David Shipley, The Post’s editorial page editor, called Mr. Gerson “a rare writer whose mind, heart and soul are at work in equal measure in his work.”
In the column for the holiday season 2021. Gerson quoted lines from a poem by Sylvia Plath and examined his own battle with cancer to arrive at an uplifting thought: “Hope conquers.”