The White House “scribe” and Wheaton alumnus left a lasting mark on the conservative movement.
After an eleven year battle with kidney cancer, Michael Gerson ’86 died on Nov. 17, 2022 at a hospital in Washington, D.C. Gerson was best known as former President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006, and he went on to be a columnist at the Washington Post after his five-year tenure as one of America’s most influential political writers.
Gerson was involved with Wheaton College as a fellow at the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2012. During his time as a fellow, he mentored students, co-taught courses and served as a moderator for public events at the college.
“He was a humble and kind person who, although often in the corridors of power, was never corrupted by that power,” said Amy Black, professor of political science. “He was a gracious steward of the work God gave him.”
Gerson attended Georgetown University for one year before transferring to Wheaton to study philosophy and biblical studies. Upon graduating in 1986, he worked as a congressional staffer before making the switch to writing professionally, which led him to the Bush administration.
Often praised for having a way with words, Gerson helped craft messages of grief and resolve after the 9/11 attacks. His Christian faith drove his conservative political views, especially his belief in “heroic conservatism,” his idea that conservatives should be concerned most with compassion and social activism for the common good of all people — including those who may not agree with his politics. His ideas went on to shape humanitarian efforts during the AIDS epidemic as he crafted Bush’s speeches that conveyed openness to refugees and immigrants. He was named as one of the country’s most influential evangelicals by Time magazine in 2005.
Gerson believed the work of writing speeches was a high calling.
“On most days,” Gerson said in 2001, “you are writing for the next day’s deadlines. In a few moments, you are writing for American history. … And then there may come a time, once or twice, when you are writing for the angels.”
After a prolific speechwriting career in the White House, Gerson took his literary abilities and political convictions to the Washington Post. It was there that he critiqued, clarified and commented on conservative politics as a columnist. During the Trump administration, Gerson was not silent about his strongly-held beliefs. Some of his harshest critiques were reserved for those who, on first glance, appeared to align with his political beliefs, including former President Donald Trump. His commentary on the burgeoning far-right movement following Trump’s step into presidential power was filled with disappointment, making it clear that his vision of “heroic conservatism,” as he called it, was not in line with President Trump’s (and his followers’) goals for the nation.
Gerson’s Wheaton diploma and identity as an evangelical were frequently observed by colleagues and commentators alike. Wheaton College President Philip Ryken remembered Gerson’s presence on campus as an FPE Fellow and how Gerson saw the value of a Wheaton education.
“One of the things that Michael said to me over lunch during my first year as President has always stayed with me,” Ryken said. “ ‘The great thing about Wheaties is that they really care about what is happening in the world. But we need something more than people who care about what is happening; we need people who know what to do about it.’ This is an excellent way to think about the purpose of Christian liberal arts education: it’s important to care, but it’s also important to know what to do.”
Gerson is survived by his wife Dawn Soon Miller, whom he married in 1990, as well as his two sons, Michael and Nicholas, and two brothers.