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Helping Bush Sound Presidential

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he heard about the World Trade Center disaster, Mike Gerson was home in suburban Virginia, writing a “communities of character” speech that his boss, President Bush, was to deliver in Cleveland several days hence.

Gerson quickly got in his car and drove toward the White House--just in time to witness a hijacked airliner on its final descent into the Pentagon. Within minutes, he was conferring with senior White House aides on what Bush should say about the incidents.

The frantic pace has hardly let up since then for Gerson, chief speech writer to a president who, since the Sept. 11 attacks, has found his words assessed with unprecedented interest in the United States and around the world.

Gerson, 37, is the man behind many of those remarks, including Bush’s well-received address Thursday night to the joint session of Congress.

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A self-effacing, deeply religious man, Gerson on Friday was loath to accept credit for his work, even as others lauded his ability to marry soaring rhetoric with the West Texas plain-speak that is a Bush trademark.

Gerson did acknowledge, though, the punishing pace that he and several others endured while crafting the speech.

The tight deadline, for one thing, forced Gerson to abandon his habit of leaving his basement office in the West Wing to set up shop with a legal pad in a Starbucks a block from the White House.

“There was no time to go there,” Gerson said in an interview. “We were writing on the computer. We had lunch brought in and just pounded it out.”

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The process of helping Bush convert his thoughts into words in the unfolding crisis is likely to continue for some time, with the president warning of a long and sustained anti-terrorism campaign that can be expected to bring more American casualties.

It was midmorning on Monday, six days after the terrorist attacks, that Bush began thinking seriously about speaking at length to the nation, according to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who also contributed suggestions to the president’s speech.

“I don’t know if I want to or not,” one top aide quoted Bush as saying. By then, some congressional leaders also were privately urging him to address Congress. So Bush told his counselor, Karen Hughes, that he wanted to see a speech draft by 7 p.m. that night.

Gerson quickly went to work, joined by Matt Scully, his assistant; John Gibson of the National Security Council; and John McConnell, a speech writer for Vice President Dick Cheney.

That night, they had made sufficient progress that Hughes directed them to continue. On Tuesday morning, Hughes led the writers into the Oval Office to meet with Bush.

There, one participant recalled tactfully, “We got a significant amount of guidance.

“He wanted to answer questions that the American people had. And he wanted to be very clear in defining the challenge, the conduct of the war, the nature of the enemy and why they hate us,” the participant recalled.

Gerson and his team went back to work--all the while fielding input from the State Department, the Security Council and the Pentagon.

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About 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Bush called Gerson, reaching the tired staffer at home. The president offered a variety of suggestions, as did Hughes.

By Wednesday evening, Bush was sufficiently happy with the work in progress that he began rehearsing it. In all, the address went through 15 to 17 drafts, aides said.

“The speech was excellent,” said John M. Murphy, a University of Georgia speech communications professor, echoing a raft of rave reviews it has received.

Murphy said one reason he was surprised was that Bush often had been using far more colloquial and informal language, such as saying the United States planned to “smoke out” suspected terrorists and that prime suspect Osama bin Laden was wanted “dead or alive.”

“Thursday night, we heard echoes of Abe Lincoln and Winston Churchill,” Murphy said.

Previously, Gerson was credited with coining an elegant phrase to encapsulate Bush’s compassionate conservatism: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” The president still uses the line to denounce a mind-set that presumes students from low-income homes are unlikely to perform as well as others.

An evangelical Christian, Gerson shares Bush’s social conservatism.

In the White House, Gerson is known for a nervous habit of chewing on pens--to the point of leaving teeth marks on them--and for the towering piles of legal pads bearing his scribblings.

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Gerson and his wife, Dawn, who is the office manager and scheduler for Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.), grew up in St. Louis. Dawn Gerson, a South Korean orphan, was adopted and came to this country at age 6.

After attending the same high school, the two stayed in touch while he attended Wheaton College in Illinois and she enrolled at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. They married and now have two children, Bucky, 6, and Nick, 3.

Gerson got his professional start by helping Charles Colson--a Nixon administration aide implicated as a figure in the Watergate scandal--write a book. He later worked for then-Sen. Dan Coates (R-Ind.).

After a stint as a writer at U.S. News & World Report, Gerson joined the Bush campaign more than two years ago.

At the weekly, he was known as something of a philosopher.

“His heart was really in a spiritual kind of politics, rather than journalism,” recalled a former colleague who requested anonymity. “He was very committed to the notion of uplifting the country.”


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