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Michael Gerson, longtime NewsHour commentator, dies at 58


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The "NewsHour" lost a friend today.

Longtime Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who regularly filled in on our Friday political analyst segment, died this morning at 58 years old.

We take a minute now to look at his lifelong career in public service.

Judy Woodruff: The analysis of Shields and Gerson.

Amna Nawaz: Michael Gerson brought his deep faith and enduring belief in the American experiment to many debates and discussions at the "NewsHour" table, carrying with him decades of work as a presidential speechwriter, policymaker and columnist.

Michael Gerson, The Washington Post: Politics is undermining and invading the credibility of religion itself.

Amna Nawaz: Born in Belmar, New Jersey, in 1964, Gerson was raised and studied in the evangelical Christian faith. With a degree in theology from Wheaton College, he embarked on a career writing speeches, first for faith leaders and then Republican politicians.

In 1999, he joined the George W. Bush presidential campaign and, in 2001, became chief speechwriter, shaping and selling President Bush's policies at home and abroad.

George W. Bush, Former President of the United States: Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution.

Amna Nawaz: After the 9/11 attacks, he penned speeches to heal and unite the nation, writing this for Bush's address at the National Cathedral on September 14.

George W. Bush: This world he created as of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end. And the lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.

Amna Nawaz: At times, his speeches promoted the debunked claims that led to the Iraq War, which ultimately cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives.

Reflecting on their partnership, in a statement today, President Bush said Gerson's -- quote -- "brilliant mind was enhanced by his big heart." He called Gerson a key catalyst behind the administration's international AIDS prevention program, PEPFAR, which is credited with saving more than 20 million lives.

Bush recalled Gerson's urging in 2002 -- quote -- "If we can do this, and we don't, it will be a source of national shame."

He left the White House in 2006 and joined The Washington Post as a columnist the following year, writing with passion about politics, religion and the role of government.

Michael Gerson: I have seen what a president looks like. It doesn't look like this.

Amna Nawaz: Gerson saw the rise of Donald Trump as antithetical to his own Christian and conservative values and became a vocal critic of his own party.

Michael Gerson: We're dealing with a man that's not qualified for the presidency, not qualified morally, because he picks on minority groups, not qualified temperamentally.

Amna Nawaz: He urged evangelicals to reject Trump, including in an appearance on the "NewsHour" weeks before the 2016 election, alongside the late Mark Shields.

Michael Gerson: I think evangelicalism have a particular problem right now. I mean, they're the people who argued, many of whom leaders argued, that character counts during the Bill Clinton years, and now character apparently doesn't count at all.

So, I think there's a deep tension here.

Amna Nawaz: In September, in his final appearance on our program, Gerson again condemned his party, speaking on their approach to immigration.

Michael Gerson: These are many people who claim to be Christians in their political engagement.

And one of the most basic principles of religious ethics is welcoming the stranger. I mean, how could this possibly be consistent with what we're seeing in Republican ideology right now?

Amna Nawaz: Gerson spoke openly and candidly about his own struggle with depression and the prevailing power of his faith that sustained him.

Michael Gerson: I have no doubt that I will eventually repeat the cycle of depression, but now I have some self-knowledge that can't be taken away. I know that, in my right mind, I choose hope.

Amna Nawaz: He reflected on the moment with Judy Woodruff.

Michael Gerson: Well, even at the bottom of your depression, you sometimes get hints and glimmers of hope. And it's usually someone coming to you and showing you that they care about you deeply, that they love you deeply.

And remembering that, remembering that you are as valuable as everybody else can be part of a recovery. And I think a lot of people have that experience.

Amna Nawaz: A steadfast believer in the power of rhetoric and of presidential leadership, Michael Gerson died due to complications with cancer and is survived by his wife, Dawn, and sons, Michael and Nicholas. He was 58 years old.

We're joined now by two of Michael Gerson's longtime friends and colleagues, who are also familiar faces to "NewsHour" viewers, David Brooks of The New York Times and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post.

My thanks to both of you for being with us today on this difficult day. I am so sorry for your loss.

David, I'd love to start with you.

As you well know, Michael wrote about politics and faith. He wrote about his dogs, but his writing was a gift. It moved you and it stayed with you. What do you think it was that made him such a powerful messenger?

David Brooks: He had the moral conscience we all want to be. He sort of perfectly embodied and put into practice the best of Christian social teaching.

And so I knew him 30 years ago, and his profound moral sense was evident then. He wrote the beautiful speeches that George W. Bush delivered right after 9/11 and gave great weight to our national identity at that moment. I toured with him in Namibia and South Africa and Mozambique and went to AIDS hospitals, and we walked together, and he sat with the -- those suffering from HIV.

And then he became an instrumental force in pushing PEPFAR, the American program that really saved millions of lives across Africa by creating HIV drug programs. And so I have always thought that it must be just a tremendous reward for Michael to have been able to say, I contributed to a program that saved millions and millions of lives.

But that embodied what he did in all aspects of his life.

Amna Nawaz: Ruth, you and Michael, we should point out you're on different ends of the political spectrum, but you have this wonderful friendship, which is a rare thing these days.

What was it that sustained that friendship? Tell us about that.

Ruth Marcus, Columnist, The Washington Post: Well, I hope it's not rare. And I'm not sure these days that we're at the ends of the political spectrum, and maybe that explains some of it.

But we disagreed profoundly and fundamentally about all sorts of questions about how government should act, when government should act. We could disagree about tax policy. We could disagree about foreign policy.

But there were two really important ways in which we agreed. The first was about the ends. And this picks up on what David was talking about in terms of Mike's work on PEPFAR. We agree that the role of government and that the -- more important, that the ends we're striving for as a society, was to lift up the downtrodden, to help those least fortunate, to provide for equality, to ensure the dignity of all human beings.

We just disagreed about the means to get there. But the other fundamental way in which we agreed was that the way to get there was to take the high road, to not belittle others, to not demean others, to not cast doubt on people. You could disagree with people's views without disagreeing with and undermining and attacking their motives and their honesty and decency.

And so that actually made it very easy to be Michael's friend and Michael's colleague and Michael's editor, because how could you not respect somebody -- two things -- who had such fundamental, enduring, manifested moral values, and, also, I just have to say, somebody who just wrote like an angel?

Amna Nawaz: David, as you mentioned, you knew him for decades and you traveled with him.

You visited with him in these last several weeks as well. Is there a particular moment or a particular story that stays with you?

David Brooks: Well, two stay with me, one, three years ago or so, when we had dinner on Capitol Hill, and I learned that basically the Book of Job had fallen on Michael.

He had long suffered heart problems, but he suffered from Parkinson's. He was diagnosed with cancer. He was depressed. And so, so many bad things that can happen to a person happened to Mike all at once.

And, by the way, I was so proud that "NewsHour" had him on with Parkinson's. We don't leave people behind because their hands are shaking. And the -- he handled that was such incredible grace and fortitude And wrote some of his best stuff in great pain over the last couple of years.

But he just saw his way through it without self-pity, really surrendering himself to his faith.

And then a friend and I went to see him not long ago, and he knew the end was coming. And he was looking back on his life with gratitude at the moments when people performed kindnesses to him. And it was -- he was serenely and gratefully looking back on a life.

And I think his faith really -- he said, some of the most powerful moments for him was when somebody would read something he wrote, and decide they were going to give that Jesus guy another chance. And that really -- he said that was probably among the most fulfilling things that would happened.

Amna Nawaz: Ruth, what about you? Is there a moment that stays with you?

Ruth Marcus: Well, the things that -- what stays with me is the fortitude.

I think David used that word, the way in which he continued to work through all the trials that David talked about. And, through incredible pain, he would talk to his editor and just let her know if he -- if his mind was clear enough to write, if his pain was endurable enough to write. And yet he kept writing week after week, month after month through trials that no one should have to go through.

He'd been talking until just a few days before he died about his desire to write one last column. And it was about dealing with chronic pain. And it would have been, I imagine, a way in which to encourage people who were going through the same kinds of things he went through, give them a way to work through it and give them a way to manage it, much as he wrote the powerful things and gave this powerful sermon about dealing with depression.

What a brave, brave and helpful thing to do, because many of us get a little self-indulgent in our column writing, and write about personal things. When Michael wrote about personal things, he did it in a way that was not intended to indulge himself, but to really help his fellow human beings.

For me, one of the most memorable is a beautiful, beautiful column that he wrote -- and it's up on The Washington Post Web site now -- about the tragedy of having a child go off to college. There's no human being on the planet who -- or no -- certainly no parent who read that column and didn't recognize just what a magnificent column it was and how deeply human that person was the author of this column.

Amna Nawaz: That column was republished, as you mentioned, by The Washington Post.

There's a line in there that stuck with me. He wrote: "Ultimately, parenting is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else's story. And it is enough."

Here's to a life well-lived and a beautiful legacy of words that he leaves behind.

David Brooks and Ruth Marcus, thank you so much for being with us tonight to remember Michael Gerson.

David Brooks: Thank you, Amna, for doing this.

Ruth Marcus: Thank you.

Amna Nawaz: Well, it's clear Michael Gerson was not one to shy away from difficult subjects.

As we mentioned, a few years ago, he revealed his own struggles with depression while delivering a guest sermon at the National Cathedral. You can watch and read his full memorable message on seeking help, hope and love on our Web site. That's

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