William & Mary

Gerson talks politics, speechwriting during campus visit

  • Andrews Fellow:
    Andrews Fellow:  Michael Gerson, the 2016 Hunter B. Andrews Distinguished Fellow in American Politics, speaks to a group of students and faculty at W&M Law School Monday.  Photo by Katianna Tron '16
  • Discussion:
    Discussion:  Davison M. Douglas (right), dean of W&M Law School, participated in the discussion.  Photo by Katianna Tron '16
  • Discussion:
    Discussion:  Students gathered in a room at W&M Law School to talk with Gerson. It was just one of the meetings that the 2016 Andrews Fellow had with faculty, staff and students during his two-day visit to W&M.  Photo by Katianna Tron '16
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At W&M Law School on Monday, Michael Gerson – a Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter and policy advisor for President George W. Bush – shared his thoughts on the present state of speechwriting, addressing the ability of powerfully charged speeches such as those given by current presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“Techniques that [Trump] honed in pro wrestling, that have no bearing, have been extremely successful,” said Gerson, adding that many tend to mistake these speeches for authentic, reliable and realistic when, he believes, they are the opposite.

The discussion was part of Gerson’s April 4-5 visit to campus as William & Mary’s 2016 Hunter B. Andrews Distinguished Fellow in American Politics. The fellowship was created in 1998 by friends of the former state senator and W&M alumnus who died in 2005. Andrews served on the W&M Board of Visitors from 2003 to 2005.

During his time at the university, Gerson met with faculty, staff and students from across the campus to discuss his career, experiences and the country’s current political landscape.

At W&M Law School, Gerson talked with a small group of students and professors as well as Dean Davison M. Douglas.

Gerson shared some of his experiences with Bush, including the presidential campaign in which the then-Texas governor ran against Al Gore. While waiting for the results of that suspenseful election, Gerson took the opportunity to go see the latest “Charlie’s Angels” movie, he said.

When asked about the influence of presidents on their speeches, Gerson shared the example of Bush’s two speeches given upon his visit to Ground Zero.

One speech, Gerson said, was pre-planned, written and practiced, while the other was given on the spur of the moment. This, Gerson said, is one of the more powerful skills of a president — the ability to read a situation in the public and respond accordingly.

Gerson added that unfortunate circumstances have led many well-written presidential speeches to be delivered at relatively unimportant moments and, as a result, have been forgotten.

When asked about his favorite presidential speeches, Gerson reflected on the 1960s, which he referred to as the golden era of speechwriting.

“They were language-oriented, not image-oriented,” stressed Gerson, as he highlighted the importance of rhetoric as opposed to idealized images.

For students with speechwriting ambitions, Gerson gave some advice.

“I learned to write on Capitol Hill. I put myself in professional circumstances where I had to write all the time every day,” he said.

Gerson is the author of Heroic Conservatism and co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era. He appears regularly on PBS NewsHour, Face the Nation and other programs. In addition to his role as a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, Gerson currently serves as senior advisor at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against preventable diseases and extreme poverty.

Other recent Andrews Fellows have included PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill; former U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar; Larry Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and director of its Center for Politics; and former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.