In remembrance

Michael J. Gerson and the Duty of Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: John DiIulio, Jr. reflects on the philanthropic vision of his friend and colleague Michael Gerson, who died on November 17, 2022. The photo of Gerson on the HistPhil header is courtesy of White House Photo.

Michael J. Gerson, best known as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a critic of President Donald Trump, died on November 17, 2022. Two common threads ran through Gerson’s obituaries.[1] One was his talent as a speechwriter who penned such memorable phrases as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “the axis of evil.” The other was his role in promoting the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

In the December 2002 State of the Union Address, President Bush announced PEPFAR in Gerson-crafted words as “a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts…to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean.” PEPFAR was designed to prevent millions of new AIDS cases and care for millions of people who were already infected. Still, “foreign aid” was unpopular and PEPFAR had a $15 billion price tag. Several White House advisers and many GOP leaders in Congress opposed it. But, in an Oval Office meeting, Gerson got the one vote that counted most. “If we can do this, and we don’t,” he said, “it will be a source of shame.” As the meeting broke up, Bush quipped “That’s Gerson being Gerson!”[2]

But PEPFAR was just one dramatic instantiation of “Gerson being Gerson.” Before, during, and after his White House tenure, Gerson actively supported many anti-poverty and public health programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP).  He was a leader in the movement to supply community-serving nonprofit organizations, both secular and religious, both local and national—the “armies of compassion,” as he anointed them—with the public and private funding they needed to serve truly disadvantaged children, youth, and families. Post 9/11, he worked closely with John “Bridge” Bridgeland, Bush’s first Domestic Policy Council director and first director of USA Freedom Corps, to expand volunteer service opportunities and increase funding for the AmeriCorps program begun by the Clinton-Gore administration. And the list goes on and on.

Throughout his adult life, Gerson mined history, philosophy, and theology to discern what government together with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors could and should do to improve life for human beings with unmet needs at home or abroad. I say that as someone who knew and admired Gerson for more than three decades. I knew him back when he was an aide to Indiana’s U.S. Senator Dan Coats and a speechwriter for other Republican leaders. I recall his days as a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. We remained friends throughout his White House tenure, during his time as a columnist for The Washington Post, and right up to his final days. We had several friends in common, most notably the aforementioned Bridgeland, Peter Wehner, and the late Charles W. “Chuck” Colson.

Naturally, all who knew Gerson wish that the last quarter-century had not brought him so many severe physical and mental health trials. Acute bouts of depression plagued him for decades and at one point hospitalized him. He had a heart attack in 2004 at age 40. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2013. And he suffered as well from Parkinson’s disease and adrenal cancer.

But, deeply, almost unbearably, sad though they were, Gerson’s inner struggles and outer sufferings fed his historical, philosophical, and theological vision of philanthropy at its best as something that can only be accomplished by people at their best. With no pretense to biographical analysis, intellectual history, or anything of the kind, permit me to make a start at outlining Gerson’s philanthropic vision.

Gerson’s key premise about philanthropy was derived from what he thought both world history and honest introspection taught about human nature: most people, most of the time, are at once good enough to make philanthropy possible but bad enough to make it necessary. As he and I discussed on several occasions over the years, he believed that every person involved in leading philanthropic ventures, great or small, temporary, long-term, or of uncertain duration, would do well to cultivate pragmatic idealism of the type that was, he thought, illustrated perfectly in the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37 English Standard Version).

As the story goes, a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was stripped, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. A priest saw the man, crossed the street, and did nothing. A Levite passerby did the same. But when a Samaritan journeyed near and saw the man, “he had compassion.” He went straight to him and tended to his wounds. He put the man “on his own animal,” brought him to an inn, and continued to take care of him. The next morning, however, the Samaritan had to go out for the day. So he gave the innkeeper some money, instructed him to take care of the man, and pledged that “whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”

Gerson stressed how the Samaritan’s first response was not to call upon others to help but to step right in and help in a way that was up close and personal.  But having flagged the immediate need, he needed to enlist another to the cause. He did not, however, assume that the other person would be, like the Good Samaritan himself, willing to help out of the goodness of his heart. Nor did he preface his ask of the innkeeper with either a sermon intended to stir his altruism or a threat intended to get him to help or else. Rather, he offered to pay the innkeeper for his time and trouble, and to cover any unforeseen difficulties that might make the care cost more than the purse he gave for the purpose. The innkeeper could have said no to the money and refused to help, or no to the money and done it for nothing.  

Writing in The Atlantic, Gerson’s dear friend and former White House colleague, Peter Wehner, referenced Gerson’s deep “belief in the inherent rights and dignity of every human life.” Amen; and Gerson, like the Good Samaritan, knew that not everyone shared this belief. In Heroic Conservatism, published in 2007, he admonished his fellow Republicans, Christians, and conservatives to recognize that the “security of our country depends on idealism abroad” and “the unity of our country depends on idealism at home,” an idealism that in both cases needed to be anchored by “a determination to care for the weak and the vulnerable.”[3]

But Gerson knew, and he had the political battle scars to prove, that he was often preaching to the stubbornly unconverted. PEPFAR was his Exhibit A.  Even several years after the program had improved or saved millions of lives, many of the very same faces and forces that tried killing PEPFAR before it got started had not relented. In the mid-2000s, they proposed axing it and slashing Medicare payments for prescription drugs in order to defray the costs of federal funding for relief efforts in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. What PEPFAR’s inveterate opponents offered, lamented Gerson, was a “stunning” brief for saving money and demonstrating “ideological purity” by letting people die and “taking drugs from old people.”[4]

Gerson acknowledged Catholic social teaching as his primary intellectual influence. He quipped that he had “effectively accepted Catholicism without rosaries.” He had, and his embrace of Catholic principles regarding “just war” (essentially, just cause, just methods, and a just peace) complicated and at times vexed his thoughts and feelings about the post-9-11 “war on terror” in general and the war in Iraq in particular. Specifically, much as he believed that “the axis of evil”—“the deadly nexus among outlaw regimes, weapons of mass destruction and terrorist networks”—was a “fundamental reality,” he also believed that a “just war must establish the conditions of a just peace,” and that a “nation undertaking a war must plan and act to leave the situation better than it was before the war started.”[5] The title to the seventh chapter of his aforementioned 2007 book asked “Has Iraq Killed Idealism?”

Likewise, when it came to all manner of domestic and international philanthropic ventures, Gerson embraced the interlocking Catholic social teaching precepts of “solidarity” and “subsidiarity.” The Catechism identifies solidarity with “a preferential love of the poor.”[6] For Gerson, it also required recognizing that “the generosity of the poor turns out to be more impressive than anything we give them.”[7] In turn, subsidiarity recognizes the family as the “community in which” we first “learn to take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.”

But Gerson also embraced the other catechetical half of the subsidiarity principle, the half that he believed libertarian-minded conservatives, Catholic and other, were too quick to forget or ignore: when families cannot meet the needs of the poor, the sick, and others, then “larger communities” have the “duty of helping them.” Government together with all other institutions and sectors is morally obligated to collaborate and “coordinate its activity with the rest of society” so that we “make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health…and so on.”

Gerson believed that solidarity-minded philanthropy works best when it proceeds as what he dubbed “applied subsidiarity,” a proposition that he thought was well-illustrated by the mixed record of Bush’s signature domestic issue during the 2000 presidential campaign, “faith-based initiatives.”  

In 2001, I served as first director of the White House Office responsible for those initiatives. As originally conceived, the office was meant to build directly upon several federal “Charitable Choice” bills signed by President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s and supported by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and many other Democrats in the 2000s.[8] Writing in Time magazine in 2007, I proposed moving my former office out of Washington and to New Orleans where the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors’ “armies of compassion” were driving the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina human, physical, and financial recovery process. “In both symbol and substance,” I waxed, “that would be a real faith-based initiative.”[9]

Gerson, who by then had been out of the White House for nearly a year, loved that little “applied subsidiarity” essay, understanding it rightly as what he called “a moral provocation rather than a practical proposal.” And we both were delighted when, by 2009, enough had been accomplished on “faith-based initiatives,” not least by way of helping minority-led urban churches, synagogues, and mosques serve their own needy neighbors, that President Barack Obama opted to rename but keep my former White House office and expand its cabinet centers.

But, as Gerson also knew, rather than realizing its ambitions and becoming a model of applied subsidiarity, early on, this “bipartisan effort to help the poor” was turned into “a culture war debate” by orthodox sectarians on the one side and orthodox secularists on the other.[10] With few true supporters inside the West Wing or in GOP leadership on Capitol Hill, the effort was decimated months before it was dashed by 9/11 and the all-consuming war on terror. The “faith-based initiative,” he concluded, “was not tried and found wanting. It was tried and found difficult—then tried with less and less energy.”[11]

Yet, in Gerson’s philanthropic vision, it is our duty to try, try again. To him, faith was hope in the unseen, but philanthropy was hope in the envisioned.  His was the heroic philanthropy of high expectations:

When a fifteen year-old girl in the inner city lives in an atmosphere of squalor and daily abuse…when an infant in Africa grows burning hot, then cold with death from the lack of malaria pills that cost a few dollars…these are not unfortunate facts of history; they are violations of God’s intended order. And solutions that are within our grasp are within our duty.[12]

-John J. DiIulio, Jr.

John J. DiIulio, Jr. has taught at several Ivy League universities and is coauthor of American Government: Institutions and Policies (Cengage), now in its 17th edition. He was the first director of the White House faith-based initiatives office for the G.W. Bush administration and assisted the Obama administration in reconstituting that office.

[1] Herewith a sample: PBS News HourNew York TimesThe Washington PostThe Washington Post again; CNNThe AtlanticNational Review; and Christianity Today.

[2] I first heard this account in real time from Gerson himself, but it is referenced in passing by President George W. Bush in his 2011 memoir, Decision Points, and was reiterated by him in his public statement about Gerson following Gerson’s death. It is recounted in Michael J. Gerson, Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Lose if They Don’t) (New York: Harper One, 2007), p. 4.

[3] Heroic Conservatism, op. cit., p. 10.

[4] Ibid, p. 16.

[5] Ibid, pp. 145 and 215.

[6] On “solidarity” and “subsidiarity,” all quotes herein are from Catechism of the Catholic Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994).

[7] Heroic Conservatism, op. cit., p. 6.

[8] Heroic Conservatism, op. cit., pp. 167-173, and John J. DiIulio, Jr., Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), chapter 3.

[9] John J. DiIulio, “From Sacred to Civic: How Faith-Based Groups Are Trying to Resurrect New Orleans,” Time, April 2, 2007, pp. 54-55.

[10] Heroic Conservatism, op. cit., p. 170.

[11] Ibid, p. 171.

[12] Ibid, p. 270.

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