'The Freedom Speech'

Michael Gerson CBS

There have been more than 20 drafts of the President Bush's second inaugural speech, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

He sat down this week with Michael Gerson, the president's main speechwriter, to get a preview.

"I have to say," Gerson told Plante, "this one, in a way that's different from a normal policy speech, is very much the president's own speech. He came to me with content, with the general approach, the day after the election was decided.

"So he had been thinking about it, and knew very much the general approach and the philosophy of the speech. We then did outlines and discussions in December…he and I, working out ideas, concepts, flow of points, and then he got a draft early in January and has been very involved in editing that.

Is that, Plante asked, the normal work pattern between Gerson and Mr. Bush?

"On major speeches like that, (yes). Clearly, you can't do that for the daily requirements of the president. But on a speech like the inaugural, where he very much wants to set out his vision and philosophy…it's a little different, and he invests a lot of time up front, rather than just the end of the process.

"I think," Gerson says, "he very much wanted this to be 'the freedom speech.' It's the first…inaugural address since 9/11, and those events, and the events that followed, have changed America's approach to the world.

"We need to talk to the American people about the challenges they face going forward in the generational struggle, and we need to talk about some real opportunities when it comes to domestic policy to be a model of freedom here at home. …But the organizing principle (of the speech) in many ways is freedom at home and freedom abroad."

Gerson defended Mr. Bush's frequent use of religious language and imagery in his speeches: "It's a consistent feature of the American presidency, a long-standing practice by which presidents refer to hymns or biblical passages. It's the tradition of our founders, to Lincoln, to FDR, to Reagan. So there's nothing new about it, but it's important to do in the right way, to do it in a way that it's not sectarian, to do it in a way that it's welcome to all faiths, instead of singling out specific faiths for favor."

Gerson chuckled when asked by Plante what it's like to be the guy who does a lot of the work, but never really, almost never, gets any credit? "The satisfaction for me," he responded, "is taking some small role in American history, working for a good man at an important time."

And perhaps, just perhaps, Plante added, coming up with just one memorable phrase.
  • Brian Dakss

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