He helped write George W. Bush's controversial second inaugural address that called for neo-conservative intervention and nation building around the world to effect the spread of democracy to third world countries.
Gerson was raised in an Evangelical Christian family in St. Louis, Missouri. His paternal grandfather was Jewish. He attended Georgetown University for a year and then transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois, graduating in 1986.
He resides with his wife and their two children in Alexandria, Virginia.
Before joining the Bush Administration, he was a senior policy advisor with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institution. He also worked at various times as an aide to Indiana Senator Dan Coats and a speechwriter for the Presidential campaign of Bob Dole before briefly leaving the political world to cover it as a journalist for U.S. News & World Report. Gerson also worked at one point as a ghostwriter for Charles Colson.
In early 1999, Karl Rove recruited Gerson for the Bush campaign.
Gerson was named by Time as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals In America." The February 7, 2005 issue listed Gerson as the ninth most influential.
Gerson joined the Bush campaign before 2000 as a speechwriter and went on to head the White House speechwriting team. "No one doubts that he did his job exceptionally well," wrote Ramesh Ponnuru in a 2007 article otherwise very critical of Gerson in National Review. According to Ponnuru, Bush's speechwriters had more prominence in the administration than their predecessors did under previous presidents because Bush's speeches did most of the work of defending the president's policies, since administration spokesmen and press conferences did not. On the other hand, he wrote, the speeches would announce new policies that were never implemented, making the speechwriting in some ways less influential than ever.
On June 14, 2006, it was announced that Gerson was leaving the White House to pursue other writing and policy work. He was replaced as Bush's chief speechwriter by The Wall Street Journal chief editor William McGurn.
Gerson proposed the use of a "smoking gun/mushroom cloud" mixed-metaphor during a September 5, 2002 meeting of the White House Iraq Group, in an effort to sell the American public on the nuclear dangers posed by Saddam Hussein. According to Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff,
The original plan had been to place it in an upcoming presidential speech, but WHIG members fancied it so much that when the Times reporters contacted the White House to talk about their upcoming piece [about aluminum tubes], one of them leaked Gerson's phrase – and the administration would soon make maximum use of it.
Gerson has said one of his favorite speeches was given at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, a few days after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which included the following passage: "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."
Gerson is credited with coining such phrases as "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and "the armies of compassion". His noteworthy phrases for Bush are said to include "Axis of Evil," a phrase adapted from "axis of hatred," itself suggested by fellow speechwriter David Frum but deemed too mild.
In an article by Matthew Scully (one of Gerson's co-speechwriters) published in The Atlantic (September 2007) Gerson is criticized for seeking the limelight, taking the credit for other people's work and for creating a false image of himself.
It was always like this, working with Mike. No good deed went unreported, and many things that never happened were reported as fact. For all of our chief speechwriter’s finer qualities, the firm adherence to factual narrative is not a strong point.
Of particular note is the invention of the phrase "axis of evil." Scully claims that the phrase "axis of hatred" was coined by David Frum and forwarded to colleagues by email. The word "hatred" was changed to "evil" by someone other than Gerson and was done because "hatred" seemed the more melodramatic word at the time.
Scully also had this to say about Gerson:
My most vivid memory of Mike at Starbucks is one I have labored in vain to shake. We were working on a State of the Union address in John’s (McConnell's) office when suddenly Mike was called away for an unspecified appointment, leaving us to “keep going.” We learned only later, from a chance conversation with his secretary, where he had gone, and it was a piece of Washington self-promotion for the ages: At the precise moment when the State of the Union address was being drafted at the White House by John and me, Mike was off pretending to craft the State of the Union in longhand for the benefit of a reporter.
After leaving the White House, Gerson wrote for Newsweek magazine for a time. On May 16, 2007, Gerson began his tenure as a twice-weekly columnist for the Washington Post. His columns appear on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Gerson, a neo-conservative, has repeatedly criticized other conservatives in his column and conservatives have returned the favor. One of Gerson's first columns was entitled "Letting Fear Rule", in which he compared skeptics of President Bush's immigration reform bill to nativist bigots of the 1880s.Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't). HarperOne. 2007. ISBN 0-06-134950-X.
City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era. Moody. 2010. ISBN 0-8024-5857-2. (with Peter Wehner)