Michael Pertschuk, Michael Gerson: May Their Memories Be Blessings
Different generations, different political beliefs, different backgrounds. Shared humanity and belief in public service.
The world lost two people this week who had many differences but some essential similarities. Please remember them.
Michael Pertschuk: ‘When the Senate Worked.’
Mike Pertschuk, as I knew him, was born to a Jewish family in London during the Great Depression. As war spread in Europe, the family moved to New York.
Mike grew up there; went to college at Yale and imagined that he would become a poet; and served at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the Cold War-era Army. He went back to Yale for law school —and then, in a decision that began his long-term connection to the Pacific Northwest, he took a clerkship with a federal judge in Portland, Oregon. Mike lays out this and more in his delightful book When the Senate Worked for Us, published in 2017 and still worth reading for its light touch and historical narrative.
In 1962, when he was in his late 20s, Mike moved to Washington D.C. to join the staff of Maureen Neuberger, the first and still the only female U.S. Senator from Oregon. Through the next few years he was a crucial point person in coordinating legislative, regulatory, and public-health efforts to publicize the dangers of smoking, oppose its lobbyists, and limit its spread. Remember that the famed Surgeon General’s Report, the first official warning about the lethal consequences of the tobacco industry, did not come out until 1964, and that well-financed denialism still prevailed.1
A few years later Mike joined the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee, led by Warren Magnuson, longtime Senator from Washington state. Magnuson had come to Congress in his early 30s as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election landslide in 1936, and he had never lost his New Deal-style faith in the power of government to improve average people’s lives.2
Many of the consumer-safeguard, anti-monopoly, and environmental-protection laws modern Americans have taken for granted came through Congress in those days, under presidents from John Kennedy through Jimmy Carter. Mike Pertschuk, his name barely known outside the Capitol, was one of the people who made it happen. As a lovely recent appreciation of Mike points out, “He was often called, by both his allies and adversaries alike, ‘the 101st Senator’, in recognition of his significant role in so many major legislative accomplishments”:
During his time leading the Commerce Committee staff, some of the most significant consumer and environmental protection measures of the 20th century were prepared by the staff under his direction, including the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act, Recreational Boat Safety Act, Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, Federal Railroad Safety Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA), and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In the late 1970s Mike Pertschuk became better known to the wider public. Under Jimmy Carter he became head of the Federal Trade Commission, where he managed an anti-trust and pro-consumer agenda that would be considered “Sanders-esque” or “Warren-esque” these days. One account of those days is here; other details are in his book.
After his FTC years he was a writer, organizer, activist, and mensch. He never stopped emphasizing that the U.S. Senate, now a symbol of posturing and paralysis, had in relatively recent history been something better. (Joe Biden came to the Senate in that era and no doubt bears its imprint.) In his book Mike quotes Ralph Nader, who had been an ally in much of the reform legislation, on the value of remembering this record:
There’s a whole generation of Americans who have accepted the belief that the Congress can’t do anything, won’t do anything, is beset by all kinds of conflicting interests and gridlock….
When you don’t have any mooring in the history of a time when the Senate was remarkably responsive compared to today… the ignorance turns into cynicism, cynicism turns into withdrawal, and you have millions of people who have convinced themselves that they don’t count, they don’t matter, and they unwittingly shed their own self-respect.
You may not have known Mike Pertschuk’s name, but you live in a world he helped improve. He died this week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at age 89.
Michael Gerson: Inclusive faith.
I first met Michael Gerson before he came to wide prominence as head of George W. Bush’s White House speechwriting team.
We crossed paths one presidential-cycle earlier, in 1996. Michael, as I will call him, was then another young Capitol Hill staffer, who had written speeches for Indiana’s Republican Senator Dan Coats, and for Bob Dole in his doomed run against Bill Clinton for the presidency. I had just become the new editor of US News, and through mutual friends raised the possibility with Michael Gerson that his next step might be as a reporter and essayist for the magazine.
I was biased in favor of this kind of cross-fertilizing career move. In my early 20s I had worked for The Washington Monthly and Texas Monthly magazines, then in my late 20s spent two-plus years in politics as Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter, before returning to the journalism world for keeps.
My original mentor in journalism, Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly, had himself once been a state legislator, in West Virginia, and had worked in John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He said something about the interaction between government and journalism I found to be true: that experience in one realm could enrich performance and insight in the other. And that as long as you were open about who you were and what you believed, no one could accuse you of “hidden bias.” You laid out your premises, and worked from them. That is part of what I discussed with Michael Gerson. I was very glad that he signed on.
The US News chapter in Michael Gerson’s journalistic life did not last long. (Nor did my time at US News, which is a different story.) But it opened what became an important outlet and identity for him—that of having his views, style, and values be known under his own name, rather than that of a political employer. One of my close friends from the US News days just sent me this note:
Mike Gerson was 32 when you hired him and, in doing that, changed the trajectory of his life toward journalism.
I edited early pieces of his and was struck by his deep intelligence, his unusual sense of fairness, and his combination of intense belief in his abilities and his equally distinct sense of humility about wanting guidance on how to apply them….
[Even among our other talented colleagues in those days] reading Gerson and his values-focused, religion-shaped columns had a special effect on me. It reminded me how many worldviews animated the energies and talents of [the best journalistic communities].
I disagreed with some of Michael Gerson’s most consequential political judgments — above all, his role after the 9/11 attacks in helping advance George W. Bush’s case for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. There were other instances, which I need not detail now.
I say this in “transparency” mode, and to underscore how much I respected Michael Gerson for his intelligence, his open-mindedness, his personal decency and generosity, and his commitment to applying the tenets of his deeply held Christian faith in a loving, inclusive fashion. I saw him frequently enough, in enough different settings, over the quarter-century since we met to know that he was the real thing.
Through the travails of recent politics, many have wondered when people of faith and decency would cry Enough about the cruelty, vulgarity, and hatefulness of the Trump era. Michael was early and eloquent in issuing this call.
Read this sampling of his columns from the Washington Post to see for yourself. You can start with one from just last month. It is called “ ‘Gaffes’ aside, I once assumed GOP goodwill on race. I was wrong.” It contains this passage, about the resignation 20 years ago of former Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, after a pro-segregation “joke”:
When I was a White House staffer, I assumed that many such statements by Republicans were blunders, rooted in ignorance.
Many GOP officials took a view of history that praised the Emancipation Proclamation and affirmed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while essentially skipping over white supremacists’ Redemption policy, lynching, routine police brutality… But the general goodwill of the GOP on racial issues could still be broadly assumed.
This is among the worst errors of moral judgment I have made as a columnist.
Or another from the last month of Michael’s life, called “Why Anthony Fauci is the greatest public servant I have known.” It refers to Fauci’s decades-long, worldwide work against AIDS and Ebola and says:
Fauci has done as much as any scientist to turn medical innovation into humanitarian progress….
He demonstrates what can happen when a nation at the height of its power employs the finest scientific minds of their generation to the pursuit of public health goals few believed were possible. The result has been a golden age of public health, motivated by an American belief in human dignity.
The point about these columns is not that a highly influential, Evangelical Republican was “criticizing his own” or praising “the other side.” It is that Michael was consistent in applying his values, his standards, above all his humanity and faith. And for his vulnerability and introspection, consider what he wrote when his eldest son went to college:
I know this is hard on him as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman…
But with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close.
Michael Gerson died this week in Washington, at age 58. I send my sympathies, and gratitude, to his family, and to Michael Pertschuk’s.
My father was a young doctor in those days. I remember him telling me that when he went to medical conferences in the early 1960s, the indoor air was dense with cigarette smoke. A decade later, hardly any of the doctors would light up. It was a profound change in public health and public behavior, driven significantly by the efforts described in Mike Pertschuk’s book.