Gerson on Thompson

by Jonathan H. Adler

Last week Michael Gerson wrote a remarkably unserious column in which he suggested Fred Thompson lacked “moral seriousness” because he failed to embrace President Bush’s global AIDS initiative with sufficient vigor.  Looking at what Thompson actually said, and the context in which he said it, it is clear Gerson either misunderstood or misrepresented what Thompson said. Now in a Newsweek column, Gerson compounds the error, further distorting the content and context of Thompson’s remarks. 

Others have already pointed out the problem with Gerson’s underlying argument, his failure to recognize the nature of trade-offs in a world of scarce resources, and his ridiculous (and quite unconservative) premise that a willingness to spend other people’s money is the proper measure of compassion and “moral seriousness.”  I’m just adding my to cents here to explain how Gerson’s characterization of Thompson’s actual remarks missed the boat.

Just to recap: Thompson was asked whether he supported President Bush’s global AIDS initiative, “as a Christian, as a conservative.”  Here is how Thompson reportedly responded:

Christ didn’t tell us to go to the government and pass a bill to get some of these social problems dealt with. He told us to do it. The government has its role, but we need to keep firmly in mind the role of the government, and the role of us as individuals and as Christians on the other. . . .

“I’m not going to go around the state and the country with regards to a serious problem and say that I’m going to prioritize that,  With people dying of cancer, and heart disease, and children dying of leukemia still, I got to tell you – we’ve got a lot of problems here, and we all may have our one that’s affected us the most, but it’s a broad array. And a president who will tell you the truth is that we have to look across the board and do what we can and what we should based upon the severity of the problem and the chances that our research money will do some good in these areas.

Not only did Gerson fail to note for the last portion of Thompson’s response — a portion that undercuts Gerson’s representation of the remarks — but he also failed to appreciate that Thompson was responding to the question on the terms the questioner posed: He explained how he, as a Christian and as a conservative, approaches questions of this sort.  In this context, it was perfectly appropriate — indeed, it is directly responsive — for Thompson to explain his understanding of the Christian conception of charity and the conservative view on the respective roles of government and the private sector in helping those in need.  Not only did Thompson not “criticize” the global AIDS initiative, as Gerson now claims, he did not evince any”callousness” or cynical effort to appeal to isolationist sentiment.  He explained something that Gerson apparently fails to understand: In a world of limited resources, priorities must be set. 

As the CBS account makes clear, but Gerson ignored, Thompson said he would set priorities for health-related funding by looking at “the severity of the problem and the chances that our research money will do some good in these areas.”  Further, as anyone who’s actually paid attention knows, Thompson believes that U.S. efforts to address the spread of AIDS (if properly constituted) meet this test.  Apparently it is too much to expect a columnist like Gerson to actually familiarize himself with the positions of candidates he wishes to criticize.  (Does this suggest Gerson lacks intellectual and journalistic seriousness?)  We may expect this sort of thing from ThinkProgress, but not from someone who purports to explain how the GOP and modern conservatism “lost its way.”

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