The Return of the Bully Pulpit

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

President Bush’s September 20 address to the joint session of Congress was majestic. His remarks three days after the September 11 attack on America—at the National Cathedral, on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance—were a striking balance of faith and fortitude.

But it’s the speech that most Americans did not hear from their commander in chief that speaks volumes as to the new opportunity facing the Bush presidency.

On October 17, as he ventured west to the APEC summit in Shanghai, Bush stopped in Sacramento for a 20-minute address to local business leaders. Before the events of September 11, a Bush visit to California’s capital would have generated all the hospitality of Custer’s final ride into Montana. Bush lost California big in November 2000; the state’s Democratic governor, Gray Davis, spent most of last year scapegoating the Republican president for everything from rising electricity rates to a sagging NASDAQ.

Yet here was George W. Bush, in front of 3,800 Californians, basking in their enthusiasm.

"Americans know we must act now." Applause.

"Terrorists want us to stop our flying, stop our buying. But this great nation will not be intimidated by evildoers." Applause.

"We’re supported by the conscience of the world, and we’re surrounding the terrorists and their sponsors in a tightening net of justice." Applause.

Clinton never offered the kind of words that would intrigue an intelligent listener, much less rouse the nation.

Here’s your evidence that the nation has indeed changed. America is at war—and an American president has rediscovered the bully pulpit of his office.

Not too long ago, of course, it was not this way—at least, during the Clinton presidency. That’s not a slap at how Clinton conducted himself in office. Rather, it’s a reflection of how he chose to communicate. Clinton saw the dawn of a new era of communications dominated by electronic "talking heads" and realized that it fit his style. The nation’s 42d president thus became, in effect, the biggest talking head of them all—an everyman who not only felt your pain but was all too willing to confess his preferences in sport, music, even underwear.

Politically, this worked for Clinton—well enough to get him reelected. But it carried a price, which was forsaking his office’s majesty. Gone were the days of the "big speech," when presidents used a dramatic setting and lofty rhetoric to define their ideals and initiatives. Instead, under Clinton’s watch the presidency morphed into eight years of round tables, "town hall" meetings, and staged ceremonies in the Rose Garden. No need for a teleprompter, just a set of pocket cards chock full of mundane details.

One of the great double standards of the Clinton presidency is that whereas Clinton the man is credited as a terrific communicator, Clinton the orator has taken a pounding by the legacy watch. Look no further than Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the speechwriter’s bible. In Bartlett’s 17th edition, due out this year, Clinton will receive three references, the fewest for a twentieth-century Democratic president. They are

• "I experimented with marijuana a time or two. And I didn’t like it, and didn’t inhale, and never tried it again."

• "I am going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

• "It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means ‘is and never has been,’ that is not—that is one thing. If it means ‘there is none,’ that was a completely true statement."

Perhaps the powers that be at Bartlett’s don’t care for Mr. Clinton’s beliefs and thus opted for more salacious words. That’s doubtful, as the publication tilts to the left. In Bartlett’s 16th edition, Ronald Reagan is quoted three times, the same as Presidents Ford and Eisenhower. The elder George Bush receives four quotes—one of them a slight at Reagan’s expense ("voodoo economics"). As for the Democrats, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson are quoted six times apiece; Harry Truman boasts 19 quotes; John F. Kennedy, 28; Franklin Roosevelt, 35 (plus three more with Winston Churchill). Does anyone care to argue that Truman was six times more eloquent, let alone more historically significant, than Reagan?

What’s more likely is that Bartlett’s recognized quite rightly that Clinton never offered the kind of words that would intrigue a nation, much less engender a politi-cal mandate—plenty of visuals, sure, but precious few memorable words. Clinton supporters, of course, bristle at this characterization. Some might even suggest that Reagan was "luckier" from a historical perspective—events enabled Reagan to elevate his rhetoric. There’s some validity to that claim. Yes, Reagan addressed Congress five weeks after he was shot and, as circumstance would have it, the space shuttle Challenger exploded on his watch. However, some of Reagan’s more memorable moments were entirely of his and his staff’s making—the Berlin Wall speech, speaking at a former Nazi concentration camp where Anne Frank is buried. Clinton had his opportunities—most notably, in reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing—but his legacy is one of avoiding major opportunities to tie his presidency into larger trends and movements.

Which takes us back to the current president and the opportunity before him.

Table: Conservative Speech Impediment?

George W. Bush’s reputation changed irrevocably after the events of September 11. Gone was talk of an election "stolen" by recount and a president often lacking in eloquency. Bush’s address to the joint session of Congress changed that. Not since the elder George Bush’s nomination address at the 1988 Republican National Convention (Peggy Noonan’s "thousand points of light" and "read my lips") have the media so focused on a speech’s authorship. In fact, so good was the September 20 speech that it made Bush a cult figure of sorts—a signed copy of his speech being auctioned, along with a Charlie Chaplin cane and two locks of Napoleon’s hair, as part of eBay’s "Auction for America."

The question now, as the second year of Bush’s presidency begins, is how will Bush invest this newfound rhetorical capital? Will he seek more "big" speeches to outline an agenda not so closely linked to the war? Will he reserve larger occasions strictly for the war? Will Bush become more of an "imperial" president, wrapping himself in the trappings of his office? Or will he return to his modus operandi pre–September 11—round tables, photo ops, and visits to public schools?

I posed these questions of how to balance style and rhetoric to Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Reagan. "There’s no single formula," says Khachigian. "What they should always seek to do, however, is take advantage of Bush’s greatest assets: native charm, relaxed demeanor, open personality and self-assurance."

To that end, Khachigian recommends that the White House get back to Bush’s strong suit—the less-formal meetings with citizens. But he suggests a balance for the president—keep the nation focused on the need to defeat terrorism but add domestic items that are germane. For example, he recommends a major policy address that deals head-on with the need to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration. In fact, Bush has already made the nexus between energy and terrorism, telling that same Sacramento audience that America’s reliance on foreign oil supplies is "a matter of national security."

What else could Bush raise in a major policy address? For starters, there’s the faith-based initiative, at a time when more Americans are turning to religion for guidance and security. Education reform—character education, school prayer—likewise is more relevant post– September 11. There’s Social Security privatization—the need for reform is there, even if the bull market has passed. Bush could use a graduating ceremony at one of the nation’s military academies to discuss needed defense modernization. And, as a wild card, he could further refine a Bush doctrine on counterterrorism that began with the attacks on the Taliban government and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

George W. Bush doesn’t lack for topics. We now know he can give a great speech. Here’s looking forward to a presidency where words speak as loudly as actions.