George W. Is No Orator, but He’s the Right Choice

Wanting to see how the remoralizing of America was going, I

went to George W. Bush’s speech on education at the Sheraton New York Hotel

recently. He didn’t tell any jokes about dead women-he must not have heard any

new ones.

Mr. Bush had three purposes in coming here: to make waves in

a Democratic bastion; to address the issue of education reform; and, by

speaking as a compassionate conservative, to shed some of the thug-boy image he

acquired in his ill-judged Talk

interview. He succeeded-in part. 

The speech was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, the

headquarters of Gotham’s conservative subculture. I could not spit without

hitting a friend. Mr. Bush was escorted on his pre-speech tour of the front

tables at the Sheraton by Gov. George Pataki. It is remarkable that a man whose

suits require so much fabric should be so self-effacing. Even at 6 feet 6

inches, or whatever his height, he blends into the runty crowd. This is not

true of Mr. Bush, who works a room with confidence and ease. His body language

has none of his father’s stutters and stammers. He has the carriage and energy

of a bantam. The effect is marred only by a face that is slightly too small for

his head, making it look like an overstuffed softball.

His address, like many modern speeches, was too long. But it

had many interesting arguments and good lines. Mr. Bush wants the states and,

behind them, Washington, to hold public schools to higher standards. “Schools

which do not teach,” Mr. Bush said, “must have a moment of accountability … The

Federal Government must no longer pay schools to cheat poor students.” If

children in grades three through eight consistently slide in state-administered

tests, Mr. Bush wants the Federal Government to redirect its share of

educational aid to those states to charter schools (public schools freed from

the regulations that bureaucracy and unions impose on the system).

This is a populist argument and, in theory, a biracial one,

since the present broken system disproportionately hurts black children, who

most depend on it. Ailing public schools, said Mr. Bush, practice “the soft

bigotry of lowered expectations.” Not coincidentally, he had spent the morning

at a charter school in Harlem and was introduced by black Democrat Floyd Flake.

Mr. Bush took some shots at his own party, too, for which he was rewarded with

a front page story in The New York Times .

Too many Republicans, he said, indulged social pessimism, a “sterile language”

of dollars and cents, or “disdain for government itself.” That kissed off the

religious right, The Wall Street Journal

and the libertarians. In their stead he called for “focused, energetic

government,” citing the achievements of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald

Reagan. But since the Civil, Spanish-American and Cold Wars are over, that

reduced his list of policies pursued by these men to land grant colleges and

national parks. This is the tiny world of National Greatness Conservatism,

which might better be called Wimpy Conservative Nationalism (let’s all be

proud, but not too much). A disappointing conclusion, but at least Mr. Bush had

engaged an ongoing argument among the pundit class.

Speeches are a compound of message and messenger. Here Mr.

Bush flopped. His delivery was lethal. He plodded through his text like a

jet-lagged chief executive sight-reading a snow job for stockholders. He

mangled numerous words, which suggests that gifts to Yale should be redirected

to charter schools. On the rare occasions when he got applause, he stopped to

listen to the unexpected sound, causing all enthusiasm to die. President Bush

was a lame speaker, but at least his efforts had the surprise of dyslexia.

Governor Bush will have to add Governor Pataki to his ticket for rhetorical

brilliance.

Clearly, this is not the measure of the man. Governor Bush

won two elections in the nation’s second-biggest state, unseating a popular

incumbent and blowing out a sacrificial lamb. He obviously appeals to voters.

But the United States of America is an even bigger stage than Texas. Four years

of a Bush command performance could get very leaden.

Not all great leaders are great speakers (Washington and

Jefferson were not). Closer to home, former Vice President Dan Quayle, who just

folded his Presidential campaign, had a strong electoral record in his home

state, including a few tough races, plus the bipartisan respect of Senator Ted

Kennedy. When Lloyd Bentsen made his famous “You’re no John Kennedy” crack,

Teddy conspicuously refrained from piling on. Yet Mr. Quayle had misspelled

potato, and he had a bland, monotonous voice-and that was the end of him as a

political force.

One friend had another take on Mr. Bush’s blahs. Maybe Mr.

Bush hacked through his speech because he wasn’t really interested in it. But

Mr. Bush’s formal speeches throughout his Presidential campaign have all been

dull affairs. Does that mean, as the Talk

interview suggested, that he isn’t interested in any ideas, themes or issues,

just in winning?

Not that winning would be such a bad thing. “My mother

always told me,” Ed Koch used to say, with gleeful relish, “it is always better

to win than to lose.” Any warm body who is not Al Gore or Bill Bradley would be

a blessing to the country. (This is more than liberals got out of Bill Clinton,

who was a too-warm body.) If you are a white person, Mr. Bradley hates you. He

thinks he knows essential things about race that you don’t, and he disdains

your ignorance, and he will spend the next four years hectoring you. As for Mr.

Gore, I have come to the conclusion that he may well be mad. This is a thought,

obviously, that will require some development, but he seems to have the marks

of chronic, lifelong depression. Tipper should get off the meds; he’s the one

with the problem.

Of these three, Mr. Bush is obviously the best man, and

therefore may he win. The months ahead are just going to be longer, and duller,

than anybody thought. George W. Is No Orator, but He’s the Right Choice