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
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
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
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.