Grading Bush's Speech





Peter Robinson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, served as chief speechwriter to Vice President Bush and special assistant and speechwriter to President Reagan. He is the author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life (Regan, 2003). In the WSJ (Jan. 22, 2004):

The White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, reported on Tuesday that by the time the president left to deliver his State of the Union address at the Capitol, the speechwriters were "on about draft 30 of the speech." From a speechwriter who went through the ordeal a few times himself, here's a report card:

* The Fatuity Factor: By the time a State of the Union address is in its 10th or 12th draft, it's easy for the speechwriters to start composing sentences that don't actually mean anything. Perhaps because they passed through so many hands -- his speechwriting staff was the largest in recent years, perhaps in history -- President Clinton's State of the Union addresses are especially rich in examples of empty rhetoric. Consider this beauty from Mr. Clinton's 1996 address: "Now is the time for us to look to the challenges of today and tomorrow, beyond the burdens of yesterday."

President Bush? I listened closely, but in all 54 minutes I never heard him utter a single sentence that didn't mean at least a little something. This may seem an odd category in which to award a grade. But within the speechwriting brotherhood, it's important. Even at the worst moments, everyone on the Bush staff kept his head. Grade: A

* Make 'Em Laugh: Humor is tricky in a State of the Union address. A few laughs would help set the audience in the House chamber at ease. But the occasion is supposed to be august. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush joked that Speaker Tom Foley and Vice President Dan Quayle, positioned on the rostrum behind him, "saw what I did in Japan [the President, ill with the flu, had vomited at a state dinner] and they're just happy they're sitting behind me." The elder Bush may have gotten a laugh, but he sounded undignified.

One of the finest moments this time took place during the president's discussion of the war on terror. Turning to the argument that the rebuilding of Iraq should be internationalized, the president deadpanned.
"This particular criticism," he said, "is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines . . . " As Mr.
Bush continued -- ". .. . Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands . . ." -- his audience began to laugh. Then the audience interrupted him with applause. And when he finally completed the litany of nations that have committed troops to Iraq -- ". . . Norway, El Salvador, and . . . 17 other countries . . ." -- the audience gave him an ovation.

The best use of humor in a State of the Union address I've witnessed. Grade: A+

* The Speech He Got Stuck With: State of the Union addresses often amount to not one but two speeches: the speech the president got stuck with, which sounds like a hodgepodge, and, somewhere inside it, the speech the president wanted to deliver, which sounds unified, authentic and complete.

How do chief executives get stuck with hodgepodges? For weeks, Cabinet secretaries, agency heads, chairmen of congressional committees, and members of the White House senior staff draw up lists of initiatives they insist the address must contain. Some of this material can be tossed out.
But a lot cannot. Speechwriters do their best to keep this portion of State of the Union addresses thematically unified. They always fail.

How was this portion of President Bush's address? Just fine. The president's own interest in the speech came and went -- he appeared a lot more intent on making his tax cuts permanent than on modernizing the electricity grid. But his delivery remained well-paced, the text itself craftsmanlike. And it isn't really the rhetoric in this portion of any State of the Union address that matters in any event. It's the dollars. By contrast with the spree over which George W. Bush has so far presided -- as this newspaper has pointed out, Mr. Bush has increased discretionary domestic spending more than any chief executive since Lyndon Johnson -- the hodgepodge of proposals the president advanced on Tuesday appears restrained. Grade: A

* The Speech He Wanted to Deliver: In 1992, President George H. W. Bush delivered one of the best speeches-within-a-speech in any State of the Union address, speaking with feeling about the end of the Cold War.
"[C]ommunism died this year," the elder Bush proclaimed. "There are still threats. But the long, drawn-out dread is over."

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush delivered a speech-within-a-speech of his own, devoting it to the war on terror. These first 25 minutes of his address proved beautifully written and powerfully delivered. "The work of building a new Iraq is hard, and it is right," the president declared. "And America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right." Yet something was missing. Although the president provided a compelling defense of his actions in the 28 months since 9/11, he told us almost nothing about what comes next.

"[N]early two-thirds of [al Qaeda's] known leaders have now been captured or killed," the president stated. Did he mean to suggest that the war on terror is two-thirds over? If not, why not? At times the president spoke as if the war would end as soon as we caught "the remaining killers." At other times he spoke as if the war would continue until we had transformed the entire Arab world, remaking a region that "remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger." Which does he intend?

As he proved in his defiant address on Sept. 20, 2001, nine days after the terrorist attacks, George W. Bush knows how to sound Churchillian. In the State of the Union address, he should have told us whether the war on terror has reached the beginning of the end or only the end of the beginning. Grade: Incomplete

* "Good Enough": The president's failure to lay out our next objectives in the war on terror strikes me as serious. On the other hand, you can submit President Reagan's 1984 State of the Union address to the most minute scrutiny but find only the broadest hints about what he intended to do in a second term. Yet later that year he carried 49 out of 50 states -- and by the time he left office he had won the Cold War.

A pretty good speech is often good enough. Overall Grade: B+


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