Last night we saw the ingredients come together that, for this President, make a great prime-time appearance.
Bush gave a speech, rather than dancing with our esteemed press corps. Press conferences have never gone terrifically for Bush, and even when he’s at his most relaxed and reporters aren’t openly hostile, the format tends to produce shapeless and forgettable appearances.
And it was a speech constructed with both focus and brevity. Bush’s major speeches, especially State of the Union addresses, are sometimes held back by too much deadweight that detracts from the power of the major themes. This one focused exclusively on Iraq, and with its half-hour runtime was built to get a few points across even to channel-surfers.
The most important ingredient is an audience. George W. Bush has never learned how to connect with viewers by staring into a camera. (Because it was followed by a homerun of a speech before Congress some days later, few remember how lackluster Bush’s televised statement on September 11, 2001 was.) But he can connect with people standing in front of him, and it shows. His rapport with the military made Fort Bragg an ideal venue.
The broadcast networks, after initially waffling, all agreed to carry the speech, which is no small thing; when Bush tried to rally the nation on Iraq in a primetime address before the U.S. Army War College in May of 2004, none of the networks showed it. Tying the speech to the anniversary of the handover of Iraqi sovereignty was a good strategy for giving the event a news hook; it would be a good idea to schedule future speeches around events in Iraq that get network news producers’ attention, like the constitutional referendum in October or the election of a government under the new constitution in December.
The content of the speech was a restatement of the argument that the counterinsurgency in Iraq is part of the War on Terror, and that we must stay the course.
Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania…
Some wonder whether Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. Among the terrorists, there is no debate.
Here are the words of Osama bin Laden: This third world war is raging in Iraq. The whole world is watching this war. He says it will end in victory and glory or misery and humiliation.
The terrorists know that the outcome will leave them emboldened or defeated. So they are waging a campaign of murder and destruction. And there is no limit to the innocent lives they are willing to take.
This is the sort of argument that Bush should be making every two or three months. (Poor David Gergen, who “was troubled and at times offended by the regularity of coming back to 9/11,” will just have to cope somehow.) It’s the job of a war president to rally the nation. Much of the pre-speech commentary focused on the polls showing an American public with mixed feelings on the Iraq project, but these speeches need to be more frequent no matter what the polls say.