If a speech isn’t a barnburner throughout, then it should save the best for last. That is what President Bush did last night.
His speech began well enough. The brief summary of his domestic accomplishments — No Child Left Behind, Medicaid reform, tax cuts — gave me hope that he’d skirt the small stuff and stick with broad themes throughout. I was soon disappointed as the speech degenerated into a litany of Clinton-like mini-initiatives and contradictions. He talked about “restraining federal spending,” but then said he would “double the number of people served by our principal job training program and increase funding for community colleges,” “fund early intervention programs to help students at risk,” and “will ensure every poor county in America has a community or rural health center.” The pre-speech buzz was that the “ownership society” theme would receive a lot of emphasis. But it seemed to get lost in the flurry for the dependency society.
Then came the low point: “Anyone who wants more details on my agenda can find them online. The web address is not very imaginative, but it’s easy to remember: GeorgeWBush.com.” It seemed like both a limp sales pitch and a lame attempt at seeming hip.
Then, suddenly, it gathered steam. He began with some good digs at Kerry, such as “My opponent recently announced that he is the candidate of ‘conservative values,’ but “If you gave a speech, as my opponent did, calling the Reagan presidency eight years of ‘moral darkness,’ then you may be a lot of things, but the candidate of conservative values is not one of them.”
From there, he cruised. He effectively linked our struggle in Iraq to the War on Terrorism: “we are working to advance liberty in the broader Middle East, because freedom will bring a future of hope, and the peace we all want. And we will prevail.” And what was perhaps his most powerful passage on this point:
Others understand the historic importance of our work. The terrorists know. They know that a vibrant, successful democracy at the heart of the Middle East will discredit their radical ideology of hate. They know that men and women with hope, and purpose, and dignity do not strap bombs on their bodies and kill the innocent. The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty because freedom is their greatest fear — and they should be afraid, because freedom is on the march.
During this part the President seemed relaxed and confident. When some protesters interrupted, he handled it with style and class, giving a smile and waiting for it to pass. And he handled the naysayers on Iraq with humor:
America has done this kind of work before — and there have always been doubters. In 1946, 18 months after the fall of Berlin to allied forces, a journalist wrote in the New York Times, “Germany is … a land in an acute stage of economic, political and moral crisis. [European] capitals are frightened. In every [military] headquarters, one meets alarmed officials doing their utmost to deal with the consequences of the occupation policy that they admit has failed.” End quote. Maybe that same person’s still around, writing editorials.
That was, in my opinion, the line of the convention.
He then continued with lines that were self-deprecatingly funny (“You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English — I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it”) and eloquent. (“My fellow Americans, for as long as our country stands, people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose.”) And if the intent of the last few paragraphs was to pull at America’s heartstrings, it succeeded by leaps and bounds.
If not for the first part of the speech, it would rate an easy A. As it was, I’ll give it a B+. But that is more than good enough to kick off the fall campaign on a very positive note.