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On TV, a Day That Speaks for Itself

By Tom Shales
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page C01

It's a wonder, really, that the words didn't fly right off the page. "Soaring" and "lofty" were the adjectives most often used by network chatterboxes in describing the Second Inaugural Address of George W. Bush, delivered yesterday from the West Front of the Capitol building.

Security was so tight that at that moment, the Capitol became the loveliest armed camp in the world. The speech was lovely, too, and at 21 minutes, sensibly brief. Historians reading the speech in the future, or people reading the transcript this morning in the newspaper, may well marvel at the language. Unfortunately, it will probably be more impressive in print than as Bush, in his usual baby-blue necktie, delivered it.


President Bush's inaugural speech was lofty but the delivery was lacking. (Jonathan Ernst -- Reuters)

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Bush's capabilities as an orator fluctuate from speech to speech, and this time they were at low ebb. The delivery lacked heart and soul.

Of course the pressures are tremendous, standing there surrounded by thousands of people, dozens of television cameras, a gaggle of past presidents -- including Bush's father -- and the security forces that network reporters kept talking about. The cruel horror of 9/11 will haunt such public spectacles, especially patriotic ones, for many years to come. Bush was also surrounded by large prompting devices, gadgetry with which he has never been comfortable. An overhead camera zoomed in to show that the speech had also been neatly typed on pages that Bush could read from.

All politics aside, if Bill Clinton had delivered that speech, there would have been goose pimples from sea to shining sea. Bush didn't rise to the occasion, but neither did he fumble or seem insincere. How could he be insincere when more than one commentator billed the speech as "a window to his soul"?

"No one will remember what he said on domestic policy," said Bush booster Peggy Noonan, who has written presidential speeches herself and who served as a guest commentator on the Fox News Channel. What people will remember, Noonan said, are the grandiose and sometimes out-of-character statements and phrases in the speech. Among them: "No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave"; "Freedom by its nature must be chosen"; ". . . look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love . . . and . . . always remember that even the unwanted have worth"; and "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."

But the high point was, appropriately, at the end, when Bush uttered this speech's equivalent to "ask not what your country can do for you," though Bush's will not prove as durable as JFK's:

"We are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom," he said. It sounded magnificent, if not entirely supported by reality or even by what had preceded it in the speech. Still, "freedom" was probably the word Bush used more often than any other, and limiting the speech to generalities makes sense, since Bush will be giving his State of the Union address in only a couple of weeks.

At first, the speech gave off questionable vibes. When Bush talked about bringing freedom to every country, it sounded like fundamentalist Christian proselytizing, like "Go ye therefore" and convert everyone to our way of thinking. But then Bush said it would be wrong for America to force its way of life on others. Early parts of the address also seemed to indicate the whole thing would be one big rationale for Bush's Iraq war, but the speech had nobler aims than that.

Earlier in the morning, NBC's Andrea Mitchell interviewed Michael Gerson, who has been a Bush speechwriter for six years. Gerson said Bush himself wrote a first version of the speech early in January and that the one he delivered yesterday was 21 drafts later. "He likes simple declarative sentences," Gerson said of Bush's preferences -- certainly no surprise. But Bush also likes the occasional memorable rouser, and Gerson came up with a dilly in that "history of freedom" line.

Mitchell also nabbed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger among the assembled big shots. In the course of dodging a question about whether he supports a constitutional amendment that would allow the foreign-born, including him, to run for president, Schwarzenegger said of freedom, "I know it means a lot to the American people, but it means even more to me." Oh, uhh, right.

Fox, which can be a tabloid circus at times, was scrubbed-up and dignified yesterday, even banishing the news ticker, or "crawl," that normally runs along the bottom of the screen. CNN, however, impolitely let the intrusive thing go on well into the ceremony that preceded Bush's taking the oath of office, finally shutting it down temporarily at about 11:30.

CNN executives also found it necessary to give the inauguration a name, as if it were first and foremost a television show. Thus, a special logo dubbed it "George W. Bush: The Road Ahead." Everybody else just called it what it was.

This was not a day for standard scrappy bickering by pundits or tough talk about politics and political personalities. Eliminating that kind of thing left the networks occasionally speechless, and there's nothing wrong with that. Dan Rather of CBS News occasionally would say, "Let's pick up a little bit of the music" as this or that military band played this or that march or patriotic tune.

Even NBC's Tim Russert, seemingly born to the sport of political dodgeball, was low on raw opinion. But he was still a valuable asset for the broadcast, anchored by Brian Williams, who was helming a major event for the first time since taking over such chores, and "NBC Nightly News," from Tom Brokaw. Williams did a good job but sometimes let an oddly agonized tone creep into his voice even when not appropriate. He is an awesome ad-libber, but at one point went off on a screwy tangent about how charming it was that George H.W. Bush said, "Excuse the gloved hand" when greeting people. Williams thought this harked back to a golden age of chivalry, or something.

On CBS, veteran political observer Bob Schieffer couldn't resist one pithy and down-to-earth remark, no matter how much goodwill was in the air. Noting how many times the speech had been called "lofty," Schieffer said, "I think we're about to see that altimeter start going down." That's because Bush is likely to be naming a new chief justice to the Supreme Court in the near future, and a ferociously partisan brawl is virtually inevitable.

The current chief justice, William Rehnquist, provided one of the most dramatic moments when he walked, without assistance, down the platform steps to administer the oath of office to Bush. Rehnquist, who is 80, has been battling thyroid cancer for months but did not rely on a wheelchair as had been expected by some observers.

For the record, Vice President Cheney looked annoyed while being sworn in by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, as if he were missing an important meeting.

The ceremony itself was uninspired. The musical bill of fare included "Let the Eagle Soar," an embarrassment written by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Later, emcee Sen. Trent Lott introduced a "very unique" arrangement of "God of Our Fathers," unnecessarily somber and pompous; a lively patriotic tune like "This Is My Country" would have been much more appropriate and much less funereal. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves has a beautiful voice but the song she sang, "American Anthem," wasn't thrilling.

There was, naturally, heavy reliance on pool cameras that gave all the networks access to the same pictures, though each director had discretion in choosing which shots to use when. Among the most impressive pictures were panoramic aerial views, presumably from a robot camera mounted on the Capitol dome, showing the huge crowds and Capitol grounds spread out below.

ABC's Peter Jennings noted that for the relatively few viewers able to see them in high-definition TV, the images were often "fabulous." Indeed they were. And it's always reassuring -- if not very common -- to hear a TV talker admit that in a visual medium, pictures deserve at least equal time with his own blabbering. This happened to be a day of beautiful pictures and beautiful words as well.


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