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Outlook: A Few Words for Mr. Bush

Kenneth Khachigian and Jeff Shesol
Former Presidential Speechwriters
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; 10:00 AM

Last month, Sen. John Kerry took the podium to tell America why it should vote for him in November. Now it's President Bush's turn. When he addresses the Republican Party and the nation on Thursday, how should the president define himself? What's the best way to capture the hearts and minds of the voters? The Outlook section invited veteran speechwriters Kenneth Khachigian and Jeff Shesol, who gave some words of advice to Kerry in August, back to give Bush their best counsel on what he should say in his acceptance speech at this week's Republican National Convention in New York. Their wise words and subtle warnings appear in Outlook under the headline: "Mr. Bush, the Megaphone Is Yours." Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, urges the president to use his podium time to remind the nation of his determination and resolve to win the war on terrorism. Shesol, a former Clinton speechwriter, warns Bush to be careful about casting himself once again as a compassionate conservative.

Shesol and Khachigian were online on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss their articles and other campaign issues.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Ken, you suggest that the president should be bold and talk about the war on terror. Do you think his track record over the past four years on this "war" is something to highlight?

Kenneth Khachigian: There's no question in my mind that the president's political strength in the next two months rests on the distinctions between him and Kerry on the overall rubric of terrorism/security/national defense and a tough-minded foreign and defense policy... GWB has a good claim on a single-minded and determined role in this area and Kerry has already been stuck with the "on the one hand/on the other hand" approach... but the central reason for him to "highlight" this is the inherent and natural advantage of a sitting president to be supported in wartime and Bush -- with a tough-minded, determined, "fighting" call for national support -- will benefit. In my mind, it has the added advantage of being the right thing to do.

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Washington, D.C.: Jeff, in your Sunday article you urged the president to deliver an "uplifting" speech. I know we're only on day two of the convention, but all I've seen so far is a painful re-hashing of 9/11. I think this is doing more harm than good. It is decidedly NOT uplifting and makes me want to tune out.

I think this may work against the GOP. New York, and the country, have moved on from 9/11 and we're being manipulated by the GOP -- at least last night we were -- into re-living the shell-shocked feelings we all had immediately after 9/11. Shame on the GOP and I hope Bush listens to you and strikes a different note.

Jeff Shesol: Thanks for your question. I was not surprised by the extent of the focus on 9/11, but I was taken aback by Giuliani's overt politicization of something as horrific as people jumping from a building (it was at that moment, he said, that he turned to Kerrick and thanked God that Bush was President). The GOP is walking a dangerous line between observance and exploitation, and I think Giuliani (unlike McCain) crossed that line.

As for the coming days, the GOP made fairly clear that yesterday was about 9/11 -- meaning, that was the theme of the speeches -- and subsequent speakers (as is always the case at conventions) will emphasize different themes. I don't suppose this is the last we'll be hearing about 9/11 -- surely, the President will have something to say about the subject -- but I don't expect they'll dwell as heavily on that tragedy as they did last night.

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Western U.S.: What do you make of George Bush describing Iraq as a "catastrophic success?" Is it something you would have suggested?

Kenneth Khachigian: We tend to think our presidents are automotons who should never err in their locutions... a reasonable standard, I suppose, given how we elevate the office. Of course I wouldn't have suggested he say that -- but that was a spontaneous response which, to me, suggested that we had a strong and effective military thrust which had some unintended results. Bush has admitted he mangles a line or two every now and then. this was his way of saying we did well but confronted challenges we didn't anticipate. My own impression is that the electorate has long ago adjusted for these language issues with Bush.

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Clifton, Va.: Thanks for coming back. I participated in the chats you did during the Democratic convention, too.

I was hoping you could both grade John Kerry's speech in Boston and talk about what Bush will need to do to top it.

Also, do you anticipate any of the speakers bringing up the Swift Boat controversy?

Jeff Shesol: I'd give Kerry a solid grade for his performance in Boston. It wasn't a speech that will be played and replayed for generations of schoolchildren, but it was strong, energetic, and straightforward, not high-flown, in its rhetoric. It did what it needed to do and avoided what I and others identified as pitfalls for Kerry.

What can Bush do to top it? Stay true to his beliefs and stick to the rhetorical formula that has worked well for him in the past. Ironically, he relies a bit more than Kerry does on formal rhetorical structures: repetition, alliteration, parallel structure. Yet he manages to sound direct and unaffected. I expect him to give a strong performance. He usually rises to big occasions like this.

And no, I don't expect him -- or anyone, really -- to go near the Swift Boat stuff. That's been the strategy -- let the disgruntled vets do the dirty work, and then put the President above the fray. With Dole and former President Bush stoking these fires in interviews, there's no need to sully the speeches themselves with these charges.

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Durham, N.C.: How much does Bush's speech really matter? Even he is unlikely to totally blow it, so won't the debates play a much larger role in swaying the undecideds?

Kenneth Khachigian: You're absolutely right about the long term impact of the convention speech. the next 63 days are like two worlds away. But the speech very definitely can determine how the first couple of weeks of the election play out. If Bush bumps up 5 or 6 points like i think he will, it can change the dynamics in the Kerry camp -- which means that campaigns are not merely strategic, but tactical -- i.e., constantly changing and adapting. But it's much better to have a short term burst than nothing. you are right about the debates also... the by mid-Sept the back and forth (absent something huge) will lock the direction of the campaign... it's only after the final debate that I can get a feel of the final outcome.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: Hi Ken:

We worked on the '88 campaign together. Don't you think the image of Bush off the podium surrounded by delegates will be a winner and a symbolic contrast to John Kerry's cautious performance in Boston? There, the Kerry speechwriters seemed to have simply dug a rhetorical spider-hole for Kerry to hide in. You correctly note that Bush will face increased attacks following the convention. Just by laying out at least one clear theme for his critics to attack, Bush will communicate something about himself to voters -- open, principled leadership. Is this a winning strategy?

Kenneth Khachigian: It's hard to anticipate what the effect will be of Bush "in the arena" -- on the natural, it seems like a pretty good approach -- but whether it's behind the podium or in the round, at the end of the day, the sense of conviction and playing to what I believe is the need to come out a "fighter" will rule. But essential for the President beyond anything else is to breathe passion, logic and persuasion into a war policy which has become the bludgeon of what I called the attempt to "break the president."

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Anonymous: Who did you think gave the best speeches at the Democratic Convention in Boston and why?

Jeff Shesol: Well, for purposes of partial disclosure, I had something to do with some of them. (Not Kerry's or Edwards's, though.) That said, I think the most riveting, compelling performance was Obama's, as so many people have observed. It was personal, impassioned, and utterly without the kind of rhetorical tics that so many other speakers show. He found new ways to talk about familiar issues. (And he wrote it himself, which is plenty humbling to those of us who do this for a living.) Another standout, of course, was Clinton. Not only in terms of his dynamic performance, but in terms of the cogent argument he made in defining the choice between the two parties.

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Bentonville, Ark.: In convention speeches, it seems like the incumbent should try to appeal more to the nation and the challenger more to his party. Do you think this is true? If so, how does this effect the content of the President's speech.

Jeff Shesol: I disagree. I think the imperatives are similar for both the president and his challenger: energize the party faithful -- but reach beyond them to the vast majority of Americans who don't identify actively (no matter what their voter registration ID says) with either party. There's an obvious tension between these two goals, but I think most men in their position have erred toward the latter. A political rally is one thing, but this is as national an audience as you're going to get until Inauguration Day.

Kenneth Khachigian: I agree with Jeff on this. Actually in Kerry's case, Ithink the party moved him rather than the other way around. He was driven in the early primaries to reflect his party's anger and animosity towards Bush coming from the left. But regardless, there's really no difference between the needs of a challenger and incumbent re: who the target audience is... at the end of the day there's one heck of a lot more folks on the consumer side of the camera than on the producer side.

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Oklahoma: If John Kerry's convention opened up criticism of his Vietnam service isn't the RNC begging us to wonder why 9/11 happened on George Bush's watch? He does seem to spend a lot of time at Crawford.

Jeff Shesol: I think you're right that the emphasis on Vietnam at the DNC makes the charges against Kerry more potentially damaging, though I wouldn't suggest that Kerry should have done it any differently at his convention -- his service was honorable, his heroism was remarkable, and I do think they help us understand what kind of president he would be.

As for Bush and 9/11, I think this one has been pretty thoroughly examined and re-examined over the past few years (especially this one, between Richard Clarke and the 9/11 Commission) -- most Americans have already drawn their conclusions. I do, however, think that the overemphasis on and politicization of 9/11 open the GOP to charges of exploiting a national tragedy for partisan advantage.

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St. Louis, Mo.: I wanted to ask both men to talk about how they became presidential speechwriters and how they go about writing a major speech like the one President Bush will give on Thursday.

Jeff Shesol: I'm an accidental speechwriter. Before I went to the White House at the start of 1998, I had two day jobs: I wrote and drew a syndicated political comic strip (Thatch was the name of the strip; it didn't run in Washington but it did appear 7 days a week in other papers around the country) and I wrote a book called Mutual Contempt, which is about the bitter feud between LBJ and RFK. When the book was published in 1997, Clinton read it, and I got a nice note and a phone call to come join him as a speechwriter. I dropped everything and did it.

Kenneth Khachigian: I started life as a struggling writer -- had to take what they called "bonehead English" at uc santa barbara -- i.e., like learning to walk all over again... I began as a "researcher" in the '68 Nixon campaign and evolved from position papers, fact sheets, talking points etc. in the white house from '70-'73 to getting a speechwriting slot after the '72 campaign (shared an office suite with Pat Buchanan and Ben Stein was two doors down). Still don't think of myself as a speechwriter, but got called in to the Reagan '80 campaign to travel with him after lack of message discipline on the trail... RR and I hit it off and I view it as the fortunate confluence of a great communicator and good luck on my part. by the way. it's never fun to look at a blank page.

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Washington, D.C.: As a speechwriter, how do you deal with a President like George Bush who is not a natural public speaker? Do you consciously avoid big words that he might stumble over, or is the use of ornate language important to in order to make him look authoritative and "Presidential?"

Kenneth Khachigian: Bush is a natural communicator. I think he's a much superior stump campaigner than Kerry and should trust his instinct to speak frequenty without a text. but his writers have adapted wonderfully to his style: direct language, short sentences, language that you don't need PhD's to understand. but i'd caution folks never to "misunderestimate" Bush. he's got natural people skills -- an indispensible asset.

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Dayton, Ohio: What are George Bush and John Kerry's greatest assets?

Kenneth Khachigian: George Bush's greatest political asset is his personal charm. This will gag my friends on the political left, but, trust me, his openness, easy demeanor and ability to embrace are great assets. after that, i'd say it's what has become a proven strength to show steadfastness under fire. FDR was a tough cookie and aggressive in defense of his policies...a pretty necessary trait in WW11 given early reverses in North Africa and the Pacific.

Jeff Shesol: Actually, I'd agree with Ken in a couple respects: I do think Bush has great personal charm and a seemingly easy, open manner -- and these count for a lot. He has what the New Yorker editor Rick Hertzberg has called "emotional acuity" -- he can read a room or an individual and make a real connection.

Where Ken and I predictably part is that I think most of Bush's strengths are apparent rather than actual strengths -- his "decisiveness" being a case in point. To the extent that this is true, it's been more a weakness than a strength, as he's locked himself into failed policies in denial of the facts. Also, as interesting recent pieces in both the Post and the NY Times have revealed, the President tends to kick the can down the road on difficult decisions like North Korea and Iran, creating a sort of see-sawing in American policy and inconsistent signals to the rest of the world.

As for Kerry's assets (and I'd be interested in Ken's thoughts on this one!), I think his curiosity, openness to conflicting views (rather than just the ones he wants to hear) and his ability to grasp complex issues are all big assets in troubled times. Seeing nuance doesn't translate into acting mushily. FDR and JFK saw complexities, weighed them, and then acted -- resolutely, knowing they thought things through and made the right decisions.

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St. Louis, Mo.: I think how one delivers a speech is just as important as what one says during a speech.

I find when the president gives a speech, no matter where he is, no matter what he is talking about, he pauses in the middle of every sentence. I find this to be very annoying and makes me wonder if he even knows what he is talking about. Do you think he is an effective speech maker in general?

Kenneth Khachigian: i'd refer you to my previous points about the President's natural communicating abilities and personal charm. i'll tell you a story about Reagan. you'll recall he started a lot of sentences with an elongated "wellll..." so I started actually to begin sentences with the word "well." and then he explained to me that it was a "stage pause" to allow him to think about the next phrase, answer or sentence -- a split second to shape what he said and how. I think GWB takes a "stage pause" but just doesn't fill the space with a word. i understand your point... it sometimes appears the President isn't quite sure of the next sentence, but it seems to work in the end. also, working from a text often has that effect if there's no great familiarity with it. i would trust GWB to extemporize more in the campaign

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Jeff, is Thatch ever coming back in any form?

Jeff Shesol: One never knows! You're very kind to ask. I miss the strip and the characters an awful lot -- but I don't miss the daily drill, 365 days a year. Believe it or not, my first year at the White House seemed at times like a breather, since I actually had a weekend off from time to time.

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Alexandria, Va.: This is for either of you.

If your phone rang in the next day or so, and you were asked to insert a powerful "one-liner" in Bush's speech, specifically, a line that would sum up what Bush needs to communicate to voters and would make its way onto most headlines the next morning, what would that line be?

Kenneth Khachigian: sorry to burst your bubble... but winning "one liners" usually take about 6 drafts to hone. here's the basic message without the exact words: As President I was called upon either to take chance that this Mesopotamian jackboot was playing a game of chicken, that he was bluffing, that he really might not have WMD, that he wouldn't help the Al Qaeda or continue the genocide of his people or terrorize the region... I could have taken a chance that all of this was true, but then after 9/11 America could not afford to leave its safety, security and the lives of Americans to chance... and no other responsible President would either."

Jeff Shesol: If my phone rang in the next day or so, it would probably be the FBI or the Justice Department wanting to know why I said such mean things about the President in this online chat.

One-liners for Bush? I guess I took my best shot at the end of the Outlook piece on Sunday. I'd like to see him show the courage of his convictions -- to tell us what he actually believes (since this, after all, is what his supporters define as his greatest strength), rather than soften the edges with a lot of "compassion" that's not grounded either in his record or his budget plans for a second term.

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Lyme, Conn.: There supposedly was a "new conventional wisdom" in politics that it is best to campaign with a positive approach, wait for your opponent to go negative, and then go negative youself. That way, you appear above board and your opponent appears to be below board. Is this conventional wisdom still good, or is it this old wisdom that is being replaced by a "new, new conventional wisdom?" I ask because this seems to be the strategy that Kerry was following and, while we may see in November if it worked, so far it seems to working in Bush's favor as people wonder why Kerry didn't attack first and now Bush is left to define Kerry as a person through negative comments.

Jeff Shesol: As you've seen, the conventional wisdom is useful only until campaign dynamics shift, and then what seemed wise last week appears stupid this week.

I read the positive/negative trajectory a little differently than you do. I think Kerry started off slashing -- a legacy of Dean's influence in the Dem primaries as much as anything else. The rest of the electorate didn't much like this approach (as Edwards's success in the primaries showed), and Kerry made a dramatic shift toward a more positive campaign. I've probably not got the numbers exactly right, but the Post reported that only 27 pr so percent of Kerry's ads were negative.

Bush, meanwhile, has been aggressively on the attack from the start -- something like 75% of his own ads (vs 527's) have been negative. That strategy -- of tearing Kerry down -- was seen last night in Giuliani's speech and others. The President is having trouble getting his positives above 50% -- so he's got to shred Kerry to win. This is going to get a whole lot uglier, and as you see, Kerry increasingly feels he's got to respond in kind, lest he become another Dukakis.

Kenneth Khachigian: my view is that this is a democracy... we should expect our candidates to be tough, aggressive, pointed -- to draw the picture sharply. the advantage in presidential races is that by the end, television and radio commercials are not as dispositive because there is also an enormous amount of free media to balance. but the sharp, well thought out negative ad clearly can punch through with a lot of repetition. somehow Americans sort it all out at the end of the day. and remember Kerry had the advantage of 8 fellow candidates out there for at least half a year pounding Bush... don't blame the Bushies for wanting to balance things out.

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Bethesda, Md.: Will Mr. Bush again say he is a compassionate conservative? Will he try to win the undecideds that way? It worked last time but he did not keep his word. On the contrary the sheepskin came off over the last four years. Since Bush can no longer hide his real self and agenda, what do you expect him to do to try to win over those who have seen what he has done, and not done, and are upset that he has not kept his moderate 2000 campaign pledges, the most obvious of which was a pledge to change the tone in Washington.

Kenneth Khachigian: no offense, but go through and sift the language used by Dean, Gore, Kennedy, Sharpton, Daschle, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Moore, Al Franken, etc. and then make the final claim that Bush alone is responsible for the "tone" in washington.

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Washington, D.C.: I've think the issue of the next president's impact on the judiciary will be critical in the direction that this country takes over the next two decades. Is this an issue that Bush should mention since it is so polarizing (I don't remember seeing Kerry stress this issue at all)?

Jeff Shesol: It's an interesting omission by Kerry, and, I think, an unfortunate one. I don't think one has to work too hard to make this an issue after Bush v. Gore. And it's arguably of greater importance than most of what both candidates are talking about. On the other side, we're hearing the usual talk about "activist judges," particularly with respect to gay marriage, but I'm not sure Bush wants to remind swing voters that in a second term he may well get to appoint 3 or so Justices.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the Michael Moore comments in McCain's speech? Just more promotion for the opponent is how I saw it. I assure you that Mr. Moore couldn't have been happier with the extra sunshine.

Kenneth Khachigian: my view is that Moore is a fair punching bag...and i say the more the merrier.. will be hard to enhance his "reputation" any more than his sycophants in the media have.

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Kenneth Khachigian: enjoyed the questions -- it's healthy that politics has engaged so many folks... a good thing, whether soft or hard, to keep debate flowing.

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Jeff Shesol: On Ken's point about "changing the tone, I do agree that both sides have to take responsibility for the tone, but in my view the primary responsibility for the ugliness and the uncivil rhetoric belongs to the President's decision to pursue divisive policies rather than a new consensus.

On compassionate conservatism more broadly, see my piece in Outlook if you're interested... In closing I'd just say that if Bush dons this sheep's clothing again, as he did in 2000, it may win him the election, but over the long term it will cost him his credibility -- and that's not the only thing in Washington that's gone from surplus to deficit in the last four years.

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