TV Viewers Offered Choice: 'Fear Factor' or Bush
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page C01
Old Blue Tie was back, but not exactly in top form. The official topic of George W. Bush's speech last night was his grand plan for rebuilding Iraq, but the address may have been prompted more by a political crisis than by foreign policy: A new poll showed Bush receiving his lowest public approval rating ever for his handling of the war he started.
It is doubtful Bush changed millions of minds with last night's speech, which was delivered in the extremely friendly surroundings of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., but without much energy or urgency. Bush didn't look terribly convinced by his own argument that the situation in Iraq is improving, nor did he appear all that thrilled by his five-point plan to bring about "Iraqi freedom" in the future.
"We're makin' progress," Bush said in his colloquial way. "You're makin' speeches," a skeptic might justifiably have retorted.
The speech, just over 30 minutes long, was semi-nationally televised. It was carried on cable news networks like Fox's and NBC's CNBC and MSNBC, but the four major broadcast networks decided not to air it. The White House did not formally request the time, and the networks determined in advance that the news content of the speech was low, while perhaps feeling the partisan content was high. Bush is, after all, not only the president but a candidate for the presidency.
Perhaps the networks should be faulted for not carrying the speech anyway, out of deference to the chief executive and leader of the free world, whether they subjectively felt it newsy or not. Besides, the probable reason they opted out was a matter of profits: This was the last Monday night of the May ratings sweeps (which officially end tomorrow night), and the networks wanted to hew to scheduled programming and the commercials therein.
And so the tattered old NBC peacock turned its back on the president to offer two episodes of its ultimate dumb-downer, "Fear Factor," the program on which women in bikinis eat worms. ABC, meanwhile, ignored the president for "A Beautiful Mind" -- that is, the film of that title, getting its network debut.
While Bush's oratorical prowess has never been awe-inspiring -- he's inferior even to his father as a galvanizer -- he has still, to a large degree, mastered the basics of TV speechmaking -- short, punchy sentences for the most part, with clarity given precedence over emotional eloquence. Last night's speech was clear enough but also dry and dispirited. Not even the military audience gave the impression of being enraptured, and the speech was interrupted only a few times for applause -- once when Bush praised the work of the coalition troops, mostly American, once when he said "terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq," and so on.
Bush appeared to be using three prompting devices: one to his left, one to his right and one in the center, mounted on the camera used for the head-on shot. Bush was best when relying on that camera. When he looked to his right or left to read the speech, he seemed to be peering far into the distance, certainly not making contact with viewers at home. It's not as if the hall is so cavernous that Bush had to reach people in remote mezzanines and balconies.
Besides, it's the folks at home who matter, the audience Bush really needs to impress. It's unlikely he did that last night. In addition to a generally lackluster delivery, Bush stumbled over the crucial name Abu Ghraib, the now infamous prison where grisly torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops has become an international scandal as well as an enormous embarrassment to the Bush administration.
Bush pledged to build a nice new prison and tear down Abu Ghraib when it's completed.
When he finished the speech, Bush was given a pro forma standing ovation, then remained in the room to shake as many outstretched hands as possible.
In post-speech analysis on the Fox News Channel, columnist Charles Krauthammer praised Bush for presenting "a more realistic vision" of the Iraq scenario than in past speeches. The president "succeeded to that extent" in what he set out to accomplish, Krauthammer told anchor Brit Hume, neither of them quite bursting into hip-hip-hoorays. On the same network Fred Barnes complained that Bush had inadequately addressed the issue of safety for civilian workers and other Westerners in Iraq during the reconstruction process. "He didn't say enough about that," Barnes grumped.
The speech was so bland that even the usual suspects had a hard time working up much indignation or exaltation over it.
Over on CNN, blank-faced correspondent John King told anchor Paula Zahn that the speech contained "no new policies . . . at all," thus inadvertently helping to explain why only cable networks and not the big four broadcast networks bothered to carry it. Bush reportedly plans to make five more speeches on the subject of progress in Iraq -- if any -- but he might as well make them by telephone if they're all going to be as unimpressive and uninspired as last night's was.
Of course, most people by now have probably heard the rumor, or the wild conjecture, that Osama bin Laden either will be caught just in time for the November election or has in fact already been caught and is being held in captivity so he can be sprung strategically as an "October surprise" -- one that will clinch the election for Bush. If that's true -- and this is an age of incredible-but-truisms -- Bush can make the worst speeches of his career and no one will care.
In that sense only, last night's was a good beginning.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company