Okay, so he's not a great communicator. But he's a greater communicator than Saddam Hussein! George Bush's State of the Union speech, televised live from the House of Representatives on four networks last night, was quite satisfactory, which for Bush is a step up.
For a wartime president, Bush kept saber-rattling and name-calling basically to a minimum, especially considering how well it would have played in front of Congress. Saddam was rarely, if ever, mentioned by name, perhaps partly because Bush has so much trouble pronouncing it. He stuck mostly to terms like "tyrant," and "brutal dictator" and "threat to decency and humanity."
We knew who he meant.
Bush got his loudest and longest ovation after he paid tribute to "every man and woman now serving in the Persian Gulf." The response pleased him. "What a fitting tribute to them," Bush said as the cheers died down. "What a wonderful, fitting tribute to them."
Bush began and ended the speech with the war, a sandwich wrapped around what NBC anchor Tom Brokaw called "a rather routine checklist of domestic issues" which elicited "a rather routine reception" from the studio audience. Brokaw made a big boo-boo. He identified the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as "General Clayton Powell." No, no; it's Colin Powell, as everybody who has been watching TV for the past 13 days knows.
Powell came up because Bush had Powell's wife, Alma, and the wife of the allied commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, stand up and take bows in the audience. This was fine, but if Ronald Reagan were still president (if only!), the Reaganauts would have had the wives, and maybe a husband, of regular old enlisted personnel on hand, for that nice warm human touch.
The nice warm human touch usually eludes Bush and the Bushniks.
Bush's speaking style has improved. People used to say his voice reminded them of Jack Nicholson's but last night, some of the reediness and the dry phrasing seemed more reminiscent of Henry Fonda. Unfortunately, Bush still sometimes lapses into a sour Nixonian scowl and this does not serve his purposes well.
There was some decent phrase-making evident in the 47-minute speech, as when Bush said, "So that peace can prevail, we will prevail," or when he called America "the beacon of freedom in a searching world." Bush's seeming paraphrase of Abraham Lincoln was probably the most potentially lasting refrain: "Our cause is just, our cause is moral, our cause is right." On the other hand, certain to be forgotten soon if not already was the allegedly inspiring, "If you've got a hammer, find a nail."
The speech was interrupted nearly 40 times for applause, and there were five standing ovations, not counting those at the opening and close. Mr. Bush was clearly on a roll.
All the applause stretched the speech out too much, however, and sometimes ovations interrupted Bush when he had a nice rhythm going. Those sentimental souls in Congress saved their second-loudest choruses of approval for such issues as "control of federal spending" and a reduction in the capital gains tax.
When Bush said, "We will get this recession behind us, and return to growth soon," it was the first time the president had conceded the existence of a recession, at least by that name, in a speech, according to Dan Rather of CBS News. Rather anchored a special report on the Persian Gulf War that followed the Democratic response by his royal dullness Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine).
One other detail of last night's presentation should probably be noted: Dan Quayle had a brand-new haircut. Indeed, it looked as though he had dashed from the barbershop right to the House.
The State of the Union was not a speech to echo through the ages, but how many do anymore? Bush acquitted himself well, read smoothly, and spoke for only about 15 minutes too long. He looked happier when it was over than he did when it began, and so were we.