It's doubtful that four more years in office would turn George W. Bush into a great speechmaker, but that he's improving was evident last night when he stood on a circular stage meant to suggest a pitcher's mound and made his case for a second term to near-deafening cheers at the Republican National Convention in New York.
Bush still has problems maintaining poise. Twice, when cheers from the crowd were interrupted by jeers from protesters -- who were quickly hustled out of the hall by security guards and police -- Bush looked flustered, even frightened, though he did keep reading from the prompting devices encircling him. Ronald Reagan in the same situation would have responded with a quip and dismissed the protesters with a tolerant smile. Bush clung carefully to his text, his eyes darting anxiously around the hall.
The interior of Madison Square Garden, home to the convention, was remodeled for the Bush appearance. The "pitcher's mound" motif grew out of the narration for a Republican-made video about Bush's life, but not all networks were willing to show it. CBS ignored it for comment from its own reporters. Fox News Channel showed the video with "RNC Video" superimposed in a corner of the screen. CNN did the same.
Taking no chances, Bush opened and closed the speech with remarks keyed to the vicious assaults by suicidal extremists on Sept. 11, 2001, and remarks about terrorism generally. In the last 10 minutes of the speech, as he reeled off emotional anecdotes, Bush was trying either to fight back tears or to induce them.
Correspondent Jake Tapper of ABC News showed a shockingly minimal grasp of his own medium when he told viewers, "I don't know if you could tell on television, but here you could very clearly see that he was tearing up." In other words, delegates in a gigantic hall had a better perspective than people seeing the president's eyes via the intense close-up lenses of television cameras? Not likely.
Bob Schieffer of CBS News had the guts to tell anchor Dan Rather that the speech "just quite frankly was too long" and that many of the supposedly bold proposals Bush was making had a very familiar ring to them. But Chris Matthews, hoppin' happy in his anchor seat over on cable's MSNBC, chose to see the speech as an unqualified smash and, continuing the baseball motif, said of Bush, "I'm sure he knows he's hit a home run tonight."
Not really. It came off more like "The State of the Union, Part 2," a sequel, heavy on repetition, to a speech Bush already gave this year. He did exude confidence and bravado most of the time, however, and his energy level seemed high. Virtually conceding that he has a reputation for humorlessness -- and implicitly retracting his assertion, made at a carefully controlled news conference, that he couldn't think of anything he'd done wrong as president -- Bush did a good job with a few self-deprecating gibes that preceded the speech's emotional ending.
Confessing to a few "flaws," Bush said, "People sometimes have to correct my English. I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it." In terms of body English, Bush confessed to "a certain swagger which in Texas is called walking." And if he has a tendency to be "blunt," Bush said, that was the result of being raised by the "white-haired lady" in the audience, by which he of course meant his mother, Barbara, who came on stage with George H.W. Bush after the speech for the obligatory balloons, confetti and fireworks, projected on gigantic TV screens.
Bush was introduced by New York Gov. George Pataki in a segment not seen on the broadcast networks. "We're going to win one for the Gipper" while the Democrats are "going to lose one with the flipper," Pataki said, a reference to what Republicans call Democratic nominee John Kerry's flip-flopping on issues, a subject that got a modicum of attention from Bush in his speech.
Bush, however, did not address his own recent flip-flop on whether the war on terrorism is winnable. For the most part, his speech remained positive -- positive about his accomplishments and positive he'll have another four years in office to attempt more of them.
The Republicans clearly have the right idea about modernizing and streamlining conventions for 21st-century media. It's a truism to say the conventions are just infomercials now. The question is which party produces the best infomercial and makes the best use of television. Does an effective presentation automatically involve shading and twisting the truth, or can truth actually be a part of the show?
Even as the trappings of the convention have been shined up and remodeled ("This convention rocks!" declared retired Gen. Tommy Franks early in the evening; who would know better?), many of the corny old devices remain, looking creakier and more antiquated. Shortening the amount of time that the conventions occupy in prime time may play all too conveniently into the greedy hands of the networks, but it also forces the parties to make their airtime count, to cut back on the monotonous chanting and cheering, and to leave the elephant and donkey hats in their hotel rooms.
Where the Republican convention seemed to fall disgracefully short was in paying proper tribute to Ronald Reagan, whose name is invoked at every opportunity but who seemed to get very little in the way of passionate posthumous tribute. Maybe the Republicans feared that too much homage would only serve to remind viewers that Reagan is gone, and that if it isn't mentioned, people will be lulled into thinking he's still around.
Reagan could have beaten John Kerry with one hand tied behind him. George W. Bush will need both hands and lots of additional help besides. Then again, the Democrats' post-convention antics, poor use of TV and Kerry's ill-advised photo ops give the impression that the Democrats are so determined to lose that nobody can stop them -- no matter what and no matter who.