President Bush’s interview on “Meet the Press” seems to me so much a big-story-in-the-making that I wanted to weigh in with some thoughts. I am one of those who feel his performance was not impressive.
It was an important interview. The president has been taking a beating for two months now—two months of the nonstop commercial for the Democratic Party that is the Democratic primaries, and then the Kay report. And so people watched when he decided to come forward in a high stakes interview with Tim Russert, the tough interviewer who’s an equal-opportunity griller of Democrats. He has heroic concentration and a face like a fist. His interviews are Beltway events.
But certain facts of the interview were favorable to the president. Normally it’s mano a mano at Mr. Russert’s interview table in the big, cold studio. But this interview was in the Oval Office, on the president’s home ground, in front of the big desk. Normally it’s live, which would be unnerving for a normal person and is challenging for politicians. Live always raises the stakes. But Mr. Bush’s interview was taped. Saturday. Taped is easier. You can actually say, “Can we stop for a second? Something in my eye.”
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You can find the transcript of the Bush-Russert interview all over the Web. It reads better than it played. But six million people saw it, and many millions more will see pieces of it, and they will not be the pieces in which Mr. Bush looks good.
The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared. He seemed in some way disconnected from the event. When he was thrown the semisoftball question on his National Guard experience—he’s been thrown this question for 10 years now—he spoke in a way that seemed detached. “It’s politics.” Well yes, we know that. Tell us more.
I never expect Mr. Bush, in interviews, to be Tony Blair: eloquent, in the moment, marshaling facts and arguments with seeming ease and reeling them out with conviction and passion. Mr. Bush is less facile with language, as we all know, less able to march out his facts to fight for him.
I don’t think Mr. Bush’s supporters expect that of him, or are disappointed when he doesn’t give it to them. So I’m not sure he disturbed his base. I think he just failed to inspire his base. Which is serious enough—the base was looking for inspiration, and needed it—but not exactly fatal.
Mr. Bush’s supporters expect him to do well in speeches, and to inspire them in speeches. And he has in the past. The recent State of the Union was a good speech but not a great one, and because of that some Bush supporters were disappointed. They put the bar high for Mr. Bush in speeches, and he clears the bar. But his supporters don’t really expect to be inspired by his interviews.
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The Big Russ interview will not be a big political story in terms of Bush supporters suddenly turning away from their man. But it will be a big political story in terms of the punditocracy and of news producers, who in general don’t like Mr. Bush anyway. Pundits will characterize this interview, and press their characterization on history. They will compare it to Teddy Kennedy floundering around with Roger Mudd in 1980 in the interview that helped do in his presidential campaign. News producers will pick Mr. Bush’s sleepiest moments to repeat, and will feed their anchors questions for tomorrow morning: “Why did Bush do badly, do you think?”
So Mr. Bush will have a few bad days of bad reviews ahead of him.
But I am thinking there are two kinds of minds in politics. There are those who absorb and repeat their arguments and evidence—their talking points—with vigor, engagement and certainty. And there are those who cannot remember their talking points.
Those who cannot remember their talking points can still succeed as leaders if they give good speeches. Speeches are more important in politics than talking points, as a rule, and are better remembered.
Which gets me to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan had a ready wit and lovely humor, but he didn’t as a rule give good interviews when he was president. He couldn’t remember his talking points. He was a non-talking-point guy. His people would sit him down and rehearse all the fine points of Mideast policy or Iran-contra and he’d say, “I know that, fine.” And then he’d have a news conference and the press would challenge him, or approach a question from an unexpected angle, and he’d forget his talking points. And fumble. And the press would smack him around: “He’s losing it, he’s old.”
Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t good at talking points either.
George W. Bush is not good at talking points. You can see when he’s pressed on a question. Mr. Russert asks, why don’t you remove George Tenet? And Mr. Bush blinks, and I think I know what is happening in his mind. He’s thinking: Go through history of intelligence failures. No, start with endorsement of George so I don’t forget it and cause a big story. No, point out intelligence didn’t work under Clinton. Mention that part of the Kay report that I keep waiting for people to mention.
He knows he has to hit every point smoothly, but self-consciousness keeps him from smoothness. In real life, in the office, Mr. Bush is not self-conscious. Nor was Mr. Reagan.
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What we are looking at here is not quality of mind—Mr. Bush is as bright as John Kerry, just as Mr. Reagan was as bright as Walter Mondale, who was very good at talking points. They all are and were intelligent. Yet neither Mr. Bush’s interviews and press conferences nor Mr. Reagan’s suggested anything about what they were like in the office during a crisis: engaged, and tough. It’s something else.
John Kerry does good talking points. In interviews he’s asked for his views on tax cuts and he has it all there in his head in blocks of language that cohere and build. It gets boring the 14th time you hear it, but he looks capable. Hillary Clinton is great at talking points—she’s the best, as her husband was the best in his time.
Democrats have minds that do it through talking points, and Republicans have minds that do speeches. (Mr. Bush has given a dozen memorable speeches already; only one of his Democratic challengers has, and that was “I Have a Scream.”) And the reason—perhaps—is that Democratic candidates tend to love the game of politics, and Republican candidates often don’t. Democrats, because they admire government and seek to be part of it, are inclined to think the truth of life is in policy. How could they not then be engaged by policy talk, and its talking points?
Republicans think politics is something you have to do and that policy is something you have to have to move things forward in line with a philosophy. They like philosophy. But they are bored by policy and hate having to memorize talking points.
Speeches are the vehicle for philosophy. Interviews are the vehicle of policy. Mr. Kerry does talking points and can’t give an interesting speech. Mr. Bush can’t do talking points and gives speeches full of thought and assertion.
Philosophy takes time. If you connect your answers in an interview to philosophy, or go to philosophy first, you can look as if you’re dodging the question. You can forget the question. You can look a little gaga. But policy doesn’t take time. Policy is a machine gun—bip bip bip. Education policy, bip bip bip. Next.
If I worked for President Bush I’d say spend the next nine months giving speeches, and limit interviews. If I worked for Mr. Kerry I’d say give a lot of interviews, be out there all the time, and don’t try to wrap your points up in a coherent philosophy, which is something a good speech demands. Anyway, that’s how I see it. Am I wrong? By the way, I’ve never been able to stick to a talking point in a TV interview in my life.