When you are a conservative and tend to support conservatives, it will come as a surprise, and an unwelcome one, when you ding one, as I dinged President Bush the other day about his “Meet the Press” performance. Of those who responded, about 60% disagreed with me, and the rest were more or less in agreement. Many of those who disagreed with me said they thought the president had done well with Tim Russert, that the interview made clear his decency and sincerity. Others said I was kicking the president when he’s down and that’s the problem with conservative pundits, they can’t be trusted. My answer is the obvious one: It is the job of a writer to write the truth as he sees it, and if it’s an uncomfortable truth, then so be it.
But here’s what was most interesting to me. The letters in disagreement were often passionate and insisted that Mr. Bush will be re-elected. They were so insistent that I realized: They’re nervous out there, the Bush people. If they weren’t so nervous, they wouldn’t have cared about bad reviews. They wouldn’t have been so insistent.
So today, in an attempt to harness and refocus the passion of Bush supporters, a contest. Let’s go all Deanian and unleash the power of the internet.
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It is February 2004. In nine months, the big election. The White House, even as I type, is in the process of preparing a huge and high-stakes campaign. They have a foe to fight, money with which to fight the foe, and loyal troops who will march.
When the president’s men gather to come up with the themes and rhetorical approaches of 2004, there’s a big question that more often goes unarticulated, and unnoticed. It is: How to make it new.
Mr. Bush has been president three years. He has presided over a time of dense history. Most of the voters in the country have been paying more attention than usual. We know what’s happened.
The Bush people have to roll it all into, say, one speech, which can be distilled to one paragraph, which people will distill to a sentence or two to explain to themselves and others why they support the president for re-election.
Just about now they’d be coming up with the paragraph.
But as they do it they have to make it new. To make you look and notice they have to make it fresh, and succinct, something you believe and remember. And it’s got to be true. When the paragraph a president’s men come up with is not true, they lose. Jimmy Carter’s paragraph in 1980 was: We’re not so bad, and at least you know us, and Jimmy is a nice man, and by the way that Reagan guy is just too extreme and radical and right-wingy and nutty. People didn’t find Ronald Reagan too extreme. And he wasn’t too extreme. He seemed like a possible antidote to failure—Jimmy Carter’s failure in the world. The paragraph wasn’t true. Mr. Carter lost in a landslide.
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Is it easy for a White House to come up with paragraph? No. It’s hard. There’s so much to say, you don’t know what to say.
After a while, presidential staffers become so immersed in the sheer grinding dailyness of the White House that it’s hard to step out of the thought stream and characterize it in a new way. Years from now they’ll do that in their memoirs, capture the big meanings. But it’s hard to do it now, when they’re immersed.
Another thing. By the end of a first term, White House staffers have been exhausted by history. Every White House is high stress and high stakes 24/7, 365. You get so tired that your ability to judge your fatigue becomes dull, and you don’t even know how tired you are. This White House has dealt with more history and drama than many. When I worked in the White House I used to imagine that when I left I’d do what the Broadway producer Leland Hayward used to do after an opening night. He was so sleep-deprived by the time a show was mounted that he’d go to bed and wake up only to drink milk. He’d sleep 10 hours, get up, drink milk, and go back to bed for another 10 hours. He’d do that for days.
In the past, in the White Houses of Kennedy and LBJ and Nixon, it was tense and grueling, and staffers in those days often dealt with the dailyness of the tension by doing the kinds of things people used to do. They smoked and drank and stayed up late and had intense discussions about the tragedy of governance, and then they’d write it all down in drunken sprawls in their diaries. They partied hearty and thought hard. That stopped in the 1980s. The last sort of rocking White House was that of the abstemious Baptist Mr. Carter, whose young aides flocked to the bars of Georgetown. That’s how Hamilton Jordan got in trouble for spitting Amaretto at the Egyptian ambassador’s wife. Those were the days.
Now things are so clean that the other night I bumped into an aide to the president and asked with concern if the grueling routine was getting to him, and was he trying to get away from the office enough and go for a hike and get time away from things, room to daydream. He thought for a moment and then told me that on those days that he did not begin with prayer, he became tired. But otherwise, no. He told me the president was in the office at 6:45 a.m. and usually leaves at 6 p.m., so everyone got to go home. I found this remarkable. Not that I hadn’t heard it before, I had, we all have, but I thought it was spin. I didn’t know it was really true. When I worked for Mr. Reagan I was there till 11 p.m. Anyway, what the aide said seemed so sane and moderate I didn’t know whether I wanted to compliment him or smack him. He was rather priggish, but it sounded like he was doing everything right.
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A final note on a challenge for this particular administration in putting together the re-election paragraph and making it new. Normally White Houses have a built-in fear of their own political base. It’s the base that holds a president’s feet to the fire. The anxiety a base causes can be inspirational; it keeps you on your toes. George Bush the elder forgot to fear his base; they reminded him why he should have. George Bush the younger has, since 9/11, been very close with his base. But now, for the first time, that base is a little restless—over immigration, high spending, etc. And the vast American middle has yet to be nailed down. Which means the Bush White House is in a challenging time. They are not used to this kind of challenge. They’ve been through, every day, a bad time from the world, from terror and diplomatic stress. But they have been on a pretty unbroken winning streak in terms of popularity.
They don’t know how to be scared. They probably can’t wrap their brains around the idea they should be. Or rather in the abstract they know they should be—they read the papers—but in the particular, in their minds and souls, I doubt they have fully wrapped their brains around it. Which is too bad, because fear makes you sharp.
Now for our challenge. What should the Bush paragraph consist of? How to make it new? How to make it memorable, and true? Readers, you are invited to wrap up in one paragraph what the Bush campaign should say as it unveils itself anew. The White House reads this site. They’ll see it. Take the floor and tell them how to do it.