- MEMO TO: The President
RE: Your acceptance speech
Mr. President, remember the scene in that movie you liked, “Moonstruck,” in which Cher slugs the very fine and decent but also dispirited Nicolas Cage and says, “Snap out of it!”? That is our text for today.
You are George Herbert Walker Bush and you have been serving your country and keeping high its ideals since the day you were born. You went out to defend it with your life when you were an 18-year-old boy. You chucked security, got in the car, dug the oil, created a business, gave people jobs, got an ulcer worrying about the payroll, met it every week, kept trucking, went to Congress, went to China, protected the CIA in its toughest days, served a great man named Reagan with quiet, dogged loyalty, became a landslide president of the United States, went to victorious war against a nut with nukes, helped transform the Soviet Union—and kept, all this time, all these years, the honest, yearning love of your children and your wife.
You have lived a life. And now this—this Elvis impersonator, this boomer on a bus, this guy who calls his climb up the greasy pole “answering the call of public service,” as if he were sacrificing ambition for good works, as if politics were a nunnery and not a whore. Well.
And his friends, the newspaper poets! Back there tap-tap-tapping in the back of the plane, and every time they see Clinton their eyes shine because what they’re really seeing is . . . The house in McLean and the phone call in the night, the journal entry: “The president called again tonight, I knew why he was up, alone. Sarajevo. Again.”
Buttheads with laptops! Going for the Bradlee Cup! That’s what you think of them in your less charitable moods. Well, stay less charitable for a minute.
Mr. President, Clinton says you’re washed up. He says you’re through, you’re yesterday, and a new generation tempered by zip and disciplined by zero is going to run the country. And he will—right into the ground! You going to let him? Or are you going to teach him a little lesson in respect?
(Phew. It’s not easy doing a Roger Ailes impersonation.)
Four years ago today you were working on what we all thought was the most important speech of your career. We were wrong. This is. It’s also the most challenging. A lot has changed in the last four years. Last time you were up against a man caught somewhere between inept and inert. This time you’re up against a savvy young pol.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans think that you’re in trouble because of the economy. But it’s more. People are angry about the costs and demands of government, angry that no one has the courage to cut spending. They are uneasy about our culture, about its increasing coarseness, vulgarity, violence. If people had seen the past three years that you were led by discernible principle, if they had been able to see that you were thinking long term, long range, they’d have stuck with you from boom to bust. But they didn’t, so they haven’t.
A hunch: You know what a lot of voters feel, deep in their hearts, with a certitude that finds no expression in focus groups? They think this election is a white-guy fistfight over power. That’s all. Two groups of guys in suits who want power. Stephanopoulos does, Teeter does, Carville does, Rich Bond. Bush, Clinton. People hate it. It makes them think that you’re none of you serious.
The Democrats ceded seriousness to sentiment at their convention. But seriousness is your salvation. It means that if you win, you win with meaning, if you lose, you lose with class. The first gives you a mandate, the second adds heft to your historical reputation. Here are some ideas:
Put the contest in context: The ‘92 campaign is a fight, on the one hand, between a solid Republican Party that has in your lifetime done an amazing thing: it has changed history for the better; it is the party that helped change an evil empire into a benign cluster of democracies; that unleashed a historic economic boom, and that spoke, again, for our country and the world, of the rightness of freedom.
On the other side, an evolving Democratic Party that has not evolved enough to lead. Their policies are new ideas wrapped in old entanglements, with the obvious left—The Groups, The Unions—quiet now, but poised to move in a Clinton administration. Nothing will change the Democrats but more history; their evolution is incomplete.
You think this. But you’ll say it better.
Your biggest problem? ‘Read my mind’: Four years ago you said: The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again. And I’ll say to them: Read my lips. No new taxes.
Once FDR made a campaign pledge in a speech in Philadelphia. Later he broke it. When his image handlers wondered what to do he merrily instructed them to deny he was in Philadelphia. My advice: Don’t deny you were in New Orleans, tell people why you did what you did.
You said you’d fight the congressional Democrats’ desire to raise taxes by pushing back and refusing. Instead you compromised, trading taxes for spending controls.
Everyone has his reasons, and you had yours. But you never told them to the people. All they saw was a guy jogging by the cameras, saying, “Read my hips.” Your worst public moment as president.
Explain it. You knew you had to get the deficit under control, and the deficit is a spending problem. You felt facing the Democrats off to a standstill would get you nowhere, produce nothing but a daily argument, like a bad marriage. “[The people] did not send us here to bicker,” you said in your Inaugural, and you meant it.
So you held back from a war with Congress that had to be fought. You put your personal credibility on the line, you broke your word—but only in hopes it would break Congress’s habits. It didn’t. They’re still spending, the deficit is growing, but you learned something: never again. (This, as Kissinger used to say, had the added benefit of being true. You will never do it again.)
A mistake stays a scandal until you explain it. And this is a mistake to be turned to your advantage. It was the Democrats, Bill Clinton’s party, who insisted on the tax raise. Now they condemn you for giving them what they begged for. What will Clinton do when a Democratic Congress tells him to raise taxes even more than he intends?
Say what you did right: There’s plenty. But this year the Republicans have had trouble going positive—about themselves. One reason: good news that is old news is not news. How do you make it interesting that Republicans arrested inflation when inflation hasn’t mugged anyone lately? One way is to be terse, true—and funny. Give people something they can get a smile or a laugh with when they quote it to the neighbors. People want to fight on your side—a good line is ammunition.
They’re ba-a-ck: “Clinton says he’ll take back America and he will—to the Carter years.” That’s how Jim Pinkerton speaks of the Democratic ticket. Pinkerton, Mary Matalin, all the young, smart ones on your staff: they say to remind people the Democrats aren’t the answer, they’re the problem. You said it yourself: they’re not the fireman, they’re the arsonist. Drive it home.
War talk: In private you speak of Desert Storm with humility and quiet pride. On the stump your references take on a kind of agitated boastfulness.
Your normal approach to things is low key, modest, often wry. But your advisers tell you to show how you “feel” when you make a speech, so you “act” how you feel, and sometimes it doesn’t work because—you’re not an actor. (As a former adviser I feel free to say: Kill the advisers.)
You could use the war to make two points. (1) Tell about building the coalition against Saddam Hussein. You gathered together the civilized world. It was masterful. Underscore the fact that Clinton has nothing like your quarter-century experience in foreign affairs. (2) The war was fought with minimum loss of life because of state-of-the-art hardware that was only developed because Republicans led the nation the past 12 years. (Imagine people who two years ago had VISUALIZE PEACE on their bumper stickers in charge of the Pentagon budget!)
My only lobbying: Mr. President, we need a defense to protect our continent from a madman with a well-aimed missile. A week ago the Democratic Senate voted all of SDI down. You care about it. Fight for it in this speech.
The Democrats, the media, hate it. Do you know what regular people on the street know that the elites don’t? It is not possible for so many men to have so many unclear arms and no one will ever use one. It’s going to save lives someday.
No more tears: Some will say, show your heart. They’ll mean: Be personal and autobiographical and talk about the pain in this thing called life. You’ll refuse. On behalf of the American people, thank you.
When Al Gore was talking about his son at the Democratic convention I saw a television producer watching with tears in his eyes. At the end she turned to me and said, “That was so manipulative.” I said, “You were moved.” She shrugged. “I’m a mother, I got a cheap cry.” Everyone’s on to everything. Cheap tears win no votes.
Watch out: Democrats keep saying it will be a mean campaign and here’s a reason why: they still think they lost ’88 because of Willie Horton, and they still don’t understand that voters viewed Dukakis’s actions (refusing to meet with Horton’s victims, etc.) as . . . liberal arrogance.
The Democrats think it was all an ugly racist trick. The good news: this means they’re still confused about why people vote against them. The bad news: people who think you’ve been evil to them usually do evil in return.
And don’t forget the merry pranksters in the press. They are so hungry for ugly, in my view, that the smallest thing you do will be turned into a big thing. And they’ll goad you into the small thing. You’ll be walking through the plane to say hello to reporters and someone will ask, “How did you like the dress Mrs. Clinton wore on ‘Arsenio’ last night?” And you, wanting to be diplomatic but also not wanting to look like a weenie who’s afraid to have fun, will say, “Oh, the dress, well, not my favorite color, but . . .” That’s all they’ll need. He’s even attacking her clothing!
Mr. President, if a prankster baits you, wag your finger and give ‘em a little Ward Cleaver. “Now Beaver, it’s good to try and make life fun, but it isn’t nice to start trouble. Wally, I’d like you to talk to your brother about taking democracy seriously.”
The importance of belief: Some of your staff used to walk around calling the Reagan years “the pre-Bush era.” There are many names for such people; “historical idiot” is one. You know and feel that Ronald Reagan was, is, a great man. When your delegates hear his voice Monday night they will erupt in joy. They will shake their heads and say, “I miss his voice.” They’ll mean: I miss belief.
You have a chance to tell people, again, what you believe, what you intend, how you will achieve it. If you meet the challenge, voters will give you a second look.
People like to forgive. When a friend says, “I’m sorry if I let you down. But I know what went wrong and it won’t happen again and I’m asking for another chance,” you’d have to be ungenerous to turn the guy down. And you will be talking to the most generous people on earth.