Memo to George W. Bush

And so it begins. Everything up to now has been winning the nomination and meeting America. Next week the campaign proper starts. Just about every voter in the country will, even if just for a moment, tune in to watch your big speech Thursday night at the convention. It’s been on your mind in a big way for a long time. When I saw you two weeks ago, you said you were in the fourth draft, working with the gifted Gerson and Hughes and Rove. You were happy with the policy elements and what you called the general thrust, but you keep reworking the text so you can hear the sound of you in it.

Not that you think the sound of you is so beautiful, but it’s you. You have a vocabulary, a way of speaking, a way of using humor. It’s your style. And the speech has to be you or it won’t succeed.

What is your sound? Direct, common, colloquial. A modern American man from the West, with a life in business and politics. Flat, not soaring. Almost dry and dusty. Dry and dusty as an old pair of cowboy boots. That’s what you want in the speech, something that’s strong and tough as an ol’ boot, with a little color, a little fancy stitching, but not too much. Sharp slope on the heel, sharp toe to do some kicking.

You’re sure the speech has to be good. You’re right. A bad one will give you a solid month of bad press and bad jokes. But don’t worry too much and overwork it. You know that a great acceptance speech doesn’t bring victory; a great acceptance speech gives meaning to victory. It can even give a mandate. Victory is made of other things; usually in politics you find victory in the day-to-day, not in the big moments. More important is a good campaign. So far yours has been textbook.

And part of the campaign, the kickoff of the contest, is the speech. A great acceptance speech defines what a candidacy is so that the candidate and the voters together have the words that explain what the election is about. The candidate internalizes the speech, explains himself to himself with it. When it works, all his stray thoughts, ideas, policies and proposals come together and hold together like a length of strong rope. Like a lasso you can take hold of and throw out to a crowd.

So that’s what you want, a boot and a lasso.

*   *   *

You want to tell people, “This is who I am. This is what I believe. These are my intentions. This is why you want to come walk with me and be part of this big thing I’m doing.” And you have to do all that in about 45 minutes. Which is hard, especially when you remember that about 15 of those minutes are sheer, spontaneous, happy applause. With, in your case, a lot of whomp-em, stomp-em from the Texas delegation.

You want to flesh out compassionate conservatism, because it’s at the heart of what and who you are. In a way, compassionate conservatism is a matter of facing the unfinished business of the 1980s. Back then, President Reagan and your father had a lot to do, pushing down the Berlin Wall, and many other walls. In the ‘80s the modern economy was invented, taxes and regulation came tumbling down, money was freed up, geniuses like Jobs and Gates and ten thousand others built the new America.

We are living in the economy the men of the ‘80s made. It is one of the great lies of the Clinton era that he did it. And you might, in speaking of this, use it as a refrain: “Bill Clinton didn’t do this—you did it.” Bill Clinton, one wag has observed, was the car salesman on the floor when the billionaire came in and bought a fleet of Caddies. He didn’t make the car; he didn’t make the money that bought the car. He wrote up the order and went out to dinner.

But with new wealth, and with what we’ve learned about what helps the poor, and with the accumulated wisdom of 50 years of trying hard to bring everyone along—with all that and in all that, compassionate conservatism was born. It’s a good thing. It’s what in the Reagan White House we used to call being a bleeding-heart conservative.

Talk about this. You have a refrain you use: “It’s compassionate to want to help the poorest children get a good education—but it’s conservative to demand standards and embrace choice and competition.” Use that. Every time you use it on the stump, people listen.

There’s a phrase you’ve been using for a long time: “every willing heart.” You want to help create a society in which no one is left behind, in which every willing heart gets the lift it needs. Use that too. It’s you.

You have another refrain. I saw it at a speech in New York. “I’m runnin’ for a reason.” You talk about something you want done, and then you say, ‘I’m runnin’ for a reason,” and the audience starts to clap. It made me think that maybe you’re influenced, in your speaking, by local ministers in Texas churches. And again, it was natural to you.

*   *   *

You’ll want to demonstrate somehow that you’re a Texan born and bred. I asked you the first time I talked to you what accounted for the difference between your political perceptions and your father’s. And you said: “Midland, Texas.”

Your dad as a boy went to Greenwich Country Day in a chauffeur-driven limousine at the height of the Depression. At the same age you lived in a little suburban ranch house and played in the street in your undershirt and jeans. You drove your bike through vacant lots. You didn’t even know your parents had money and standing until you were a teenager, because they didn’t live like they did.

When your father got out of the East and away from his family, from the mother of tennis lessons and father of the three-piece suit, when he went to war, he mixed with poor guys and normal guys and wealthy guys, and he loved it. And he became a guy who gets up Sunday morning and walks around in his boxers and makes scrambled eggs for the kids. He became normal. You grew up normal. You breathed in Texas with hungry lungs and became a Texan, because Texas is the kind of place that has a soul to give, and that lets you become it.

You were spiky where the old man was smooth. You learned to lean back on a chair with cowboy boots tilted. You grew up in a Texas where boys wanted to be Hud, or James Dean and Rock Hudson in “Giant.” That great old movie, the official movie of Texas if you don’t count “The Last Picture Show,” ends with a beautiful, sentimental little close-up: two little babies in a crib, cousins, the Anglo baby and the Mexican baby.

Just like your family. So you’ve had a different experience and a very American experience. If somehow you could summon or evoke or refer to that. Well, Edna Ferber needed a whole novel, and you just have 45 minutes. But maybe some time in the future.

Anyway, about dad. And conservatism. It would be wonderful if you could define what a modern conservative is. I asked you when I talked to you that time why you are more conservative than your father, and you looked surprised. You felt you weren’t like some old-time conservatives, that you feel strong compassion for people and look to help them solve problems with conservative solutions. You see yourself as a moderate, and your father as a moderate, but you don’t think you’re moderate in the same way.

The old man was moderate in that he thought conservatives had certain insights and liberals did too, and you make your choices weighing the balance and considering the lay of the land, the play of the press, the state of the polls, and your gut sense of what you can do. The old man bowed to a lot of liberal assumptions.

But you don’t. You’re another generation, and a Texan. You don’t think the left has the moral high ground, you don’t bow to their professed intentions, because you’re not sure they’re their real intentions. You suspect that mere power is the thing they want. You might want to talk about some of this.

And you might think about this: You seem to have a particular Bush virtue, a familial virtue that the old man has in spades. It is a softness born of love. Love is what it’s all about with the Bushes, a huge affection that operates below the shrewdness, sourness and spite of big-league politics, below the father-son competitiveness and the brotherly competition. You all have soft hearts. It makes you all soft in a way that sometimes serves you well and sometimes doesn’t. America’s going to love you eventually because you’ve got a soft heart; but you better show in time that you’re tough too, even hard, because presidents sometimes have to be hard.

You probably don’t want to dwell on Clinton. You get what he is, and you don’t like it much, and it’s shrewd to ignore him. Your candidacy isn’t about opposing Clinton; it’s about governing the country in a better, healthier, principled way. You probably don’t want to talk about Gore either.

But consider whether you’d be doing the country a service if you would take one sharp hard paragraph and define what Clintonism—and by inference what Goreism—is and has been for our country. This might be cleansing, and bracing. It also might have long-term benefits. Some of the chickens Clinton-Gore let out of the yard will roost in your White House. It might be good now to lay the predicate of what he did and didn’t do. And it’s not as if people won’t believe you. They know who he is. Anger and conviction could make you too sharp, or too sarcastic, when you speak of this. Avoid that. Speak of it as what it is, and was: a tragedy for our country, a tragedy whose last echoes are yet unheard.

*   *   *

One way to make your views and intentions clear is obvious to you, and I’ll be listening to hear it. When you are the governor of a state you lead that state. You’re not one voice of many in a Senate; you’re the man who makes the decisions in the statehouse. Make the right decisions and the state can flourish; make the wrong ones and it can’t. People judge on the record. Tell us your record. Tell us what you did or tried to do in Texas, and what you mean to do for the country.

But back to the most important thing, something I mentioned earlier. Nothing works long-term in politics but love. Of course, you can win quick victories, even a series of them, through demagoguery, jabbing, fighting, even hating. But all enduring victories, all administrations with meaning, have love at the heart of them. Ronald Reagan loved America; that’s why he felt so protective of it, wanted it to be strong and rich. Your old man loved America. And the Bushes have the love thing. That time in New Hampshire when your father came out to help you, and hurt you instead—”this son of mine, this boy”—the whole event collapsed because you were supposed to make a speech but seeing and hearing your father made your eyes fill up and you couldn’t speak. And you never told why it didn’t work afterward, because you didn’t want to hurt the old man—who, like Joe Kennedy, wants to be part of this.

Look at your father’s book of letters. The whole subtext—family, country, children—is all about love.

You Bushes, under the Brooks Brothers, you’re all wearing it on your sleeve. And you, since you became a Christian, for you love is bigger now and deeper.

Honest love is a beautiful thing. Let it infuse your speech. As a matter of fact, Dwight Eisenhower, as I recall, once ended one of his big speeches with that very word: “love.” Reagan did once too. That’s a little tradition worth continuing. Just your little one-word nod to the family you came from and the nation you wish to lead.