Return to Normalcy
Bush needs to develop stagecraft to match his statecraft.
The Wall Street Journal: December 15, 2000
America now knows who its next president is, and this is cause for joy. But think how hard it was to end the Clinton-Gore era. It may well be that hard for the next president to get out from under its shadow.
One of the biggest things George W. Bush has in his favor is the realization that the facts of his presidency—the famously split Senate, House, country, vote—will be so challenging as to be almost insurmountable. He’ll get a lot of credit for surmounting.
Those of us who expected a solid Bush win, one that would allow him to claim a meaningful mandate, now turn to the fact that the close win yielded only one unarguable mandate: to help clean up voting and registration so that Florida never happens again. The next president will have to lead the movement to raise and regularize standards, and to restore trust in the system on which democracy depends.
There was no mention of that in the Bush victory speech. But Mr. Bush and Al Gore, in their own ways, signaled some of what the future holds.
Mr. Gore’s speech was the better of the two, which was too bad. America needed a great hello more than a good farewell.
Mr. Gore’s compressed and almost elegant address had an obviously dramatic text: I lost and I’m leaving. It had a lively subtext too: I’ll be seeing y’all again.
He’s going home “to mend some fences.” He regrets he “didn’t get a chance to stay and fight for the American people over the next four years.” He says, “It is time for me to go.” This is how political figures talk not when they’re dead but when they’re very much alive but want you to find them poignant for a while.
It is an odd thing that American political figures often give the best speeches of their lives when they lose. It’s as if defeat jars them enough to let the eloquence out. This was true of Richard Nixon in his famous free-verse goodbye—”My mother was a saint/ And I think of her. . . .” It was true when Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, and when Ted Kennedy lost to Mr. Carter—”The cause endures, the dream will never die.” And it was true, on Wednesday, of Mr. Gore.
As he said his father used to tell him, and let’s not check this story out, “Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.” He also looked younger, refreshed, as if he’d been washed clean of anger. Mr. Gore will be watching and Mr. Gore will be back, and when he returns he’ll be a better candidate than the man who just lost.
Mr. Bush’s speech, on the other hand, was not deeply impressive. Having decided to follow Mr. Gore and not let him have the evening, he spoke late and without energy. He was surrounded by tired people acting out joy.
But there were hints of what we can expect. His remarks had a saving and salutary dullness, like a political address from the old days, formulaic and clunky.
Mr. Bush as president is probably going to be more interesting than his pronouncements. He spoke of compassionate conservatism, making clear that that philosophy will not suffer the fate of Bill Clinton’s “new covenant,” on which Mr. Clinton campaigned throughout 1992, and which was never heard of again from the moment he made it to the White House.
“I believe things happen for a reason,” Mr. Bush said, and this seemed particularly genuine. He believes there is a God who is an actor in history, who touches and changes lives. He has been thinking about what the past five weeks have meant. He has probably been wondering if the contested election was a chastening, a warning about unbridled confidence. He had been too secure; he has been brought up sharp now, and humbled.
A supporter of his told me, “This is the best thing that ever happened to him,” and he is not alone in that observation. A reporter who covers him with sharp eyes told me that Mr. Bush and his aides reminded him of John Kennedy and his, and that the election drama may have kept a Bush Bay of Pigs from ever happening.
Ultimately, the address did not seem quite equal to the moment. Mr. Bush did not speak as much and as seriously about the five weeks as he might have, about the meaning of the wait and the meaning of its end. He spoke not to the American people but to the people in the room.
There was a feeling of fatigue in the room, which was understandable, and the crowd applauded as if they’d been told not to get too excited. They didn’t.
If it had been a Clinton crowd, they would have been exhorted to show wild support. The lighting and music would have been dramatic. He would have stood with one arm around Hillary and one around Chelsea, all of them looking up. He would have glistened like young Kennedy. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, didn’t know if he should kiss his wife when the speech was over—Ick, I’ll look like Clinton—and would look at her quickly and look away.
He seems to enjoy his awkwardness and to be proud of his modesty, as if he thinks they show that he’s not handled by handlers, not a born political manipulator. He’s not. But after eight years of Clintonism it is not clear that that will be an unalloyed benefit.
Mr. Bush’s speech said more than hello to the American people. It said a big goodbye too. Not to the Clinton-Gore era, but to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, to the producing by Hollywood of an American presidency. There will be no bridge-too-far moments, like Mr. Clinton’s marching through the bowels of a convention center as manly music blares. But there may be a lot of bridge-not-far-enough moments. We may be entering the new awkwardness.
Republicans used to be better at producing the presidency than Democrats, but mostly it came down to Ronald Reagan and bright balloons, to Reagan being Reagan. He used stagecraft to underscore his points. The Democrats, the party of Walter Mondale, were no match. But in the Clinton era they became the party of a sleek Hollywood-produced presidency, with the stagecraft itself as the point. Mr. Gore would have continued this. Mr. Bush seems uninterested in it.
For eight years, the American people have had an actor/rock star in the White House. He brought his own narrative with him; he brought stories and filled the White House with them, and soon the airwaves were thick with them. Was the first lady subpoenaed? The movie star slept in the Lincoln bedroom? What did he tell the grand jury—and will it be on TV? The woman said Mr. Clinton did what? The guy died in a park? Did you hear she said her cat was threatened?
Mr. Clinton brought his own long-running drama to the national stage, and we all watched it unfold each day, grabbing our hankies and roaring with laughter and throwing tomatoes. It was drama, utterly confounding and often riveting, sick but nonetheless seductive. Eight years of that. A lot of people are hooked on it.
Can we go cold turkey from drama boy to boring boy? From a strange and fascinating bad man to a normal and fairly predictable good one? Can the American people return to normalcy? That of course was the phrase Warren Harding’s men used to describe his coming to the presidency on the heels of the dramatic Woodrow Wilson. “Will he get us into war?” “They sank our ship!” “Will he live?” “Is Mrs. Wilson running the country?” Stay tuned!)
Maybe Mr. Bush should begin to think in terms of his own narrative. Maybe the real question is whether he and his people will write it, or whether it will be imposed on him by the media.
One thing is sure. The media abhor a vacuum. If they find one, they’ll fill it. Which suggests the Republicans, who have despised the sleek savvy of the Clinton years, may have to emulate it to some degree. Mr. Bush has not only got the White House. He’s got a great, grand stage. Mr. Clinton strutted there. Mr. Gore would have too. And Mr. Bush? Will he develop a sharper stagecraft to go with his statecraft? Now that he’s on stage—a large, grand stage—he needs a greater narrative, and a bolder sense of drama.
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