Hot Air

Why bother listening to a presidential speech?


I don't believe it! Somehow, last week, I completely failed to write an analysis of George W. Bush's speech on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln! Do I have to turn in my pundit badge?

Worse yet: I didn't even watch the speech. I did see a mediocre sketch about it on Saturday Night Live, but that really isn't enough to fake it. I can read the transcript, of course, but that doesn't get across the flavor of the actual event, which I'm informed included some nifty business with a jet.

Looks like I'll have to turn to all the commentary everyone else has written for guidance. Lord knows there's no shortage of that. Endorsing Bush's showmanship, for instance, is this bit of fanzine prose from National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez:

"THE PREZ IS TAKING OFF FROM SAN DIEGO TO THE LINCOLN NOW. The man is wearing a flight suit. This is the ultimate presidential stud moment…"

Other voices, like Andrew Sullivan's, are more critical:

"It's one thing to arrange a beautiful and moving photo-op to commemorate an historic event, as Reagan did so masterfully at Normandy. It's another thing to mark the end of a liberation by addressing the military and the nation at the same time. Boisterous cheers from American troops are great; those amazing people deserve our thanks. But I'm not sure this was the occasion for that. It was an address to the nation at the conclusion of a conflict, one that shouldn't be interrupted by foot-stomping and cheering."

The reliably anti-Bush pundit Paul Krugman, meanwhile, comments that "Nobody [except, of course, widely read New York Times columnists] pointed out that Bush was breaking an important tradition. And nobody seemed bothered that Bush, who appears to have skipped more than a year of the National Guard service that kept him out of Vietnam, is now emphasizing his flying experience….Anyway, it was quite a show."

To summarize: There are those who believe the spectacle was ennobling, and there are those who believe it was enabling. And the content of the speech? Pshaw! Better to write about the setting, the props, even the audience.

I'm being unfair. There are plenty of people who analyzed the contents of this speech, and every other Bush speech, and every other presidential speech before him. I'm not one of them. I was on a radio show not long after Bush gave his first substantial post-9/11 address to the nation. The host asked me what I thought of it. I said he did a decent job, which was true. I got uncomfortable, though, when the talk turned to what we should expect the U.S., on the basis of that speech, to do in response to the attacks. The fact was that Bush was rather vague when it came to the most important specifics, for the good reason that this was no time for tipping his hand.

Who tries to divine our politicians' intentions from their speeches? Foreign leaders do, of course: There are those who argue that North Korea embarked on its present belligerence the moment it heard it was being yanked into the Axis of Evil, the better to stave off an American invasion. Here at home, we know that it was included because (a) a good axis has three members and (b) it wouldn't do to put them all in the Middle East. But such subtleties are wasted on Pyongyang, which has a rather different showbiz tradition.

We Americans also remember that George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on a platform of free trade, limited government, and a "humble" foreign policy. I even know people who voted for him and expected to get all that in return. That's the sort of thing that happens when you start taking political speeches literally.