Why a president must be presidential

Oct 15, 2001  •  Post A Comment

If a critic or a columnist dares to write that George W. Bush lacks communication skills-or that as a television president he comes up far short of predecessors Ronald Reagan (the gold standard) and Bill Clinton, there will be an automatic avalanche of letters assailing the writer’s patriotism.
Indeed, if we are a nation at war, then it could easily be argued that observers who might normally be uninhibited in their criticism of Bush should in the national interest exercise restraint. They have an obligation to, in Archie Bunker’s famous term, “stifle.”
And yet even Bush’s most passionate and partisan defenders surely will concede that he has a most perplexing TV persona. Last Thursday’s prime-time press conference drove that point home again. Is he coming across the way he wants to come across-and if so, why would a president want to come across that way?
Ready for prime time?
Only the hopelessly old-fashioned or naive can maintain that a president’s performances on television are an unimportant part of the job. Even in peacetime we expect a president to be able to comport himself with competence and self-confidence on TV, to rally an audience on behalf of his own agenda, if nothing else.
And in a time of war, it’s even more important that the president be in command when he steps before the cameras, the way FDR was when he stepped-or rather, was positioned-in front of the microphones.
What the American people were dying to hear last week-indeed, desperate to hear-were words of reassurance, and there just weren’t enough of them. As he is commander in chief of the armed forces, a president is also commander in chief of reassurance in times of strife and fear. Which God knows ours are.
But it’s doubtful many people came away from watching the press conference imbued with a new optimism and peace of mind. (If opinion polls show I’m wrong about that, good. I’d be glad to be wrong about that.) False hope is better than no hope, so even if Bush had to stretch the truth a little, it would have been a good idea to come out of the gate exuding confidence, even bravado, and articulating the idea that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
The mixed signals from the administration can be maddening. One minute the FBI is issuing a mysterious blanket alert warning of some sort of imminent terrorist activity (but prescribing no particular course of action for us to follow) and the next, the president is on TV saying things are hunky-dory-but doing it with little apparent conviction. When reporters asked questions designed to elicit statements that would reassure the viewing nation, Bush tended merely to repeat what he had said in his opening statement. And that was insufficient.
What came through on television was not calm confidence on the part of the president so much as nervousness and anxiety on the part of the press corps. They seemed afraid the president would make some kind of mistake. They were pulling for him not to. It’s hard to recall a similar situation as regards the president and the press.
In less perilous times, Bush’s idiosyncratic way with the English language would get much more attention. He did say, did he not, that Americans should “go about their lifes”? But this isn’t a time to kvetch about grammar or syntax.
And besides, Bush can sneak up on you with little unexpected bursts of eloquence that are impressive and disarming-even haunting-as when a reporter asked whether he would soon be calling for “sacrifice” on the part of the American people.
“Well, you know, I think the American people are sacrificing now,” Bush said, mentioning such things as enduring long lines at airports for the sake of security. Then, this:
“I think there’s a certain sacrifice when you lose a piece of your soul.”
He said that almost matter-of-factly, as if unaware of how powerful the sentiment was. Maybe it is a line he has already used in a speech somewhere. But if he said that off the top of his head, it’s quite amazing.
Humor, understatement
There is also a sneaky, and welcome, sense of humor. When asked whether Vice President Dick Cheney had been brought back from his unnamed secure hiding place, Bush said he had met with Cheney just that day in the Oval Office: “I was pleased to see him. He’s looking swell.” There was a sly smile.
Earlier he had slipped in a little parenthetic remark that was a clever use of understatement: “My calendar’s a little crowded.”
However, of all the things you don’t want to hear George W. Bush say, phrases associated with George H.W. Bush have to be near the top of the list. Thus was it distressing to hear him say, “It is important that we stay the course,” in response to one reporter’s question. Oh no-not “stay the course” back from the great beyond! It’s only a short step from there to, “It wouldn’t be prudent, not at this juncture.”
At least George W. Bush conveys, in his TV appearances, a quality that always eluded his father: warmth. Even though he must have said “bring them to justice” and “smoke them out of their caves” about 20 times each last Thursday night, Bush did at times exhibit a just-folks affability that is in itself somehow reassuring. Though he has a tendency to answer questions in a tone of voice that seems plaintive-as if he were fearful he wasn’t being believed-he is able to give the impression of having an inner peace, even if he can’t quite put that into words that would make it contagious.
Get the message out
Bush has to find a way to get his inner peace-if it’s really there-out and to share it with his fellow citizens. Even people who wouldn’t have voted for him in a million years have to be wishing him well now, have to be hoping he proves the doubters wrong and surprises them with a brilliant, masterful presidency. But in the age of television, it’s not enough to mean well. You have to get the message out, get it out to “every Middlesex village and farm,” send it out in absolutely unmistakable terms to all those people who are huddled around their TV sets, yearning to breathe easy.