Bush's first tests using the bully pulpit

As he hawks his tax cut across US, his apparent conviction may overcome creative syntax.

For all the snickering about President Bush's clumsy use of the English language, he might be expected to turn the presidential "bully pulpit" into something, well, decidedly less bully-like.

Yet even as Mr. Bush stumbles through some appearances - and is lampooned on late-night TV and laughed at by grammarians - he may in fact be developing a powerful grip on certain elements of the presidential megaphone.

As he travels the country again this week, hawking his budget plan, historians and other observers say he is projecting a certain strength of conviction - on everything from tax cuts to the need for civility - that's key to success.

Of course, Bush isn't trying to use the full power of the pulpit to push the nation in a bold new direction - like Theodore Roosevelt on conservation or Ronald Reagan on Communism. Yet his consistency and apparent conviction have led to a better start than many expected.

He still has many critical elements of "bullying" to master. His first big test - selling the tax-cut and budget - will help determine how Democrats treat him and, ultimately, how history judges him.

"He does quite a good job of communicating with people," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, "even if he's not a sterling orator in the tradition of Daniel Webster." Furthermore, Dr. Brinkley adds that in an era where "facial gestures and frowns of sincerity and seeming to feel people's pain all count," Bush's apparent authenticity goes a long way.

While the chattering classes mock his slip-ups and tally his "Bushisms," much of the public sees it differently, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "The print press has an English teacher's outlook on all this - a bias toward the printed word, despite the fact that very few of us speak in grammatically correct sentences."

But, she says, "that's not the way the public judges it." They tend to ask, "Is the person expressing deeply held convictions in a way I can understand?" Furthermore, "if someone stumbles sometimes," she says, "it looks like he's not Machiavellian." In all, "Bush goes a long way on the perception that he's genuine and nice."

Grammar isn't everything

History shows presidents don't have to be articulate to be wildly popular. "Eisenhower mangled syntax routinely, but he was an extravagantly successful president," Dr. Jamieson says. "Nobody said his comments about the military-industrial complex didn't count just because he couldn't get a subject and verb to agree."

Unlike Bush, however, Eisenhower was a war hero elected by a landslide.

Indeed, Brinkley sees two things on which to judge presidents like Bush who are in office amid a "crisis of confidence." First: "whether you're being consistently respectful of the office." Second: "whether you're leading the nation in a bold direction or just reading the polls."

So far, Brinkley says, he's showing strength at the first but hasn't tackled the second.

That could come later - for instance, if Bush decides to charge ahead with construction of a national missile-defense system, which faces heavy opposition in many quarters.

Meanwhile, though, Bush is focusing on selling Congress and the public on his tax cut and budget.

It's a task, says key Bush adviser Karen Hughes, that's made much easier because, unlike during the campaign, Bush now holds what she calls "the presidential microphone." During the campaign, she says, "he could say things dozens of times and people would barely hear them because there was more of a tit for tat." But now Bush has a huge stage all to himself.

To put that power to full use, Bush advisers are often placing him in small-group settings, where he feels more comfortable, and they can tightly control access - ensuring all those present are avid supporters.

Democratic lines of attack

That approach - along with his well-received speech last week - so far seems to be working. "The budget speech should raise Democrats' apprehension," says Jamieson.

Indeed, Democrats are hinting they'll have to take Bush on in terms of substance, not style. "It's what he stands for, not how eloquent he is, that matters," says former Gore consultant Sam Popkin.

If Bush continues to improve, that could change how Democrats treat him, says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute here. "Having seen what happens when a president uses the bully pulpit, they know how dangerous it is to be seen as obstructionist," he says, referring to President Clinton's successes over congressional Republicans.

Yet, "If Bush shows ineptitude at using the bully pulpit, they may change their calculus," warns Mr. Ornstein.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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