Bush Whacking

In these days of instant communications and punditry, an American president's speaking style often counts more than the words themselves. President Bush, barely three months in office, has decided to use self-effacing humor in many speeches, perhaps hoping he can defuse criticism and set a lighter tone by poking fun at himself.

Indeed, it is easy to laugh along with Mr. Bush as well as at his famous malapropisms ("Make the pie higher") and sometimes twisted grammar ("Rarely is the question asked, 'Is our children learning?' ").

But playing off people's low perceptions of him as a speaker is no substitute for being a president who can lead by words. Bush needs plain, incisive, and decisive speaking - something he's quite capable of.

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His recent speech to the radio and television correspondents was almost entirely self-effacing jabs. He'll need to weigh such humor against the backdrop of a disturbing (and growing) trend in the mass media to demean the office of the presidency, often with vulgar humor.

Parodying himself can be risky business for Bush. His foibles are already central to a new TV program on Comedy Central called "That's My Bush" (the first episode featured an aborted fetus as one character). Making sport of a president - as Bill Clinton knows well - can often take a turn for the worse. Bush runs the risk of unwittingly following a standard, instead of setting one.

Moreover, using both self-deferential and self-referential comments can lead to a setting of lower expectations for Bush. Instead of the usual hour-long press conference in the formal East Room of the White House, Bush has taken to quick-notice, half-hour press conferences in the informal press room. How wise is this move?

Presidential press conferences have become a necessity of the modern presidency. We'd like to see Bush spend more time, not less, at the podium to develop the kind of meaningful extemporaneous exchanges that bring out nuances in his policies.

If he wants to make better use of his often spontaneous, and funny, sense of humor to poke fun at himself, Bush can do so in informal settings, such as when he recently signed a baseball, saying "You saved the sweet spot for me."

His formal speeches, such as his Inaugural Address and an address to Congress, have been well crafted with the help of speechwriters and well delivered. The nation's bully pulpit deserves the best in content and style.

"Those of us responsible for shaping the dialogue, must always remember that people are watching ...," Bush told the American Society of Newspaper Editors last week. Indeed the people are watching, and this president will serve himself and the people well with diverse ways of good speechmaking, not just one.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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