TV Speech Gets Average Marks
Bush scores limited success in a `rite of passage' for modern presidents, observers say. WAR ON DRUGS
WASHINGTON — AFTER waiting longer than any president in decades, George Bush underwent a rite of passage. ``He's had his prime time, nationally televised bar mitzvah,'' says Michael Robinson, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.
His first televised address to the nation Tuesday night was a limited success, say experts assessing the consistency and persuasive force of his message.
The president certainly did himself no harm, probably firmed up some of his own public support, and may have even helped add a bit more resolve to the effort to stem drug abuse.
On the other hand, Mr. Bush brings the war metaphor to the antidrug effort without having managed the full mobilization that the term conveys.
The Democratic response to the speech, by Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, called for much more money than Bush's plan provided and chided the president for putting budget concerns ahead of the necessities of the battle.
``If he really did the war thing right,'' says Jeffrey Tulis of the University of Texas, who studies presidential rhetoric, ``it's only with great trepidation that a Democrat would get on television afterward and take him on.''
``If it were an invasion of Hawaii or something, you wouldn't have the Democrats carping and second-guessing the president,'' he says.
War is a heavily overused metaphor for presidents, notes Theodore Otto Windt Jr. of the University of Pittsburgh and recently co-editor of ``Essays in Presidential Rhetoric.'' This is, in fact, the third or fourth ``war on drugs'' in modern times.
The war analogy sets up high expectations, Dr. Windt says. War demands strong government action that spares no expense. Bush, meanwhile, had to anticipate in his speech the complaints that he was marshaling too few resources. The $7.9 billion comprehensive plan represents a $2.2 billion increase over the current year spending in fighting drugs.
The expert consensus is that Bush chose well for his first address to the public and performed competently. But he made some unusual choices.
First, at least since Kennedy, modern presidents have addressed the public on television no later than three months into their first terms. Bush waited more than seven months.
Second, his speech was neither a true crisis speech, such as during the Cuban missile crisis or after the Pearl Harbor attack, nor did it address a major election issue.
Yet drugs have risen to the top of national concerns in recent polls, and the subject is both politically safe and suitably important for presidential leadership.
After discussing the speech with two dozen of his students who watched it, says Dr. Robinson, he surmises that the typical viewer ``walked away from his television set saying, give it your best shot, George.''
The speech and Bush's delivery were prosaic in comparison with Reagan addresses. Where Reagan was strong on anecdotes with emotional punch, Bush used statistics heavily and spoke with less nuance and polish.
In an even stronger contrast to Reagan, Bush did not use his speech to posture against Congress.
Instead, he used it in a more traditional way, to set up an umbrella with his drug plan and invite other politicians to step under it, says Samuel Kernell of the University of California, San Diego.
As a political tool, the speech was not aimed with great precision. Bush appealed for support of the drug war to people in general, to South American governments, and especially to Congress.
He did not claim a special presidential role in the slow-boiling crisis and ask people to support him in it, notes Dr. Tulis. Neither, he says, did he launch ``a really articulate partisan attack on anybody the way Reagan did even if he wasn't attacking anybody, on a superficial level.''
If Bush scored with his address, it was on the more general level of showing the public presidential concern and action on the drug problem, says David Zarefsky, dean of communications at Northwestern University.
But Dr. Zarefsky draws limits to Bush's success here, too. Bush began by recounting how overall drug use is falling, indicating that public attitudes have changed toward drugs. He then argued for the public to change its attitude. Since that change already appears, says Zaresky, the demand falls back on government for stronger action.
Bush's aims with the speech may have been much more basic still - to meet the modern expectation that presidents will address the public on television.
``I guess the longer it takes, the more pressure builds in the White House,'' says Dr. Kernell. Bush has met expectations now in ``a low-key, low-risk way - a good dry run for when a real crisis comes along.''
Robinson puts the motive in plainer terms: ``He is trying to allay the doubts of everyone in the White House who wonders if he has the guts to give a prime-time TV appeal.''