IT'S been a long campaign of mine, and a lonely one, to turn presidential speeches into what they were intended to be: speeches by presidents, written by presidents and delivered by presidents. I thought the President Bush's State of the Union speech might be a breakthrough for my cause. Word from the White House was that he wrote it himself. I believe it. It sounds like George Bush. And it struck just the right note: He rallied his listeners behind the troops but stopped short of overdoing his emotional appeal.
Shortly thereafter I sat with some reporters who were delivering an impromptu critique on Bush's speech. They felt the substance of the speech was inadequate - that he hadn't dealt sufficiently with his domestic program plans. But more than anything else they found Bush's words and the way he expressed them no better than mediocre.
Funny thing. I heard these reporters talking with a longing in their voices for Ronald Reagan, saying what a ``great communicator'' he was. They forget that when Reagan was president they weren't high on his speeches, either. They gave him an ``A'' for delivery but rapped him hard for being, as they saw it, nothing but an actor, superb at reading the words of speech writers.
No one there was giving Bush credit for being genuine. And no one was saying how refreshing it was that here was a president who was delivering a speech which he actually had written.
I found these reporters' views echoed in Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post critique. He seemed not to know - or believe - that this was Bush's own speech. Faulting ``the White House speech factory,'' he wrote: ``On and on it went, banality following banality in a succession not once interrupted by an original or interesting phrase or idea .... We expect, and deserve, more than mere bromides at what Bush himself called, however unimaginatively, `a defining hour' in American history; but bromides are what we got, and little more.''
It sounds like Yardley wants Bush to get a better speech writer. As for me, I'm gratified that Bush wrote the speech, flawed though it may be as an oration. His failure to lift the address with imagination and vision doesn't surprise me. Bush can't do that. But Yardley does concede: ``To be sure this is scarcely unusual for the State of the Union address, the underlying purpose of which seems to be the presentation of a presidential shopping list to which no one pays any attention once its delivery is completed.''
I think that the use of speech writers in presidential addresses is a corrupting influence. It is dishonest to give presidents credit for words not their own. We later learned that some of Kennedy's ringing utterances were from the pen of Ted Sorensen - and that Johnson's best-remembered words came from Abe Fortas. Remember Eisenhower's warning to beware of the ``military-industrial complex''? That came straight from Malcolm Moos.
To be sure, speeches are not Bush's forte. Former Bush speech writer Richard Brookhiser, in his new book ``The Way of the Wasp,'' writes: ``In the best of circumstances, inept pauses clog Bush's sentences, like double-parked cars.''
Former Nixon speech writer (and now New York Times columnist) William Safire gives this advice to Bush's aides: ``He [Bush] has the sense of history in his head but not on the tip of his tongue. It's your enviable job to help him make weapons out of his words.'' But is it? Isn't the public entitled to hear a presidential speech in the president's words?
The argument is that the president is so busy he hasn't enough time to write speeches. Then the top of speech texts should carry a statement outlining whatever help the president may have had in preparing the address. The speech writers should be cited.
This would probably encourage presidents to get more involved in speech writing. And it might mean the public would have to live with ordinary speaking and oceans of bromides - until another Lincoln or Adlai Stevenson (who, despite his way with words, failed to make it to the White House) comes along. But we'd be living with more honesty in our political world. And I'll take honesty over pretty speech writing any day.