Bush burnishes communication skills

This week, a record number of summer-school students are returning to their school-year classrooms, and many have made use of the summer to try to improve on their weak areas.

Count George W. Bush among them.

For the month of August, Mr. Bush was honing his communication skills, and trying to shake the early media label of him as a tongue-twisted Texan.

Using the American heartland as a kind of language lab, he delivered his first televised presidential address to the nation, and experimented with small and informal settings where he's more at ease. In a rare moment of rhetorical freedom in Independence, Mo., he dropped his prepared text in favor of an improvisational riff on the budget.

For the most part, it all worked fairly well, say observers. But that was low-risk August, when Americans were contemplating picnics, not presidential policy, and Congress was on vacation. This is September, the high-stakes month when the president is fighting for several major priorities on Capitol Hill.

Longer term, effective articulation could be a key determinant of success for Bush's presidency. In an era of 24/7 news coverage, communication is critical to presidential success, as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan proved by their skillful use of the national-TV stage.

The "central challenge of his presidency now" is to persuade those outside the Republican fold, says David Gergen, adviser to presidents from Richard Nixon to Mr. Clinton.

"Whether he can do that or not, I don't know. He's obviously working on it, and he has a talented staff," Mr. Gergen says. But so far, he's had "difficulty in persuading people beyond his base of his views, his agenda, his vision."

Indeed, the country remains stubbornly divided, with 48 percent of Americans saying they would vote for Al Gore today and 48 percent saying they would vote for Bush, according to an August poll by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup.

Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, says he's noticed the president appears "a little bit" more comfortable with his material. Mr. Fields calls Bush's Aug. 9 stem-cell speech "one of his better efforts."

In that talk, broadcast from the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, Americans got their first real glimpse of the president's decisionmaking on a complex issue, perhaps countering somewhat his image as an intellectual lightweight.

"The American people don't get to see how he arrives at his thoughts very often, and that speech did afford the country that opportunity," says Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, adding that his boss is decisive and not one to "emote on his sleeve" in the manner of former President Clinton.

At his only press conference during his four-week vacation, the president seemed more confident and quick-footed at the Crawford Community Center than back in the White House briefing room.

Leaning over the podium a la Bill Clinton, he had a command of the issues, including the budget, and corrected a reporter who claimed the administration had not included funding for missile defense. He also turned a question about the Connie Chung/Gary Condit interview - watched by 23.6 million Americans - on its head, responding that he was one of the 250 million Americans who didn't watch the interview.

Joanie Frank, who came to hear the president at a kielbasa and potato-salad picnic for Pittsburgh steelworkers, thinks Bush has improved his delivery. "In the beginning, he was really apprehensive. Now he's more used to it," she says. "I think he's genuine."

In those comments, she has summed up precisely the president's rhetorical strength and weakness, according to communication experts.

Yes, Bush seems more in control, though he still drops malapropisms. And he connects with individuals on a personal, emotional level. But emotional, or what Mr. Fields calls "ethical" arguments, are not the way to win over a nation, or lawmakers, on policy issues.

"When I teach rhetoric, the argument has to grow around logic, because the ethical appeal can mislead," he says. "I don't think [Bush] has progressed in terms of persuading the audience or moving them ahead. He's still saying, 'How can you not trust me? I'm an honest man, I'm a uniter.' "

Meanwhile, Fields and others point out, some of the communications experiments of August won't necessarily help Bush this fall. His main message, American values, was soft, while the issues of the fall - education reform, defense spending, a patients' bill of rights - are far more hard-edged and difficult.

And his summertime audience was friendly, several times consisting of schoolchildren who would throw such softballs as, "Where do you play golf at?" and "What's your most favorite thing?"

What August lacked, says presidential communications expert Martha Kumar, was Oval Office gravitas - exactly what Bush needs this fall. From the fly buzzing around the president during his stem-cell speech to the many sessions with children, "some of that presidential aura has been lost, and that's what they need to focus on now."

Mr. Fleischer, the White House spokesman, begs to differ.

"An address to the nation is an address to the nation is an address to the nation," he says. "To communicate and to find a rhythm, and to establish a connection with viewers, sitting in a chair at any desk in any place is not easy to do."

That's why neither former President Bush nor Clinton did it very often, he says, though former actor Ronald Reagan seemed to enjoy it. "It's too soon to say how often this president will do it." Still, 32 million Americans watched the stem-cell speech (eat your heart out, Gary Condit), and "the president is very pleased," says Fleischer.

No matter what one thinks of a president's rhetorical style, it's best not to try to change it too dramatically, Fields cautions. Bush can be greatly helped by his speechwriters, he adds, but he's already obviously comfortable with his manner as a down-to-earth, plain-speaking outsider who's not interested in a makeover.

"That's a correct read," agrees Fleischer.

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