Critics of President George W. Bush have basked in the indulgent glow of schadenfreude ever since his approval ratings punctured even the reddest of red states. As much as I dislike the man myself, however, an odd panic sets in at the prospect of his ratings dropping even further.
This isn’t about sympathy so much as a selfish concern that my country is afloat without true leadership. And you can’t “hate America,” as the conservative charge goes, if you care. Well, this is my country. And to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you live with the president you’ve got.
The president’s supporters have floundered for ideas that might float this sinking presidency, throwing him mere life preservers when what he really needs is barge freight. The most interesting suggestion thus far comes from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who recommended Bush deliver “fireside chats” Ã la Franklin D. Roosevelt. “I think it would be to Bush’s advantage,” Warner told The Associated Press, noting that our nation was at war when FDR comforted the nation through radio, just as we are “at war” in Iraq today.
Weekly fireside chats from the mouth of President Bush? Shudder.
Aside from his arrogance as a member of Texas’ privileged class, which blinds him to empathy, Bush’s greatest weakness is revealed almost every time he opens his mouth away from his team of speechwriters. Every time he intones the “terrists,” it’s as if he’s casting back to his days as a Yale cheerleader. He might as well shout slogans till hoarse at half time or, as it is now, the midpoint of his second term. Then there’s the tone of his voice which, as Dorothy Parker once said of Katharine Hepburn’s acting, runs “the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
FDR united our nation during wartime and extended a helping hand during the Great Depression with the New Deal and Social Security, government institutions Bush wants dismantled so he can drop three percentage points off the highest federal tax bracket. Where FDR favored “direct, simple, calm language,” Bush leans toward “direct, simple, alarmist rhetoric.”
Perhaps this is a small matter. The political language of our country has been in steep decline ever since the passing of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. Few of us mine the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer or Samuel Johnson for prose diamonds anymore. The best President Clinton could muster was “celebrating the mystery of American renewal.” And, Sen. Warner, take note: Jimmy Carter failed miserably at reviving FDR’s fireside tradition by way of red sweaters on television. Even Democrats groaned.
But Warner’s idea fails most of all because it requires that Bush explain his ideas and positions in a folksy manner, when really his ideas and positions are one heaping plate of duplicity in favor of the rich.
Bush’s speechwriters have thrown him the occasional gem, especially his Nov. 6, 2003, speech in favor of Middle East democracy and his national address shortly after 9/11: “I ask you to live your lives and hug your children.” That same speech was also riddled with ugly simplicity when he said terrorists hated us for our freedoms. But if Bush believed in freedom, he wouldn’t pick on gays, support the Patriot Act, or condone torture.
The best advice for our president would be to watch his mouth and listen to his heart. Anything else on his part is just words, of which we’ve had more than enough. His rhetoric sure is cold, though. Maybe he could use a seat by the fireside.