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david frum

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David Frum is a former speechwriter for President Bush and author of The Right Man, a memoir of his White House experience. In this interview, he describes the pre-9/11 successes and setbacks of the Bush administration, the president's personality and guiding principles, and what it was like being in the White House on Sept. 11, 2001. He also explains the White House speechwriting process and why the president is prone to verbal stumbles. "…A lot … came when he would have a thought, often a kind of emotional thought. As he would begin to say it, he would think better of it, and he was not quick enough to turn off a phrase that his mind had recognized as ill-judged." This interview was conducted on July 7, 2004.

He's got a kind of perseverance, a tenacity.  à’There is a kind of personal stubbornness  that makes him take hold of something and not let it go.

In your book you describe events pre-9/11, and you say that there was serious doubt daily as to whether or not George W. Bush was the right man.

George Bush began his presidency with both personal and party problems. He'd had a very narrow win. He came into office with a very weak mandate. He had a very ambitious program, but he didn't have the political clout to get the program executed, and that became clear very rapidly.

Then there was this question mark over his head. He was not someone who was well-known when he came into office. He'd been a two-term governor of Texas. The country had a feeling maybe about his personality, but he didn't have much of a record. So he was a gamble for the country. He was an unknown quantity to the country; in some ways, you might even think to his staff, and maybe even to himself.

What was your own take on him?

I had not been a huge supporter of George Bush's during the campaign. I came from a more conservative end of the party. I wasn't sure what this "compassionate conservatism" slogan meant, but I suspected it meant a backing away from some of the convictions of the Reagan years.

I had the same questions that everybody else did, about whether he had the personal aptitude for the job. In those early months, I was often very discouraged, because he had this big program, and it just wasn't going places.

When and how was that evident?

It's evident that George Bush came to office intending to do a few big things. First was his great tax cut. Second was a major educational reform with a lot of very clear principles in it. Then, looming in the background, were the reforms of Social Security and Medicare that everyone agreed were necessary. He had a very bold commitment to individual accounts and saving the program by allowing people to save more in their own name. The tax cut went through Congress, but pushing it through Congress destroyed the Republican majority in the Senate.

 

After that, things bogged down. The education bill emerged, but it didn't bear a very close resemblance to the bill that President Bush had originally proposed. It was much more a typical, traditional, a lot of money, not a lot of requirements program. It also became clear that the goals of reforming Social Security and Medicare were becoming vanishingly difficult.

So what was the mood in the White House?

Let me say this. All presidents inspire a certain amount of devotion from their followers. But George Bush seemed to do an unusually good job of winning the emotional support of his staff and the people around him. So the mood was always very devoted to him, and very protective of him.

But I think, especially in that summer of 2001, if you were a sensitive observer, you had to feel a lot of momentum going on in the Bush administration, and going out very early.

You had the terrible disappointment of the visit of Vicente Fox in the very beginning of September 2001. One of the things George Bush was going to do was that he would come up with a deal whereby Mexico would get some of what it wanted on regularizing Mexicans who were illegally present in the United States, [and] Americans would get better access to the Mexican market. You'd have a stronger future between the two countries more closely integrated along the model of the United States and Canada. And that just fell apart.

So I think if you were to look at the Bush administration on Labor Day, 2001, you'd say it's not quite clear how they're going to fill the time over the next three years.

You remember your first trip to the Oval Office?

I do. It's an awe-inspiring place, and deliberately an awe-inspiring place. It's as cold as a meat locker. I don't know whether that's always true, but it was always true under President Bush. I suppose it makes sense, because otherwise the nervous people who come to see the president would all have tiny beads of sweat on their forehead. ...

He was a very commanding presence. That was the first big surprise when you meet him, was how in command he was. It was a surprise to me, anyway -- not to the people who knew him better -- that he left no illusions that there was anybody but him making the big decisions.

The popular wisdom is that he's a really nice guy, really engaging personality, but not necessarily a heavyweight when it comes to content in policy.

Right. Well, Bush is not a sweetie in the way that Ronald Reagan was. I mean, he is a very tough and often quite acerbic person. He has a temper. I think that the part of his personality that is least understood is the strength of it. As to--

Could you say more about his personality in terms of being acerbic?

He was tart, not sweet. He's quick to anger. He is very skeptical of people. You can see when people talk to him and they say nice things to him, as they do to anyone who's president, that you can see how unimpressed by that he is. In fact, you could often see as someone would compliment him, that that person's stature in the president's eyes [was] dropping moment by moment by moment with every additional helping of whipped cream he tried to serve the president. He didn't seem to be someone who had a lot of illusions about human nature or a very high opinion of it.

He was not a gentle taskmaster. People made mistakes. He got angry about it. As to whether or not he's got a lot of policy expertise, no president ever really has very much policy expertise compared to the people who actually have the policy expertise. It's kind of a sucker's game as president, to try to keep up with the experts, because presidents have to be experts on so many different things.

One of the things that I think that he was doing there was, presidents have to conserve their resources -- their energy, their memory. These are not infinite resources. If you, as president, try to say, "I'm going to be a welfare reform expert with the welfare reformers. I'm going to be an expert on Somalia with the Somalia experts. I'm going to deal with the crisis in the fisheries as if I knew a lot about oceans. I'm going to try to keep up everywhere," you're simply going to be swimming and faking it, because you can't ever have the detail.

Part of his discipline was to be disciplined with his own time and mental energy, and to set limits on how far he was going to go in trying to master subjects, because otherwise the job was endless.

What was your sense of what his core set of beliefs were -- the guiding principles?

You can reduce his guiding principles to fairly few. He was in most respects a pretty orthodox Reagan conservative, and he believed the things that Ronald Reagan had believed. However, he also had become convinced that this Reagan agenda was not working politically anymore, and he was a practical enough politician to say he was not going to chase this agenda beyond its limits. He was not going to try to fight for things that Reagan had tried, that Newt Gingrich had tried, and that had failed twice before.

He was going to make his peace with a lot of things he wasn't entirely enthusiastic about. So he ended up signing this gigantic agriculture bill that undid a lot of the reforms of the mid-1990s. He's now got his signature on the first major new social program created in the United States since 1974. George Bush signed it -- the PharmaCare program for senior citizens. He was a chastened Reaganite, you might say.

But the last part, and the thing that really was different, is he did come from a much more explicitly religious point of view than some previous Republican conservatives. Because of that, he tended to put a lot less emphasis on economic individualism, individualism generally, than some of his predecessors had. He was not somebody who used libertarian language. He did not thrill to the story of Americans standing on their own two feet making their own economic opportunities.

When he spoke, he spoke much more from a religious sensibility -- not collectivism, not social democracy -- but moral obligations that people have to one another.

How evident was the religious current in the White House? You recall, I think, the first words you heard.

Yes. The first words -- obviously it's sort of funny -- but just by coincidence the first words I heard as I stepped over the threshold for the first time, on my way to the breakfast where they make the decision whether to hire me or not, were "Missed you at Bible study." Not directed to me, but to the man I was with, who had supposed to be at it.

The religious influence was strongest in sort of the mid-level of the staff. You had a lot of very idealist young people and not-so-young people who came from religious backgrounds, for whom evangelical Christianity was the natural idiom of their lives. Maybe other White Houses had been full of economists, and this one was full of people for whom faith was the way they understood the world.

But you can get the wrong idea from that, because evangelical America is a pretty diverse place, too. There are a lot of different political strains. Evangelical religion can point you to a lot of very different kinds of political answers.

Back to Labor Day. I think you used the word "flailing" when you described the Bush administration in those days.

When I think about that end of that summer, the lack of energy and momentum is the strongest impression that I have. I remember that just before we all took our summer holidays at the end of August, we're talking about what would be the initiative for the fall.

The big idea was that the president was going to unveil an initiative for something called Communities of Character that was going to emphasize things like a new e-mail program to help grandparents keep in touch with grandchildren, and a bully pulpit effort to persuade newspapers to focus more on positive stories rather than negative ones.

They had not yet become policies, but these were the kinds of ideas that were being discussed. These are the kinds of things I think an administration does when its big, strong ideas either get passed, as the tax cut did, or become impossible, as [with] most of the things that George Bush wanted to do. He was a big-idea president, but he didn't have a big-idea majority.

The big day, 9/11. You got a call from Richard Perle -- lot of discussion. [Can you] put us there?

For most of the White House staff, the day began on television. It began with seeing the televised images. The president was in Florida with some of the senior staff.

Most of the White House staff was in Washington [and] saw these images of horror. Then the rumors began to swirl about the State Department, perhaps -- there was a story that there was a truck bomb at the State Department. The smoke from the Pentagon looked for a moment as if it were rising from the Malls.

So the question was, were other buildings on fire? Maybe the Department of Agriculture. ... Just a day of unfolding grief and terror. The White House was evacuated. The Secret Service came pounding on the doors and told everyone to leave their offices immediately, not to run in the corridors. Then, three beats later, they changed their mind and shouted to everyone, "Run! Ladies, kick off your heels!" And out the White House staff went.

Imagine a big stream of people flowing out of the Executive Office Building. ... The stream gets thicker and thicker and thicker. Those halls in the Executive Office Building are so wide, you could have a chariot race; they're always empty, they're clattering. That day they were jammed -- the only day I've ever seen them jammed.

Out everyone fled, through the gates. The guards told them to keep moving and the moment they left the gates, to take off their badges, because they were afraid there might be snipers looking for them.

Everyone moved north across Lafayette Square, all the way up to Eighth Street, where they came to a stop. As one, they reached into the pockets, pulled out their cell phones, turned them on. No signals. The White House staff was stranded. There were senior directors of the National Security Council and generals and domestic policy advisers wandering around. They get out their phones. They had less insight into what was going on in the world than some villager in Tasmania with a CNN connection.

Most people went home. The most senior people were in the bunker, underneath the White House. A few of the people whose lives were not considered so essential [that] they had to be in the bunker, but whose work was needed that day were then led to an office building that was temporarily borrowed, where we set up a temporary White House office. ... [W]e were in the [Daimler] Chrysler offices. That's where most of the work that day was done by most of the staff.

So what did you and Mr. Perle discuss as to what the president might want to say?

We had a very long conversation, and touched on a lot of things -- where this had come from, and the mistakes of the past, things to be avoided. The one thing that emerged most clearly from that conversation was how important it was that the president make it clear at the start: this was not going to be more law enforcement -- they were not going to be indicting these terrorists -- that this was to be understood as war.

That was the president's first impulse, too. The first thing he said when he stepped onto Air Force One that morning in Florida was, "We're at war." But to give flesh to that exactly right concept, what did that mean? Probably the most important thing that it would mean was that you would hold not just the individual terrorists responsible, [but] also all of those who had sponsored and harbored them.

I think it's a common illusion that terrorists are just free agents, free actors -- that they operate on their own, independent of any larger organization. But it's not a small project to put together a terrorist network like Al Qaeda. They needed a territorial base. They had one in Afghanistan. They spent a lot of money. Probably the best study conducted for the United Nations suggests that, in the years from 1990 on, Al Qaeda spent somewhere close to $300 million. ...

So you begin working on a speech?

On Sept. 11 itself, the small group of speechwriters who were in this building in the middle of Washington worked on a set of proposals for what the president might say that evening. As so often happens, it ended up in the trash. The president went with something else entirely.

But he said a very important thing that night, which is the one thing that I had most hoped he would say, which is that he was going to hold accountable the states that had sponsored these acts; that all those who sponsored it were going to be held as accountable as the individual villains who had done it. [It was a] tremendously important statement that was made that night.

But you had other feelings about that speech?

I thought as a speech it didn't hit the right tone. That first night, when the country was both heartbroken, but it also did not know what had happened to it -- that first speech did not, I think, meet the mood of the country exactly.

It was a Sept. 10 speech. It was a speech that was very emotional; not precise enough, not war-like enough in my view, and did not rally the country to a cause in the way that I would have liked. But that was OK. That was just one day, and the day passed.

But at that moment, this is a kind of nadir of sorts, in terms of--

It had been a terrible day. We've learned more since about how terrible it was, how unready the government was, how much it was caught unawares. I mean, it started with the president's own movements. There wasn't a clear idea of what even should be done with the president, where he should be, or where he should go. He had two stops as they tried to figure out where should the president go. When the country saw the president a couple times that day, he seemed unready, and part of it was visual. When he spoke to the nation from Louisiana, he was speaking over a bad connection. The images looked herky-jerky. He looked like he was the hunted, not the hunter.

So the culmination of this day of uncertainty and fear and grief was the president's speech that day. When he didn't hit the public's mood exactly correctly, you were left wondering, were things going to be OK? Was he ready? Was the country ready? Was the government ready?

I have to say, I went home that night not at all sure that the answer to any of those questions was yes.

Then, on Sept. 20?

I think over the days after Sept. 11, you could see the U.S. government pulling together a response. It's not just speeches, although speeches are important. But the government did an unusually good job of sort of focusing and channeling the national mood.

On Sept. 20, the president made one of the great speeches in the history of American rhetoric, and gave the country an explanation of what had happened -- who had done this thing, how they would be held to account -- and gave a vision of the whole future of the war.

There, too, he said, that again the United States was not going to be content to chase individuals; it was going to hold accountable the whole terror system. Everyone was implicated in this -- those who funded it, those who sheltered it, those who harbored it, those who used terrorism as a tool of politics. ...

Did you observe the president up close in that period in September?

The White House was a world to itself in September, but even more in October. The anthrax was the thing that really sealed the doors, because now you could no longer get mail from outside. …

As you talked to the terrorism people, they had this imagination for disaster. There would be meetings where they would explain all the different ways that an intelligent terrorist could bring the United States to its knees. What if they did this? What if they did that? Each scenario more horrible than the last. Then the anthrax came, and it seemed to suggest that these scenarios were coming true.

What assumptions were being made about Al Qaeda and who was in collaboration with them?

I don't think it is fair to say that any assumptions were being made. I mean, there's a lot of debate now about the course of the president['s] thinking about Iraq. [I'll] give you what insight into it I have. The president began to talk about the problem of Iraq from his very first days as president, at the same time as he talked also of the danger from Iran. But he always talked about it as something that he was going to do before the end of his term.

A lot of the books that have been written about the president's thinking subtly mislead or misdirect the reader. President Bush always intended to deal with Iraq someday, but that is not the same as intending to deal with it today. It was one of his long list of things he intended to accomplish as president -- to negate the danger from Saddam Hussein. How precisely he was going to do it, I am sure he did not know; whether it would take a military invasion, whether some other method would work.

It was something I think he was determined not to leave for the next president. But he thought he was going to be president until 2009, so [there is] a lot of time in there.

Same thing with Iran; he was very concerned about the aid the Russians were providing to the Iranian nuclear program. That, too, was something he intended to do something about, but someday, not today. Today he was going to pass his tax cut and do his education bill.

And then 9/11 happened.

Then 9/11 happened. The first question you have is, what is the Iraqi involvement? Iraq is one of the leading terrorist states. There were a lot of assumptions made that Iran was probably not involved, because people leaned in those days very heavily on the Sunni terrorist/Shiite terrorist distinction. Al Qaeda was such a Sunni organization, it seemed improbable, although we now know that's not true, that there was cooperation between the Iranians and Al Qaeda. But at the beginning, it was suggested it was unlikely that there would be much cooperation with them.

So who were the states that were involved with this, and to what degree? I think that the worst possible thing that anyone could have done in those days would have been to make the assumption that we're going to just assert and stipulate that this government or that government could not have been involved with Al Qaeda. There are a long list of governments in the Middle East that have left their fingerprints on terrorist operations.

When did you conclude that W. Bush was the right man?

For me, the decisive moment were those ten days after 9/11, when the great question was, would a president appreciate the enormity of what had happened? Because let's remember, the United States had been hit with terrorist attacks for a long time -- since 1979, you could argue. You could argue that the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan was the first attack of Middle Eastern terrorism on American soil.

By and large, terrorism had been treated as the cost of doing business for a superpower. It seems impossible, but when you remember how terrible the embassy bombings were in 1998, how the United States largely overlooked those, that it seemed not impossible that a president of the United States might -- I mean, obviously he'd have to respond, but that he wouldn't respond with the fullest that the horror demanded.

It became clear in those days that he had taken this as fully on board as the strongest American patriot could wish; that he felt this all the way through, the anger and the outrage, and the humiliation of it, too, the wrongness; that above all, he was the right kind of person for this particular problem.

I think it's very rare that you see in politics someone who's a man for all seasons, the right president for any situation. There are a lot of situations where George Bush would not have been the right president. This was the perfect meeting of the problem and the person, because it required, above all, remembering, and that was something that it became clear he would do. He would remember this always.

What is about George Bush, the man, that makes him the man who remembered, or remembers, and makes him the right man?

He's got a kind perseverance, a tenacity. There's a story with Ulysses S. Grant, that Grant, from his earliest days, had a habit, or a superstition, that he would never retrace his steps. If he had found he was on a road and he found he had gone too far, he would do a wide loop in order to get back to the place where he needed to be, but he would never go backward. I think there is something about that in George Bush. There is a kind of personal stubbornness that makes him take hold of something, and not let it go.

You could see many people who, at the time of 9/11, said, "The country will never forget this." Yet time passed, and you could see it fading every day, and a lot of people in public life saying, "Well, it's a problem. But it's not the [only] problem. It's possible to overreact. We can't let terrorism define our whole foreign policy." In the days after 9/11, you could sense that that was coming. You could also sense that day would never come to him.

Why is that a good thing?

His approach to terrorism is a good thing, because in the days after 9/11, everyone said they believed the same things as George Bush believed. But he meant it.

One of the things that a more ordinary politician would have done was he would have expressed all the things that George Bush expressed, but with a kind of asterisk beside them -- that he would reserve the option to return to normal at some point in the future, at some near point in the future, before all of this was expunged and avenged.

If you take seriously those words that everyone spoke after 9/11, about how this was an atrocity, about how these dead innocents, their deaths had to be requited, that America had to be made safe -- if you took all that seriously, then you were signing on to a huge project. And he took it seriously. A lot of other people said the same things; they didn't mean them.

Let's talk about the speech of January 2002. What instructions are you getting? Do you meet with the president? Do you meet with [speechwriter Michael] Gerson? How does it work?

State of the Union is very unlike any other kind of speech, because it really is built in sections. Largely, the sections are worked on separately. They come together, and not many of them fall by the wayside. They're huge projects.

You work on them in a kind of hypothetical mode. "If the president were to talk about his landing on Mars, what would he say?" Then you write. "Here's what he would say if he decides in the end he wants to talk about it." He will then look at that, and maybe decide, "You know what? Now that I see what it looks like, into the trash."

My work on 2002 State of the Union began with a question. If the president were to talk with a connection between the various terrorist groups and the terror states, especially Iraq, how would he do it? How would you explain this, if you were going to explain it?

When I sat down to work on this, I didn't begin by saying, "I'm writing a speech." I thought, "I'm writing a plan for a speech. I'm writing a way that a speech might be delivered." I wrote down some language, including the suggestion that these entities and states were linked in this axis of hatred, which is a phrase that appeared in my first draft, but with an idea to say, "Look, here's a suggestion. Now it has to be thought about and considered. "

Are you on your own at this point? Who's putting the question to you?

The question was literally put to me by Mike Gerson, the chief speechwriter, who walked into my office one day and said, "If we're going to talk about this, how do we talk about it?"

This is a rather substantial assignment. I said, "Can I have the lunch hour?" He said, "No. You can have three days." I then spent three days thinking, talking to people.

A lot of speechwriting is like being a reporter inside the government. You have the right to call people all over the government, and ask them questions, and to say, "You know, the president is thinking about this subject. What should he say?"

So who helped you?

... I talked to a wide variety of people around the government to say, "What are your views? What do you think?" I did a lot of reading. I looked at, by the way, a lot of speeches by previous presidents, going back to Ronald Reagan, through the first President Bush and Bill Clinton. How would they have talked about these kinds of issues? You immerse yourself in it.

Then you listen to your president's old speeches, and try to think, now where has he been on this? Because, you know, speechwriters can become very conceited people. They become like the rooster who thinks that the sun goes up because he says, "Cockadoodle doo."

Your job is not to be the president and say what you would have the president say. Your job is to understand the president, to channel him, to take his feelings and impulses, and put them into the best words that can be found for what he thinks.

How does "axis of hatred" come to mind? What was the genesis of that, and how does that evolve to the final speech?

I suppose the phrase begins with this insight which I picked up from a lot of people, which is, terrorist groups and terrorist states have associations and relationships, but they're not necessarily coordinated. There isn't some central body. There isn't some central directorate. The relationships between these groups are awfully opportunistic. Between these groups and these governments, they're awfully opportunistic, and they often hate each other. They just happen to hate the United States even worse.

You're looking at a kind of loose, but very threatening association. When you think about it, you needed some term for a kind of uncoordinated association. When you look back in World War II -- World War II analogies were much in the air because of the similarities between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor -- the original Axis worked that way.

It was never an alliance the way Britain and the United States were. The Germans and the Italians and the Japanese did not coordinate. In fact, the Germans thought that the Japanese were subhuman, and the Japanese didn't think that highly of the Germans, either. They had a common cause, but they were not allies, exactly. They were linked by their hatreds, but by almost nothing else.

So that idea that, in this struggle, what united these governments, these groups, was their common hatred, not their common ideology -- there was no central planning apparatus, but they all hated the same thing. The problem of any one of them could not really be solved until you had solved the problem of all of them.

Did this then go in the draft to the president to get feedback?

This goes into a memo. Some suggested language, then there are some paragraphs. It wasn't a coherent, three-page subsection of a speech. It was a set of paragraphs. Here's a paragraph, here's a paragraph, here's a paragraph. Here are some things, some ideas that can spark further discussion, and they did spark further discussion. People liked them. The president saw them. He must have liked them.

In the course of refinement, in the course of turning them from paragraphs of suggested ideas into a fully-formed case, the phrase got changed from, "axis of hatred," to "axis of evil," which I think was a huge improvement. Mike Gerson was very involved with that. He had a very sensitive ear to the way the president thinks and the way the president speaks. He has a very, very close relationship with the president.

The president used this language of good and evil, and he used it for a lot of reasons, some of them, I think, more subtle than most people realized.

President Bush began with this problem, which is, how did he describe who the terrorists were, and what they were? He didn't want to say they were Islamic terrorists, because he was denying that their terrorism had anything properly to do with Islam, and also, because America was going to have many important Islamic allies. He didn't want to gratuitously insult them.

He couldn't call them Middle Eastern terrorists, because many of them were from Malaysia, which is not part of the Middle East. So he needed a phrase that conveyed his feelings about them and his intentions without locking him into any specific diagnosis of them.

Then, when he looked for that language, the president -- we all, in those days, naturally used the language of morality. This was such an outrageous, horrifying offense against all decency. It came natural to the president to use the language of the Bible, especially of his favorite psalm, Psalm 27, where the psalm talks about being under attack by evildoers.

It was a solution to a very real problem that didn't have a neat solution. So when the president began talking about evildoers, "The evildoers who did this," it suggested the theme and the language that the president was going to use to talk about terrorism at this period.

[Was there] discussion about the sensitivities of Islam, Muslims, to the use of language of the Bible -- "evildoers" and that sort?

The language of good and evil appears in the Koran, too, and Arabic and Hebrew are very closely related. The roots of the Arab word for evil and the Hebrew word for evil are very, very close. I don't think anybody would hear the word "evil," and think, "Ah, Bible, as opposed to Koran." They would think [of] morality. This is the language of morality. This is the language of religion, whatever your morality, whatever your religion.

There's a lot made [about] -- there's books, in fact, in the library -- on "Bushisms." This is a guy you went to work for who was famous in the 2000 campaign for his malapropisms.

He was often very funny about the Bushisms himself. He gave a very funny speech shortly after becoming president, where he produced one of the volumes of Bushisms and read one of them. He quotes himself as saying, "Some people want to argue about how to cut up the pie. I want to talk about how to raise the pie." He closed the book, and he said, "The editors of this book do not understand my politics. All my life, I have been dedicated to the quest for higher pie."

What is it like to write for a guy who seems to have a tendency [to mix words]?

To write for someone who makes verbal stumbles, you have to begin by understanding why he stumbles, and how you can avoid the stumbles. I noticed that George Bush's stumbles tended mostly to take this form: his tongue would almost literally physically trip, and he would reduplicate syllables. So he was not somebody who made mistakes like mixing up "infer" and "imply," or using "hopefully" [in]correctly.

Using words wrong -- he didn't do that. What he would do is, he would take a word like, "invisibility," and trip. And invisibility would become "indivisibility."

I could come up with lots of examples. The crux of it was the tongue tripping over the extra syllable. You just have to avoid words that are potential tongue twisters, and they're going to cause him to reduplicate a syllable like that. You have to use his idiom.

I think also a lot of his stumbles came when he would have a thought, maybe often a kind of emotional thought. As he would begin to say it, he would think better of it, and he was not quick enough to turn off a phrase that his mind had recognized as ill-judged. He wouldn't be able to stop it entirely. He would just sort of hamburgerize it on the way out of his mouth, so you wouldn't know what he was saying. He had begun to say something he had decided he did not want to say.

So he trapped himself?

He would try to bar the teeth gates before the horse escaped from the barn, as it were.

When you write for George W. Bush, what do you try to bring? What is he good at?

When you're thinking about how should a president communicate, you have to begin with your ideas of what's effective communication in the modern media age. To my way of thinking, the all-time champion of presidential communicators was Franklin Roosevelt, who was not usually eloquent, as we think of it. He was plain. He was simple. What he did was project his personality, his concern and his ideas through the medium of radio. And it was very personal. It was not high-flown. Even his most famous speeches, like the, "Date of infamy," speech -- which is one little rhetorical turn in it, "Date that will live in infamy --" Otherwise, it is very matter-of-fact. The importance, the power of a Franklin Roosevelt's speech came from him and his personality much more than the words.

I think that is where George Bush is at his best. He's got a very powerful personality. He's got a keen sense of right and wrong. He feels with the nation. Things that grieve the nation, grieve him. You have to help him project that through the medium of the camera. It's a very difficult thing to do. The camera is a much harder instrument to work with, by the way, than radio is. There are just many more opportunities for things to go wrong. So you have to find ways, find words that bring out him. ...

There's no such thing as a good speech any more than there's such a thing as a good suit. You can make the most beautiful 40-long in the world. But if your client is a 42-regular, it's not a good fit, and therefore, it's a bad suit.

Well, in the same way, you can write the most magnificent, pseudo-John F. Kennedy speech, full of the reverse sentences, and the litanies. If that's not how your principal talks, it's a bad speech. You have to find the speech that suits him. So with a man like George Bush, who's plain, emotional, very sincere, what you need to do is to sort of reveal him, help him [to] be him.

You have a chapter called, "The Un-Clinton." What did you mean?

You have to begin with the question, "Why did George Bush prevail in the election at all, in 2000, where the incumbent party had peace and prosperity?" By most ordinary calculations, the Democrats should have won the 2000 election easily, overwhelmingly. They should have taken back the Congress, probably, too.

They didn't, because the country was so uncomfortable, ultimately, with the personality of the president who had brought it many good things. I think the country was happy with Clinton's achievements. But the country was not happy with Clinton. It was not proud to be represented by him.

George Bush came into office with this strange mandate, where there was no rejection of the Clinton policies, but there was a rejection of the Clinton personality. That's a very difficult thing for a political leader to deal with. "We don't want you to be like the last guy. We don't [want you] either to change too much what he's done."

The nature of the mandate that George Bush got was crippling. It was not a mandate for change. It was a mandate for continuity. But he was chosen because he was going to be a very discontinuous personality to preside over the continuity.

So the atmosphere changed enormously in the White House?

It was pretty button-down. The people around George Bush took very seriously the idea that President Clinton had disgraced the White House, had not behaved in the White House way a president should, and the people around him hadn't, either. This was helped by this explosion of stories about defacement of White House property, and people purloining towels from Air Force One -- some of the stories probably much exaggerated.

But people had this idea that this was an election very much about changing personalities much more than changing policies. The country did not crave radical new policies. But it craved a radical new approach to the presidency, and to the office.

Ironically, we now have radically different policies.

Well, we have radically different circumstances.

But even in the beginning, he sets out to be far more aggressive ... perhaps he's not successful--

President Bush's problem was he was a big-ideas president without a big-ideas mandate. So he pressed his mandate very hard, and that is the origin of a lot of the difficulties of that first year. He pressed his mandate probably harder than he had the political strength to do. ...

We've talked to a lot of people about how he was kind of out of sync with the time when he was at Yale--

… One of the most personal speeches he gave in his first year was his speech at the 2001 Yale commencement. The speech ended up being a very sweet and touching and affecting speech, and very much dictated by the president's own views of what he wanted to say.

But there are some moments along the way, where sort of a more acerbic George Bush showed himself. At one point, he's talking to one of the writers who had done a lot of research and learned a lot about Yale, and was impressing the president with all his Yale lore. And the president said to him, "Did you go to Yale?" The speechwriter conceded that he had not.

The president smiled and shrugged his head, and said, "Well, you didn't miss much." He had ambivalent feelings about the place.

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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