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'92 REPUBLICAN CONVENTION : Writer Who Polished Nixon's Words Is Crafting Bush's Address : Speech: Ray Price is revered for his clear, visionary messages. But some Republicans wonder about the choice of someone who hasn't written a presidential script in 20 years.

August 17, 1992|SARA FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — Speech writer Ray Price, the man chosen to help draft President Bush's Republican Convention address, already knows how it feels to hold the fate of a President in his hands.

As speech writer for former President Richard M. Nixon, Price was credited with composing Nixon's most "visionary" speeches--those politically pivotal addresses that painted a clear and inspiring picture of what the President wanted to achieve.

For that reason, Price was a logical choice to draft this important speech for Bush, who has been accused of lacking what Bush has termed "the vision thing." If the President's speech is going to succeed in restoring his popularity, his advisers agree, it must set out a vision of what he wants to accomplish in his second term.

Price is much revered among Republicans for the work he did for Nixon.

Nixon trusted Price so much that he once instructed his loyal speech writer in April, 1973--during the depths of the Watergate scandal--to write a resignation address for him "if you think I ought to resign."

Price demurred, and Nixon did not step down for another 15 months.

But for some Republicans, Price appeared to be something of an offbeat choice to write Bush's acceptance speech, not only because the President has his own speech-writing staff but also because it has been nearly 20 years since Price last drafted a presidential address.

More recently, Price has been an author, columnist and commentator--working on projects far from the center of power.

Torie Clarke, Bush's campaign press secretary, explained that Nixon's former speech writer was chosen because Bush feels comfortable working with Price, a longtime acquaintance.

"This is a year in which you don't do what's normal or what's routine or what's expected," Clarke explained. "Mr. Price may not have been on center stage for a long time, but he's a person who Bush feels very comfortable with, and we think he'll click for several different reasons."

She declined to elaborate on the reasons.

Clarke said Price is working with Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Baker aide Robert B. Zoellick. She made no mention of Steve Provost, the former Kentucky Fried Chicken spokesman who is Bush's official speech writer. Price himself was not available for comment.

Now retired, Price was born in Setauket, N.Y., and graduated from Yale. Before going to work for Nixon, he spent nine years at the New York Herald Tribune and was that newspaper's editorial page editor when it ceased publication in 1966.

On Nixon's staff, he worked with two other speech writers: William Safire, now a New York Times columnist, and 1992 GOP presidential challenger Patrick J. Buchanan. It is said that Buchanan wrote the tough speeches, Safire wrote the graceful speeches and Price wrote the visionary ones.

After leaving the White House, Price worked extensively with Nixon on the former President's books and wrote a book of his own titled "With Nixon." From 1983 to 1985, he was assistant to William S. Paley, founder and chairman of CBS.

On previous occasions, Price has advised Bush that if he wants to be viewed as a leader, he must sketch a strong position on a few, important issues.

In 1986, when Bush was considering how he would run for President in 1988, Price wrote that Bush needed to portray "a clear vision" and a "sense of purpose" for his candidacy.

Price advised Bush to seize upon a few issues "and make them his own, rally support for them, clobber the opposition, and in the process, convey where he, George Bush, wants to take the country between now and the eve of the 21st Century."

In the opinion of many Bush aides, Price's advice is as good today as it was then.

"It's often said of Mr. Bush that he has the best resume in American politics," Price added. "But when it comes to the presidency, people don't vote for a resume. They vote for a leader."

Some Republicans were surprised that Bush did not ask Peggy Noonan to write his acceptance speech this year. Noonan, a former speech writer for President Ronald Reagan, wrote the speech that Bush delivered at the 1988 convention, which has been widely credited with helping win the election.

It was in that speech that Bush uttered those fateful words, "Read my lips: No new taxes"--a promise he later broke.

Noonan now mostly works as a journalist, contributing articles to Newsweek magazine and the Washington Post. She did, however, pen Bush's 1992 State of the Union speech.

Bush advisers said that although Noonan's speeches are usually brilliant stylistically, the President wanted a speech with a weightier, more presidential tone. Noonan indicated she would not have been interested in writing this year's speech, even if she had been asked.

In an article in this week's Newsweek, however, Noonan advises Bush to explain to the American people why he broke his "no new taxes" promise.

"Tell people why you did what you did," she wrote. "Everyone has his reasons, and you had yours. But you never told them to the people. . . . Explain it. . . . A mistake stays a scandal until you explain it. And this is a mistake to be turned to your advantage.

"It was the Democrats, Bill Clinton's party, who insisted on the tax raise. Now they condemn you for giving them what they begged for. What will Clinton do when the Democratic Congress tells him to raise taxes even more than he intends?"

No one knows whether Bush will take her advice.

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