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Sometimes, a Laundry List Is the Ticket

January 30, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George H.W. Bush. E-mail:

George W. Bush no doubt wanted to give a State of the Union address much different from--and better than--anything Bill Clinton gave. So Bush would be incisive and thematic, in sharp contrast to the promiscuously prolix Clinton. And yet on Tuesday night, 48 minutes--and 77 applause lines--after he started speaking, he was finally done. The 43rd president found himself in similar laundry-list mode, reading aloud a string of agenda items from education to welfare to farm policy to "broader home ownership, especially for minorities" to his new U.S.A. Freedom Corps.

But Bush's speech reflects reality--the reality that presidents must update up to the moment when the text is fed into the TelePrompTer. After all, in his first speech to Congress in February, the words "Afghanistan" and "homeland security" were not heard at all, and "terror" was used just once. And yet last night, there was Hamid Karzai, the interim new leader of Afghanistan, and a gallery of heroes from the war against terrorism.

Other issues, too, have erupted suddenly. Most likely, Bush had no plans to mention corporate responsibility before a few weeks ago, when Enron erupted. But last night Bush sternly pronounced that "corporate America must be made more accountable to employees and shareholders."

Such ad hoc topic creep--once one new speech subject got in, it was impossible to say no to old speech topics--surely violated Bush's tidy turn of mind, but over the course of more than two dozen drafts, the exhaustive list of bases to touch upon became more and more reminiscent of Clinton's touchy-feely approach.

So does that mean the speech was a failure? Not really.

Only pundits and poets care about broad themes. Clinton and his reelection guru, Dick Morris, seemed to understand that voters and groups were much less interested in thematic purity and far more eager to see themselves and their causes get a plug.

And yet even so, Bush left out such hot issues as abortion, biotech and global warming. But just as Clinton had a strategy--remember "triangulation"?--so Bush seemed to be outlining a triple strategy.

The first item is the war on terror, which really has two dimensions, international and domestic. Here Bush has a lot of good news to report, but the bad news is that Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, and the latest issue of Foreign Affairs features six articles under the overall headline, "Long War in the Making."

Pundits aren't always right, of course. But it seems reasonable that the two objectives Bush set forth for himself--capturing Bin Laden "dead or alive" and smoking out "evildoers" everywhere--have not been met. Bush wisely said as much in his speech. He declared, "Our war against terror is only beginning," reminding his audience that "tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large."

The second element is the economy. The polls show that Americans still regard this as the top issue, and here Bush is on strong ground, if he can simultaneously keep his tax cuts intact, control spending and still enact a stimulus package. As Bush said, "My economic security plan can be summed up in one word: jobs."

The third issue is Enron. The true arc of the story is that a company that "invested" heavily in the Bush administration got no help; it's a no-win bankruptcy. But the media, far more than the Democrats--many of whom got dubious campaign cash from corporate sources--are carrying the story.

Some pressies have lost all perspective. For example, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote Tuesday: "I predict that in the years ahead Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society."

Most Americans probably don't agree with that assessment, of course. But in the battle of the media, Bush seems to understand the challenge he faces.

So Bush, like every president before him, finds himself fighting different battles but with similar tools. Every president in the television age figures out that the State of the Union speech is an unmatched opportunity to get his message across. So, most likely, Bush's somewhat formless speech will give him a bump in the polls.

Defined themes may be good in theory, but fuzzy prolongation plays well in politics.

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