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2000 Speech Held Clues to Bush's Approach

Analysts, looking back on signals of his bold, partisan style, will watch for such messages in his nomination acceptance address next week.

August 28, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

It came near the start of George W. Bush's address to the Republican National Convention four years ago -- a brief description of an obscure American patriot who dismissed his brother's advice not to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Bush, then governor of Texas, told thousands of Republicans gathered in Philadelphia and millions of others watching his speech at home how Lewis Morris of New York had waved off warnings that he could lose his property.

"Morris, a plain-spoken founder, responded, 'Damn the consequences, give me the pen,' " Bush said. "That is the eloquence of American action."

Little noticed at the time, Bush's invocation of the uncelebrated 18th century leader now appears a harbinger of the presidency that would follow, say a number of historians, political scientists and speechwriters.

"Reading back, you can see: Here is a guy who intends to be bold and not incremental or timid -- and by God, that he has been," said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas who has followed Bush's political career for years.

"He also said in that speech that he would write 'not footnotes, but chapters,' and sure enough, he has -- for better or for worse."

As Bush prepares to give another acceptance speech Thursday in New York City, political observers will be poised to discern a roadmap for a potential second term.

A variety of analysts now look at the anecdote about Morris and other passages of Bush's first acceptance speech as signals of a presidency that would be both bolder and more partisan than most had predicted.

Partly because of that more doctrinaire style, they say, the Bush agenda outlined in the 2000 speech has met with mixed success -- with the president passing the income tax cut for all Americans as he promised, failing to advance Social Security reform that had been another top priority and winning sharply divided reviews for his reforms of public schools and Medicare.

Bush delivered his Philadelphia speech, of course, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks massively reordered priorities for the nation and its commander in chief.

While Bush today is a president preoccupied with national security, candidate Bush's acceptance speech scarcely mentioned foreign affairs, and then mostly to advocate a system to protect the U.S. from incoming ballistic missiles.

What has been more consistent is Bush's folksy persona -- introduced to many Americans in the 2000 acceptance speech. As the 43rd president, he still employs the clipped sentences, wry quips and no-nonsense delivery.

That style has helped push the Republican incumbent consistently ahead of his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, in the polls in most measures of decisiveness and leadership. It has also contributed to some voters' perceptions that Bush can be reckless and bullheaded.

Finding the talismans in Bush's convention speech is much easier today than it was four years ago.

Then, hundreds of journalists and political savants focused mostly on the Texas governor's pledges to set aside ideology and to govern as a new-style "compassionate conservative."

If there was a figure whom the media fixated on from that convention address, it was not Morris -- a member of the Continental Congress who went on to help found the State University of New York -- but former Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. As a Democratic legislative leader and lieutenant governor, Bullock frequently joined with Bush to push legislation through the state government.

Bush presented the late Bullock, his "great friend," as proof that he would work across party lines in Washington, just as he had in Austin.

Bush today has Democratic allies -- including Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who will give the keynote speech at the Republican convention -- but no dependable coalition with the opposition. Opinions vary greatly on what happened to Bush's bipartisanship.

Democrats have argued that the Texas governor was a partisan true believer all along, cloaking his conservative beliefs in politically ecumenical language. They point to rollbacks of Democratic environmental regulations, the limitations placed on stem cell research and his proposal to ban same-sex marriage as evidence of where Bush's heart lies -- with industrial giants like oil companies and with religious fundamentalists.

Republicans suggest the president has been prevented from forging consensus by a Democratic minority, one that is particularly bitter because of his narrow, disputed 2000 election victory.

"A lot of state governors come to Washington as president and make the mistake of thinking they can be bipartisan," said David Crockett, a Republican and assistant professor of political science at Trinity University in San Antonio. "Washington is a different ballgame. Then you factor in the bitterness of the 2000 election outcome, and there's a real problem."

But there were hints in the convention address that Bush intended all along to be decisive and not wait for others.

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