On an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" news director Lou Grant calls anchorman Ted Baxter into his office to talk about Ted’s off-putting personality.
"Ted," says Lou, "you know how you are?" "Yes," replies Ted. "Don’t be that way," says Lou.
Suggestion to President George W. Bush: Don’t be that way.
As someone who still agrees with the decision to invade Iraq, I find myself hampered in debates with war opponents by the fact I find Bush unlikable. It’s a strange mind split to be defending the actions of someone I don’t like, one that probably impacts to some extent on the effectiveness of my arguments, and I know it’s something some other Republicans are experiencing as well.
Just as Mahatma Gandhi answered, "I think it would be a good idea," when asked his opinion of western civilization, the same response could apply to a question soliciting reaction to Bush’s personality.
FDR’s persona was confident. Harry Truman’s was gritty. Dwight Eisenhower’s was grandfatherly. John Kennedy’s was dynamic. Lyndon Johnson’s was crude. Richard Nixon’s was devious. Jerry Ford’s was fumbling. Jimmy Carter’s was self-righteous. Ronald Reagan’s was inspirational. George H.W. Bush’s was prissy. Bill Clinton’s was unctuous.
Our current president’s? I don’t know. Bland? There’s no there there.
Party and ideology completely aside, and comparing communications skills, persuasive powers and podium presence only, it might have been better if Bush had been president during the uneventful Clinton years and visa versa. When Clinton was president there was no need, unlike now, to rally the country behind a critical cause, to win flagging hearts and wavering minds.
Bush would have been fine at fronting the small ideas of the Clinton years. Clinton, so persuasive he was able to convince a large segment of the U.S. population that oral sex is not really sex, would be better at satisfying Americans that invading Iraq and staying the course are the right decisions.
This is a bad time to have a poor communicator as president of the United States, but that’s what we have. In an op-ed piece in 2000 I described Bush’s lips as the place where words go to die, and there has been little improvement since then. While he is able to rouse himself to deliver a pretty good speech at a major event, such as a GOP national convention, State of the Union Address or the speech to Congress after 9/11, his day to day speeches — the ones where he should be effectively selling the correctness of his course in the war on terror — are mostly pedestrian and uninspiring.
Bush is not only a lame duck but a strange bird when it comes to his speaking style. At times he sounds as though he his pleading with his audience to understand what he is saying, and at others he comes across as condescending, trying to educate people too stupid to "get it." Pleading does not inspire confidence and speaking down to an audience does not score points.
In listening to excerpts of some of FDR’s "Fireside Chats," I was struck by the contrast in the communications styles of the two wartime presidents. There is not a hint of condescension in President Roosevelt’s addresses. On the contrary, his listeners are treated as equals, made to feel that they and their president are all in this together, that he is taking them into his confidence.
And while Roosevelt painted a grim picture when the facts required, his confidence that good would prevail over evil was infectious. Bush, trying to cajole understanding from an audience, does not inspire confidence.
Though presiding over the country during some of its darkest days, Roosevelt never lost his charm. Bush, on the other hand, has a look on his face like he is constantly annoyed or he just took a bite of something disagreeable. A comedian described it as appearing as though he is always looking into the sun. It is not a pleasant look. It contributes to his unlikability and his unlikability is being reflected in his poll numbers.
My hunch is that Bush would not score well these days in the "beer" test, where voters are asked which politician they’d prefer to have a beer with. Bush doesn’t seem like a nice guy. He doesn’t even seem sincere. That phony "heh-heh-heh" laugh makes one wonder if he’s capable of laughing at anything genuinely. His tendency to look distracted or disinterested at town hall meetings makes one wonder if he cares about being with people. There are even Republicans who would not want to share a beer with Bush, although, as November gets closer, we might want some hemlock.
Bush’s physical appearance on the platform is perplexing. On some occasions his body language is belligerent, on others it’s slumped and resigned. Sometimes his body language says, "I know what I’m doing;" sometimes it says, "Look, I can’t believe I’m president either, but go along with me on this."
I know that presidents have good days and bad days like the rest of us, but I don’t recall Reagan changing his platform appearance from one day to another. Reagan was always Reagan. How we need him now as a communicator.
The ability of a president to communicate effectively is important at any time, but even more so in momentous times like these. Although it’s probably unprecedented for a politician to hire a speech coach when all his election campaigns are behind him, I wish Bush would do so for the sake of better leading the country. And he might hire an acting coach while he’s at it.
Bush will never be an FDR or a Winston Churchill in his presentation skills. But during dangerous times with more peril ahead, America deserves a president who at least looks and sounds like one.
This article first appeared at theOneRepublic.com.
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