Bush Tries Pulpit Approach in Uncharacteristic Address : Television: The President uses sweeping rhetoric. But his delivery is more Gary Cooper than John Wayne.


A year and a half into his presidency, George Bush tried for the first time Tuesday to reach over the media and Congress and use the pulpit of his office to affect the course of the nation.

Bush's prime-time address to a joint session of Congress, only his seventh speech to the nation, was uncharacteristic of a President whose tenure has relied largely on negotiation conducted in private with Washington insiders and over the phone with world leaders.

The President tried to use the emotion surrounding the largest American military buildup since Vietnam and rhetoric calling this a key moment in history to sway the public, and thus Congress. The President clearly was hoping support for his Persian Gulf policies would help him have his way in the current budget negotiations on Capitol Hill.

"The test we face is great, and so are the stakes," Bush told the nation. "This is the first assault on the new world we seek, the first test of our mettle." On another level, it is as much a test for the President as it is for the country.

"America and the world must stand up to aggression. AND WE WILL." In the White House text, the words were not only in boldface, they were underlined.

And the words were repeated, a mantra of American resolve: "America and the world must support the rule of law. AND WE WILL."

Given the sweep of the rhetoric, however, the President's actual delivery was somewhat muted, more Gary Cooper than John Wayne. Whether intentional or not, this was in keeping with a leader who advisers freely admit does not excel at communicating with his constituents.

But to the extent he was hoping that he could capitalize on his popular Persian Gulf policies in the budget process, however, it seemed uncertain afterward whether the performance would be enough.

The President also was trying to do what many in the country and in Congress complained he had not done clearly enough before. He tried to lay out in specific and emotional terms the reasons for sending more than 100,000 American troops to Saudi Arabia.

Critics of the President's communications strategy have argued that by so rarely speaking to the American people directly, he may have left himself without the deep-seated public support needed for presidents to survive a crisis.

It is a standard tool of the modern presidency to use major televised addresses to move public opinion and thereby influence Congress. Such tactics were the basis of Ronald Reagan's White House strategy. Bush has stood out to the extent that until now he had scrupulously avoided the tactic.

In the nature of the rhetoric, if not the delivery, Bush was striving Tuesday night to go beyond even what was considered his finest political address to date--his soothing but evocative speech to the Republican National Convention in 1988, the "kinder and gentler" speech.

The President even reached for the sense of a grand and sweeping moment in history. "Out of these troubled times," he said, "a new world order can emerge. A new era--freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace."

By reading a letter from a soldier, Pfc. Wade Merritt, Bush also borrowed pages from the playbook of Reagan, who often used the stories of average Americans to evoke the national purpose.

Perhaps knowing that a powerful speech involved special risks for this President, the White House played down the address beforehand, indicating simply that it was a good time to make the address and noting that Congress had asked that he report to them following the one-day summit last weekend in Helsinki.

The President had two rehearsals of the 6 p.m. PDT speech Tuesday, another sign of its importance.

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