George W. Bush has consistently done the right things during his term in office. Where he has had less success is in saying the right things at the right time.
During his first year in office, but before 9-11, I wrote a column urging that he make more televised speeches. He hadn't cemented his bond with the American people, I argued, but the opportunity was there. Post 9-11, of course, in a series of highly moving and well-delivered addresses at the National Cathedral, before the U.S. Congress and in his impromptu remarks in the rubble of the World Trade Center, he did just that. He has the most talented speech-writing staff of any president since Ronald Reagan, and at his best, Bush's delivery is forceful and persuasive. He can be weak in press conferences -- another reason to add speeches to the lineup.
In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Bush carefully enunciated his rationale for pre-emptive war. He did it so well that an overwhelming majority of the American people and the Congress (as well as the majority of our allies -- France, Germany and Russia notwithstanding) were convinced that his course was right.
But in the aftermath of the war, the president seems to have dropped the rhetorical ball. He was prepared to exult in victory (the ill-conceived aircraft carrier landing), but not nimble enough to pivot and react when the unthinkable happened -- we found no weapons of mass destruction. For a very long time, the White House simply did not address the issue, doubtless worried that the day after it acknowledged not finding WMDs, some would show up in an underground storage unit somewhere. When the president did finally address the matter, he sounded lame, saying basically, "He (Saddam) had the capacity to build the weapons."
Nor has the president made the case that we are succeeding in Iraq. The press, of course, has brought us a nearly uniformly negative image of postwar Iraq. A few journalists -- Chris Wallace of Fox News and Karl Zinsmeister of American Enterprise magazine -- have attempted to tell the other side of the story, but the administration has been notably absent in this debate. Why isn't Paul Bremer on the talk show circuit describing the accomplishments of the coalition? Why do we hear next to nothing about the flourishing press, the reopening schools, the newly refurbished hospitals and the new optimism among Iraqis about their future?
The Bush administration has been bold and farsighted in the war on terror and the transformation of Iraq from aggressive, terrorist-backing, incubator of violence to struggling free society is a major part of that struggle. The public still believes we did the right thing by going into Iraq, but there are grave doubts.