No matter how hard any president tries, staying consistently on message is impossible. Reporters live to be fed, and they’re also constantly on the prowl for fresh tidbits not dished out by their White House keepers. Old issues come up in new ways. New issues intrude. Problems crop up that don’t fit the message. And crises emerge that inevitably take both the White House and the capital press corps away from the preplanned presidential agenda.
Not only do crises strain the strategy, they also challenge the president’s ability to speak to Americans. When events suddenly intrude on the president’s agenda, they bump the president’s message from the front pages. Responding to crises can require a whole new strategy. It also demands that the president reassure the public and build support for the new plan.
On September 11 these tasks challenged Bush in a way he had never been tested. The plane crashes in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania obliterated the president’s education agenda. Citizens wanted to know what had happened, who had done it, what the president was going to do, and how another attack could be prevented. Perhaps most of all, they needed soothing from the nation’s leader and reassurance that the government was in firm hands. His advisers told him that his first responsibility was ensuring the continuity of government, so he was shuttled across the country to a secure Air Force base in Nebraska. By late afternoon, however, he concluded that delivering the message of soothing, reassurance, and determination required him to return to Washington on Air Force One so he could address the nation from the Oval Office.
His speech was most noteworthy because it was made from the White House. His advisers candidly admitted later that they had not yet found the right approach and the right tone. That was a very tall order, given the overwhelming tragedies of the day and the fact that the president’s aides had either spent the day with him flying around the country, had dug into the White House bunker, or had evacuated the White House complex completely.
Within days Bush developed his signature line: “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
Some analysts and allies—including his wife Laura—wondered if it made him seem too much a Wild West cowboy, but it was the perfect television news sound bite: short, punchy, and delivered with unmistakable firmness. He borrowed another good sound bite that Ronald Reagan once used in warning terrorists: “They can run but they can’t hide.”
By the time he addressed a joint session of Congress, however, Bush’s speechwriters had to find the right words, and Bush had to discover the right “voice” to deliver them. The speech was a huge challenge. Bush was never known as an orator. His plainspeaking tone did not easily fit ringing rhetoric, and complex sentences did not play to his plainspeaking strengths. His down-home style sometimes did not sync with the seriousness of the issues. And he had to prepare the speech with far less lead time than was usual for such a major address.
During the weekend after September 11, Bush told Karen Hughes that he was thinking about making the address, but that he wanted to see a draft of the speech before deciding. Time was short, and one morning, he decided that he wanted the draft before 7:00 that evening.
Speechwriter Michael Gerson later said “I told Karen it couldn’t be done. But Hughes had already told the president the same thing. Bush replied simply that “he didn’t care.” Against all odds, Gerson completed the draft on time, and it became the foundation for the speech that helped change the administration.
On such occasions, presidents have occasionally been drawn into melodramatic or incendiary language. The London Observer put the challenge crisply: Bush “walks a high wire between the expectations he has raised in a country prepared for war and what he can deliver in the world and on the ground.” The president had to balance the need to “lift America’s affronted spirit while, at the same time, spearheading a complex and demanding international effort against a mercurial global foe.”
For his speech, Bush chose a tough, resolute tone that made unmistakably clear his intent to stop terrorists in Afghanistan. He was folksy enough to connect with the American people, yet deft enough in dealing with the nuances of international relations to talk to his global audience. Many observers believed it was the speech of his life. (Bush jokes that every speech seems like the speech of his life.)
What made the speech work was that the message fit the problem—and that the speech fit his style. It’s one thing to write a ringing piece of rhetoric. It’s more difficult to do so in a way that frames the right balance between subtlety and firmness in policy. It is most difficult to accomplish both while finding the words that sound and feel right. To be effective, a speech has to fit a leader like a perfectly tailored set of clothes.
Speechwriter Michael Gerson explained, “The president wants, in his speaking, action and directness, and he communicates that sense of momentum with clear outlines and short sentences.” But organization alone isn’t enough. “All that said,” Gerson continued, “the president also demands an element of elevation in his speeches, that shows some continuity with the great traditions of American political rhetoric.” Bush wants words “that challenge the country to its better self, or that talk about its deepest values, or relate to some great moral purpose.”
With Bush’s speech to the joint session of Congress, he found a way to tailor and wear those clothes in a way that had eluded him in the past. A new era in the Bush message machine had begun.