There were several people in the room, a half hour before the president spoke, who are well connected and experienced. Should dinner be put off? To help make that decision we brought collective insights. The networks had declared that they would not broadcast the speech. Was there political animus implied in that decision? Yes, said one or two. No, said one cosmopolite: The reason the networks aren’t giving the speech the time is that 8 P.M. tonight is when the rating sweeps are taken, and they don’t want a presidential speech to get in the way of the new spring shows. One guest intoned—he was without a pipe, otherwise he’d have cut perfectly the figure of the truly wise man on the beat—that whatever the White House intends in the way of keeping presidential speeches confidential, the network people know ahead of time if the message will be important enough to abort competitive broadcasting at that hour, and this one would not be important.
We compromised. We would listen for fifteen minutes, and then go in to dinner. The speech, we’d later learn, went on for 33 minutes. The host asked the guests to venture what would be the headlines, based on the fifteen minutes we had heard. Everyone came in on the theme laid in concrete in the New York Times headline Tuesday morning: “Bush Lays Out Goals for Iraq: Self-Rule and Stability.” Assessments of the quality of the speech varied. One guest had been reading about Lincoln’s Cooper Union Address in Dick Morris’s book, Power Plays, and recalled that Lincoln’s speech lasted two hours, which brought on observations on the general subject of declining homiletic skills by public figures.
We learned that the president is scheduled to speak six times more in the six weeks ahead, which is to say up until the date scheduled for the handover in Iraq. Four weeks after that is the Democratic convention. That’s when John Kerry will be contingently nominated for president. The nomination will become formal when he raises his hand, sometime later in the summer, and promises to honor and defend the McCain-Feingold Act on national political expenditures. In his six speeches, it is obviously anticipated that Mr. Bush will continue to stress Monday night’s themes, that the United States will press on to the day in June in which sovereignty transfers to an Iraqi body, and to the day in June in the decennial ahead when stability and freedom are achieved.
We had heard the words spoken which were featured the following day. “I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power. I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American.”
The sentiments were expected and endorsed—nobody in the dining room felt acquisitive about Iraq. There being no surprises in the matter of policy proposals, there was some banter on the matter of style. Why does the president persist in using the first person? “I sent American troops . . . I sent American troops . . .”
The use of the royal we is commendable, was the conclusion of at least several of the guests. The anthropomorphic imperative does this kind of thing. President Lyndon Johnson, when he initiated his drive to economize on electrical consumption in Washington, reported in an address to the nation that “I have turned out the lights . . .” meaning that he had sent out directives to turn off the lights when offices were emptied at night, but giving the impression that he was contriving to appear at one hundred thousand light switches every night to turn them off, declaring one step forward in mankind’s war against waste.
Mr. Bush is a man of modest manner. He is correctly firm when firmness is one part of the apparatus of leadership. But “We sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security . . .” would perfectly convey the message intended, which, as it was spoken, encourages disrespectful arpeggios, rising to, “I sent American troops to defend my security.”
The consensus was that the President had said not what needed to be said—what needed to be said he can’t say, namely when will it all end—but what the American public wished to hear said.