Glancing around the cyberworld, I see pretty much everyone agrees that Bush didn’t look very impressive on Meet the Press. On our side of the aisle Kevin Drum says his performance was "labored and uninteresting....like he was addressing a class of sixth graders." On their side even his most partisan defenders had to wince. Even John Derbyshire says bluntly, “I thought it was a pretty dismal performance.”
Of course that was the first impression. I was sure that the conservative pundits would regroup their forces and explain why Bush’s performance was actually a sign of his superiority. Sure enough, Peggy Noonan comes through for the team.
She starts with a troubled admission: “I am one of those who feel his performance was not impressive.” She admits that it was a softball interview, then slips in a slap at the liberal media, “six million people saw it, and many millions more will see pieces of it, and they will not be the pieces in which Mr. Bush looks good.” This is an important thing to say. By accusing the liberal media of distorting the news to make Bush look bad, even before they get a chance to do it, she assures the faithful that she hasn’t gone over to the other side. Thus assured, they read on looking for the meat.
Before giving the meat to the faithful she digresses to demonstrate to the others who might have come across her column that she will be tough but fair. How better to do this than by expanding her criticism?
The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared. He seemed in some way disconnected from the event.
With that out of the way she can build her real argument.
I never expect Mr. Bush, in interviews, to be Tony Blair: eloquent, in the moment, marshaling facts and arguments with seeming ease and reeling them out with conviction and passion. Mr. Bush is less facile with language, as we all know, less able to march out his facts to fight for him.
I don't think Mr. Bush's supporters expect that of him, or are disappointed when he doesn't give it to them….
Mr. Bush's supporters expect him to do well in speeches, and to inspire them in speeches….They put the bar high for Mr. Bush in speeches, and he clears the bar. But his supporters don't really expect to be inspired by his interviews.
Bush is not Blair. You see, though Tony Blair was Bush’s supporter on Iraq, he’s still a liberal, and a foreign liberal at that. In any comparison, the faithful know that, in all differences, Bush’s way is the better one. Bush is not a facile, fast-talking liberal with a bunch of suspect facts and arguments. He’s a genuine man who’s at his best when he can speak from his heart, with a script prepared by his staff, a teleprompter, and lots of practice.
She pauses here to remind the faithful that the liberal media are going to attack their man. Having been warned, they won’t be tempted not to stand by their man.
The Big Russ interview will not be a big political story in terms of Bush supporters suddenly turning away from their man. But it will be a big political story in terms of the punditocracy and of news producers, who in general don't like Mr. Bush anyway. Pundits will characterize this interview, and press their characterization on history. They will compare it to Teddy Kennedy floundering around with Roger Mudd in 1980 in the interview that helped do in his presidential campaign. News producers will pick Mr. Bush's sleepiest moments to repeat, and will feed their anchors questions for tomorrow morning: "Why did Bush do badly, do you think?"
But now to the meat of her argument, and the meat to the faithful.
But I am thinking there are two kinds of minds in politics. There are those who absorb and repeat their arguments and evidence--their talking points--with vigor, engagement and certainty. And there are those who cannot remember their talking points.
Those who cannot remember their talking points can still succeed as leaders if they give good speeches. Speeches are more important in politics than talking points, as a rule, and are better remembered.
Here it comes. She compares Bush to the sainted, almost-late Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Reagan had a ready wit and lovely humor, but he didn't as a rule give good interviews when he was president. He couldn't remember his talking points. He was a non-talking-point guy.
This is it! The meat! Bush is like Reagan. He’s not like the foreign liberal Blair; he’s like the sainted Reagan. His genius is not in giving mere interviews full of facts and stuff; he gives speeches that connect with real American people. Just like Reagan! And in a moment of stunning humility, she never even mentions that she wrote many of those brilliant Reagan speeches that connected with real American people.
Now she returns her attention to those readers who aren’t part of the faithful (the unfaithful?) and makes a stab at appearing fair and balanced: “John Kerry does good talking points.” Hillary does talking points and Dean screams. It’s not that she doesn’t like talking points. Some of her best friends are talking points. It’s just that talking points are political and not genuine.
Democrats have minds that do it through talking points, and Republicans have minds that do speeches…. And the reason--perhaps--is that Democratic candidates tend to love the game of politics, and Republican candidates often don't. Democrats, because they admire government and seek to be part of it, are inclined to think the truth of life is in policy. How could they not then be engaged by policy talk, and its talking points?
Now she wraps it up and pulls all of these threads together in one triumphant conclusion.
Republicans think politics is something you have to do and that policy is something you have to have to move things forward in line with a philosophy. They like philosophy. But they are bored by policy and hate having to memorize talking points.
Speeches are the vehicle for philosophy. Interviews are the vehicle of policy. Mr. Kerry does talking points and can't give an interesting speech. Mr. Bush can't do talking points and gives speeches full of thought and assertion.
There you have it. Republicans are deep-thinking, sincere, dullards. Democrats are slick, politics-playing, policy wonks. Republicans, speeches, and philosophy are good. And while she won’t say Democrats, interviews, and policy are exactly bad—it wouldn’t be professional for an objective journalist to make a judgment like that—her readers know they are less good (the faithful know they are evil).