CAMPAIGN ’88 New Orleans’s cavernous Louisiana Superdome, the elements for this week’s Republican National Convention were settling into place. The three-ton blue drape screening off half the 87,500-seat football stadium had been arranged to create a sense of intimacy for the 4,554 delegates and alternates at the start of the convention on Aug. 15. And Washington producer Mark Goode had averted a last-minute panic when country singer Crystal Gayle — scheduled to croon America the Beautiful for the Aug. 18 finale-cancelled for emergency surgery.
Goode hastily recruited singer-actress Shirley Jones to fill the breach.
But as Republicans and media personnel poured in for the four-day extravaganza, the centrepiece of the show was still taking shape hundreds of miles away.
In an unassuming study off the kitchen of her home in a Washington suburb, former White House speech writer Peggy Noonan was crafting the closing address that analysts agreed would be the most important speech of Vice-President George Bush’s career. Even Bush’s staunchest supporters admitted that the prime-time address, accepting his party’s nomination, represented perhaps his last best chance to establish a positive image for an election now less than three months away.
For Bush, the task was daunting. Not only did he need to outperform his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, but he also had to make sure that he was not overshadowed by the opening-night rhetoric of his retiring boss, Ronald Reagan. Still, many Republicans worried that Bush’s greatest danger at the podium lay not in comparison with Reagan or Dukakis but in his own history of verbal misfortune. As syndicated conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak put it
late last year, “His tongue gets him in trouble every other time he wags it.” Ever since his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 1980, Bush has tended to perplex his audiences— and amuse his travelling media corps— with garbled syntax, damaging off-thecuff comments and outright bloopers. In Washington two weeks ago, Bush startled a group of Republican leaders with his vow: “I will never apologize for the United States of America—I don’t care what the facts are.” Asked by a reporter
last May how he planned to address the drug problem, Bush replied, “I’m going to be coming out with my own drug problem.” But his most celebrated blunder occurred at a Republican rally in Twin Falls, Idaho, that same month. Recounting his years with Reagan, he said, “We have had triumphs, we have made mistakes, we have had sex.” As shocked silence descended, he quickly corrected himself to say, “We have had setbacks.” But as he joked later, “I feel like a javelin thrower who won the coin toss and elected to receive.”
Bush is aware of his verbal problem. “I don’t always articulate,” he told New Hampshire voters last February, “but I always do feel.” Since then, he has received coaching from his chief media director, Roger Ailes. But, after helping the vice-president lower his reedy voice and slow his breathless delivery, even Ailes could not prevent him from sabotaging a key interview with ABC TV’S Ted Koppel last spring by repeatedly calling him “Dan.” Explained Bush later: “I sort of got all blurred in there.”
Last week, Bush protested that “I’ve been talking the same way for many years, so it can’t be that serious.” But several of his statements have provoked consequences that make many Republicans uneasy when they think of him as president. In May, 1986, his comments opposing U.S. intervention in currency markets —directly contradicting Treasury Secretary James Baker’s international monetary accord—sent the dollar plummeting. Dukakis
has repeatedly cited Bush’s incautious 1981 toast to then Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos—“We love your adherence to democratic principles”—to rebut his rival’s claim to possess seasoned foreign policy judgment. And after a trip to Poland last October, Bush
incurred the wrath of U.S. autoworkers when—told of the efficiency of a Soviet tank assembly line—he quipped, “Send them to Detroit because we could use that kind of ability.”
Such verbal blunders are remembered by the electorate, where Bush’s personal
qualities —such as his Second World War record as a decorated navy pilot and his loyalty to friends—are overlooked. And for Bush, those verbal mishaps have proven costly. Analysts blame his 1980 primary loss to Reagan in part on his wooden debating performance. And last week, Dukakis’s aides charged that Bush was trying to avoid three scheduled fall debates with Dukakis, a onetime TV debating host. Democratic media consultant Robert Squier faults Bush for“either his unwillingness to
practise or his inability to concentrate.” Squier also ascribes much of Bush’s awkwardness to his attempts to hide the signs of his patrician upbringing as the son of a wealthy U.S. senator. Attempting the common touch with a recovering drug addict at a Newark, N.J., treatment
centre last May, Bush asked him, “Did you go through a withdrawal thing?” And in Iowa, farmers still joke about Bush’s explanation that many people had been too busy to vote for him in the state’s February caucuses because “they were at their daughters’ coming-out parties.”
After Bush’s humiliating Iowa defeat, aides rushed speech writer Noonan—an attractive, blond 36-year-old who had recently given birth to her first child— to New Hampshire to put new words in the vice-president’s mouth. Noonan had been responsible for some of Reagan’s most poetic flights of rhetoric, notably his tribute to the lost crew of the Challenger space shuttle. Over recent weeks, Noonan has sent Bush top-secret drafts of his convention speech on a facsimile transmitter that sits on the kitchen counter next to her baby’s playpen. Campaign officials clearly hoped that Noonan’s work setting would impart an authentic family feeling to the vital New Orleans address, catapulting Bush to a lead over Dukakis in the opinion polls. Indeed, as Bush closets himself in his New Orleans hotel suite to practise with a TelePrompTer, his aides are counting on Noonan’s words to extricate him from what he once described to The Wall Street Journal as “deep doo-doo.”
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