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State of the Union: Pro's View

Aired January 21, 2004 - 07:44   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush's State of the Union address lasted 54 minutes. Mr. Bush was interrupted by applause 67 times last night, including 36 standing ovations.
So, what do a couple of former presidential speechwriters think about what the president had to say? David Frum is a former speechwriter for President Bush. He is the author, also, of the book, "An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror." He joins us this morning from San Francisco. Michael Waldman is a former speechwriting director for President Clinton. His book is called, "My Fellow Americans: The Most Important Speeches of America's Presidents." He is here in Washington, D.C., this morning.

Gentlemen, good morning. Thanks for being with us to both of you.

David, let's begin with you. Assess for me, from a speechwriter's perspective, how you felt the president's speech went last night? Obviously, the goal of a speech is not only to get an agenda across, but also to move people, to hit some chord with people. Do you think last night's speech did that?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: I think this was less an agenda-setting speech -- although there was that function -- than a reminder of distance traveled. It was a pre-election speech -- all of the things that have happened well under this administration, the war on terror, which is the administration's -- one of its top two themes.

He did do some agenda setting. For example, he put down a very important marker for the government of Iran, saying, we're not going to permit you to get these dangerous weapons. He said that in 2002. Back then, people wondered whether he meant things like that. Now, everyone knows, and especially the Iranians, yes, he does.

He re-established that bond that he has with the country. This is one of his rare chances to talk through the box to the viewers. Americans like him better when they see him in full rather than in clips, and so he made a great success.

O'BRIEN: Overall, 76 percent felt positively about the speech, but many people -- many analysts felt it was sort of mild, maybe not one of his best. Michael, what do you think?

MICHAEL WALDMAN, FORMER CLINTON SPEECHWRITING DIRECTOR: I think that's what I would think. I think it was surprisingly tepid and surprisingly timid, given that it is, as David said, his chance to talk to the country. Next time we hear from him maybe at this length will be his acceptance speech.

And when you think about the "axis of evil" speech in 2002 and last year's speech about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, this was, in a way, it was sort of the most boring sequel since "The Matrix." There really was not a lot of new initiative here.

And while it was looking backward, I didn't think it sealed the deal with the public that the country is moving in the right direction, which is one would assume that's what he would have wanted to do with a speech like this.

O'BRIEN: David, as you mentioned, it was not focused on being an agenda-setting speech. The president certainly defended the war in Iraq. He defended the Patriot Act. It didn't look forward, though. Many people said didn't have a lot of vision. And you sort of agreed with that in your previous answer. Do you think that that's a problem, that the lack of overriding vision, expanding on a little bit on what he spoke about, Mars earlier in the earlier weeks? Do you think that's a problem?

FRUM: I don't know that it's a problem. I mean, he laid down -- he's got -- he's going to go to the country with this is a big-theme presidency. You know, Michael worked for President Clinton. You know the famous distinction when people have lots of -- many ideas and one big idea, foxes and hedgehogs? President Bush is a one or two big idea president.

And he's going to go back to the country with a couple of big ideas. And he did lay them down. If you vote for him again, you get social security reform in the second term. That remains something he wants to do. That's a big idea.

You get, you know, a continued aggressive policy in the war on terror with warnings to Iran and, by the way, a coded warning to Saudi Arabia. You know, one of the things he said last night which I thought was maybe the single most interesting thing was he at one point said, we are going to expect higher standards from our friends. That's what the text said. He stumbled and made a slip. He said, we're going to expect higher standards from our friend, and we know which (UNINTELLIGIBLE) friends he had in mind.

O'BRIEN: Michael, obviously, the president was addressing Congress. Obviously, he was addressing the American people. But his message was also going to some of his democratic rivals, the guys who would like to have his job. Let's listen to a little bit of what he had to say about Saddam Hussein.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The once all- powerful ruler of Iraq was found in a hole and now sits in a prison cell.


O'BRIEN: What do you think that was for? WALDMAN: Well, I think actually it's interesting. I think that in some ways the timing of this speech and the way it was written was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by half. I think that the White House was absolutely certain, having watched all of the pundits for months, that they were going to be delivering this speech with Howard Dean roaring out of Iowa. And there were a lot of passages in the speech that seemed directly aimed at him, saying, well, we are better off with Saddam Hussein in jail. But, of course, the Democratic race is much more wide open, and it's a lot harder to make those contrasts with some of the other candidates.

To my mind, if David heard big themes on domestic policy, he had the sound up a lot higher than I did. I think if you listened really closely, you might have heard the president mumble something about social security reform. But, really there was -- you know, you heard about sexual abstinence and drugs. And there was nothing about rock and roll, but they probably just didn't get up to that.

It was a very tinted speech, and it doesn't suggest -- at least from the speech -- that he has a sense of what he wants to do domestically over the next year or the next four years. It was sort of holding onto the ball and hoping things work out well.

O'BRIEN: David, we're going to give you the final word this morning. A home run or timid?

FRUM: I would not -- certainly not timid. He's never timid. But not quite a home run, either. I think Michael got it right, that there was maybe some political miscalculation. There was a sudden outbreak of sanity among the Democrats, and they got rid of Howard Dean. As David Letterman said, the Saddam Hussein endorsement didn't help him. And that's good for the country that there is going to be a Democrat committed to -- probably, a Democrat committed to this war. That's good for the country. It makes it a little bit harder for the Republicans to bash his head in come November.

O'BRIEN: David Frum and Michael Waldman joining us this morning. Nice to see you, gentlemen. Thanks so much.

FRUM: Thank you.

WALDMAN: Thank you.


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