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Editorial: George Bush at the Republican National Convention

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-04

The late President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States once said that the White House was a "bully pulpit," meaning a magnificent platform from which to persuasively advocate an agenda. Roosevelt, in fact, often used the word "bully" as an adjective meaning wonderful, and he always believed that the presidency should be used to exhort Americans to action on domestic and foreign issues. Roosevelt, a New Yorker, also viewed the presidency in moral terms, frequently using the term "manifest destiny" - a phrase also used by American politicians in the 1840s to justify continental expansion by the US. Roosevelt's stentorian oratory - and beliefs - came to mind late on Thursday evening when the current US president, George W. Bush of Texas, in accepting the Republican Party's nomination for a second term, delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his presidency. He focused largely on domestic issues such as overhauling Social Security; rewriting the tax code to make it simpler; health care; education; and jobs. He renewed the mantra of "compassionate conservatism." But his 62-minute address on the fourth and last day of the GOP quadrennial convention in New York City, also recommitted the United States to a strong global leadership role in combatting terrorism and in sustaining economic progress for have-nots in both the US and abroad. And he clearly defined himself as the leader most capable of taking America ahead in a world of increasing globalisation where competition from Asia and Europe was markedly threatening American economic pre-eminence.

But all the bold rhetoric aside, the speech wasn't a plan of action as much as a sharply worded challenge to Mr Bush's Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The president clearly sought to project his image as a strong leader at a time when Islamic militancy and anti-US sentiments around the world are increasing. Just how different will his second term be if Mr Bush is re-elected? The speech wasn't specific enough, but convention speeches are rarely designed to offer minutiae of policy enunciations. They traditionally have been clarion calls to do battle. In that regard, Mr Bush came through remarkably well, setting the scene for a closely fought presidential campaign. In fact, so stinging was his challenge to Mr Kerry that the latter - in an unprecedented move - responded within minutes of the president's speech and accused Mr Bush of distortion and false accusations. This promises to be a season of vitriol, vindictiveness and vilification on the political trail.

Teddy Roosevelt, of course, had it right. The US presidential platform is indeed a bully pulpit, and a presidential candidate at an American political convention - especially if he's the incumbent - automatically draws the biggest TV audience of his life. Mr Bush has frequently been ridiculed for his garbled syntax, his warped words and his inappropriate facial expressions, not to mention his mixed metaphors and unusual idioms. The President Bush who spoke on Thursday, however, did so with both authority and humility. There was little in his appearance and oratory to feed caricaturists. Politics is often a matter of perception, and Mr Bush looked presidential; his wife, Laura, was nothing if not totally glamorous. Politics is also a business in which, in the final analysis, voters cast their ballots for the person who's best at retail politics - in other words, the likeability factor, what TV producers call the "Q Factor," plays a major role in deciding elections. Mr Bush has made his share of mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere, he's given an overgenerous tax cut to America's richest, and he's been fitful in his war against global terrorism. But he remains an enormously likeable man, and his vision for a just America and a prosperous world cannot be faulted.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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