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Dubya tears down the wall between himself and the voter
(TIME.com) -- George W. Bush, it turns out, is a different kind of Clinton. In a passionate, roving, lyrical, specific, funny, soaring, compassionate, conservative, long and definitely presidential nomination acceptance speech, Bush announced his intentions for America in a way that promised not only what his running mate promised Wednesday night -- the Reagan years, restored -- but more: the Clinton years, improved.
"Our current president embodied the potential of a generation," Bush said. "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose," went the theme line. "They had their moment. They have not led. We will."
This was Bush's big test, to be equal to both the high gloss of this convention and the seriousness of the Oval Office. By all accounts he had studied hard, submitting his speech to 17 revisions and laboring in front of the TelePrompTers that have flummoxed him before. The preparation paid off, but the nervousness was evident, at least for a while -- a little tightness in those cowboy shoulders, some extra squint in those Bush family eyes.
He took time to lay out his policy platform -- maybe too much time for a campaign whose ideas can be bold but whose first promise is one of a more dignified status quo. The faithful in the hall squealed for tax cuts and missile defense, and Social Security privatization ("no changes, no reductions, no way" -- why echo a father's disastrous pledge?), but these are ideas that make the undecideds squirm. A restoration of dignity attracts them. A restoration of Reagan does not.
But there were shining moments of oratory, Clinton moments. Beautiful steps to the center -- yes, compassionate conservative moments. He spoke of the look in a black juvenile delinquent's barren eyes -- "'Do you, a white man in a suit, really care what happens to me?'" and deftly melded Reagan and FDR by urging America to "tear down that wall" between rich and poor.
There was that strategic distancing that Clinton knew so well -- "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years" -- and that promise of a better way to achieve it than cold triangulation. "I do not need your polls to know my own heart." And of course in every mention of "the current president," every dig, every evocation, there was the promise of the same good intentions, with an honor that will produce what the past eight years have not.
And then, the man who had perfect pitch hit a sour note, the rolling triplet that made wavering women's faces tighten, tighten and then sag. "I will lead our nation toward a culture that values life -- the life of the elderly and the sick, the life of the young, and the life of the unborn."
He managed to soften it some -- "I know good people disagree on this issue" -- but he had nevertheless rung the bell that most divides the nation he promises to unite.
It was a thing that many had hoped -- expected -- he would not say. It may have been evidence of general bravery. It may have been evidence of specific intentions. It may have been a mistake.
It was the Gore jokes, a tiny bit clumsy but lustily received, that seemed to loosen Bush up. And by the end of the speech he had come again to why he was here: to grab the moment of American prosperity that Clinton had let lie, to add national security to national wealth, to lift hearts along with boats. "To occupy the land with character," he said, quoting Frost, the poet laureate of the Kennedys.
George W. Bush, the son who would be president, gave Albert Gore Jr. much to criticize in the next 96 days, but little to scorn. He gave the pundits reason to respect him. He did more than squeak by. And he did the essential thing that a presidential challenger -- albeit one with the past and the polls at his back -- must do if he is promising not reversal but rejuvenation in a season of political apathy: He created a real feeling of anticipation, for the faithful in the arena and maybe even some agnostics in their living rooms, that for America a new day might just be dawning, with an even stronger sun than the one it knows now.
"The wait has been long, but it won't be long now," went the drumbeat. "A prosperous nation is ready to renew its purpose and unite behind great goals, and it won't be long now ... The night is passing. And we are ready for the day to come." And as the balloons and confetti fell on Bush and his high-flying family, it suddenly looked like it was possible to combine Ronald Reagan's conservative optimism with Bill Clinton's liberal empathy.
If only for a night.
Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.
Friday, August 4, 2000
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