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Published: Wednesday, 10/10/2001

Suddenly, Bush is hailed as a speaker

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - As President Bush has rallied the nation for war, an early casualty has been the criticism of his speaking ability.

In less than a month, he has gone from being derided as a linguistic bungler to being hailed as eloquent.

The change is largely because of three factors: his conviction and passion for his cause, the example of past presidents, and Michael Gerson.

The first speech Mr. Bush made after the terrorist attacks was the night of Sept. 11, a short, televised speech to the nation. Tom Shales, a Washington Post critic, said that a stunned president seemed wooden, giving a speech that was “ineffectual, neither reassuring nor forceful enough.''

On Sept. 20, Mr. Bush went to Capitol Hill to give a 41-minute speech to a rare joint session of Congress, declaring a new war on terrorism, condemning the Taliban, promising to rebuild New York City, and vowing, “We'll meet violence with patient justice - assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come.''

Mr. Bush pledged, “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.''

The speech was widely acclaimed as the best he had ever made. Mr. Shales said, “This may indeed turn out to have been Bush's defining moment.''

Historian Michael Beschloss declared, “The imperial presidency is back.'' Tom Brokaw of NBC declared that Mr. Bush had given “an eloquent speech.'' Dan Rather of CBS called it a “powerful speech, powerfully delivered.''

If there is a similar speech in American history, it may have been made on May 26, 1940, when President Roosevelt delivered his first “fireside chat'' on the radio since the European war began on Sept. 3, 1939. He was telling America that he was putting the nation on a war footing and that America must help the nations that would become the Allies.

Throughout the war, Mr. Roosevelt warned the American people to be afraid only of fear itself. Repeatedly he said, “We will not falter. ... We will not fail.''

Some of Mr. Bush's rhetoric recalls Abraham Lincoln's appeals to his countrymen to save the union. “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain,'' Mr. Bush echoed on Sept. 20. “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.''

Since that speech, Mr. Bush has spoken publicly almost daily. Most of his words have been hailed for heft, import, and even poetry.

Last Saturday, as the American military was making final preparations to begin bombing sites in Afghanistan the next day, Mr. Bush sat down at Camp David with Karen Hughes, his senior adviser, and his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who recorded Mr. Bush's words and took notes on a yellow legal pad.

Mr. Bush told them he wanted to make a televised speech immediately after the bombing started. He said he wanted to be forceful and emphasize something his father, former President Bush, had told him - make clear the attack was on military targets and not the Afghan people.

He wanted to thank the armed forces he was sending in harm's way and assure them they would have every tool they needed. He wanted to reassure the American people and tell them not to live in fear. He wanted to emphasize that the new war would have many fronts, from freezing assets of terrorists to bombing to intelligence.

And, Ms. Hughes recalled later, he wanted to quote from a letter he said he received from a fourth grader. “I recently received a touching letter that says a lot about the state of America in these difficult times - a letter from a fourth-grade girl with a father in the military,'' Mr. Bush would say the next day. The part of the letter he quoted said, “As much as I don't want my Dad to fight, I'm willing to give him to you.''

And he wanted to say once again that every nation must choose between terrorism and democracy.

Mr. Gerson sat down to write a draft of the speech, which would be only 971 words as delivered and take only seven minutes to read. The three went over the speech again Sunday morning. Mr. Bush reread it several times at Camp David and again on the helicopter as he flew back to an event honoring firefighters and back to the White House. Ms. Hughes recalled that Mr. Bush was “very somber and very serious'' about the speech and the day.

Mr. Bush chose to deliver the speech in the Treaty Room of the White House.

“The battle is now joined on many fronts,'' he said. “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.''

Mr. Gerson, the wordsmith behind Mr. Bush's new confidence in speaking, is unusual among speechwriters in that he has an office in the basement of the West Wing of the White House, not the executive office building next door, although he sometimes works there for the quiet, fueled by Starbucks coffee from a shop a block away. As this past weekend, he is present at many presidential meetings; he writes his first drafts only after hearing from the president what he wants to say.

Mr. Gerson is known as the inventor of Mr. Bush's espousal of “compassionate conservatism'' and the pledge that his education plan would end “the soft bigotry of low expectations.''

Mr. Gerson majored in theology at Wheaton College in Illinois, worked for a former Republican senator, Dan Coats of Indiana, and covered politics for U.S. News & World Report.

He is known for simple but powerful language, looks for inspiration to the words of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and is happiest when his words have a poetic ring.

He once said that in the midst of writing routine speeches, he always knew a day would come “when you are writing for the angels. For some great and decisive moment.''

The White House has said repeatedly there won't be one point when the United States can declare victory in this unusual war, even if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed. But polls show 94 percent of the American people support the current military action - a testament not only to the severity of the blow to the nation but to the job Mr. Bush is doing in communicating.



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