- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

NEW YORK CITY. — President Bush does something tonight that only four U.S. presidents have done in the last 30 years — accept his party’s nomination for a second term in the White House.

Interestingly, recent political history also reveals a uniquely balanced political dualism surrounding Mr. Bush’s predecessors. Of the four “second-term seekers,” two were Republicans — Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — and two were Democrats, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1996. Two won re-election — Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton — and two lost — Mr. Carter and George H.W. Bush. The pattern looks like a bipartisan dead heat.

Mr. Bush gets to break the tie.

I thought it might be instructive to “take a walk down memory lane,” as Mr. Reagan implored delegates in Dallas 20 years ago at the 1984 Republican convention, to see if recent second-term acceptance speeches reveal anything about the men and their moment in political history. What I discovered provides some useful insights into the secrets of success Mr. Bush might consider in his remarks at the final night of the GOP’s Gotham City gala.

First, talking about the future is a prerequisite of any acceptance speech. Mr. Carter spoke of “two futures” in his 1980 address. He said the Republican future was a “dream world” and a “nightmare.” (Yet based on his economic record, Mr. Carter obviously had his dreams mixed up). Mr. Reagan also talked about a “choice between two different visions for the future.” George H.W. Bush told delegates in Houston in 1992 that his future vision was a “new crusade to reap the rewards of global victory” of the Cold War, while Bill Clinton’s forward-looking metaphor was “building a bridge to the 21st century.” There is no doubt Mr. Bush will continue this near-mandatory future focus tonight.

Reviewing the four acceptance speeches also reveals some interesting differences among the four presidents and how they made their case for re-election. Despite being from different parties, the two that ultimately won — Mr. Reagan and Mr. Clinton — and the two that lost — Mr. Carter and George H.W. Bush — have some themes in common.

Reading Mr. Carter’s speech, delivered here in New York City, one gets the impression that he was in over his head. He talked about how there were “no easy answers.” And that every decision he made was not “right or popular.” He said being president was like “total immersion” experience and “the life of every human being on earth depended on the judgment of the person in the oval office.” (The “life” of every person depending on the peanut farmer’s judgments had to sound either humorous, frightening or absurd to most Americans. It sure does now.) Clearly lacking in the speech was a sense of competence, confidence and hope. Instead, Jimmy Carter sounded beleaguered, frustrated and maybe not up to the challenge.

While President George H.W. Bush had a stronger economic and foreign-policy record, his acceptance speech in 1992 also reflected the frustrations of his first four years. If Mr. Carter’s challenge was America held hostage by the Iranians, George Bush’s agenda was “held hostage” by Democratic lawmakers. His speech complained about Congress at several points. He reminded delegates that he extended his hand in bipartisanship — saying in his 1989 inaugural address that voters “did not send us here to bicker” and the Democrats “bit it off.” He criticized Congress for failing to pass a balanced budget and basically argued that all the rascals should be thrown out through term limits.

Having worked for Mr. Bush, I believe his complaints about Democratic obstructionism were legitimate, but in retrospect I wonder if voters were more interested in hearing about possible future solutions than a litany of problems — no matter how justified.

The two presidents who went on to win struck a different tone. Neither Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Clinton dwelled on problems of the past. Both communicated a sense of intrepid confidence. Interestingly, both faced opposition majorities in at least one house of Congress, but highlighting the problems this created was not the focus.

Mr. Clinton concluded his speech by saying, “After four good years, I still believe in a place called Hope.” Mr. Reagan ended with a masterful peroration referring to his speech about “a shining city on a hill,” adding that our greatest days “still lie ahead.”

Competence, confidence and hope: Those themes exuded from the Clinton and Reagan speeches in tidal waves of rhetorical brilliance. President Bush should place himself in this venerable tradition tonight.

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