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Bush projects statesmanlike image

Prem Panicker in New York | September 03, 2004 10:07 IST
Last Updated: September 03, 2004 10:35 IST

On date, there are 60 days to go for the November 2 presidential election and incumbent George W Bush took the GOP into the home stretch with his speech Thursday night at the Madison Square Garden, accepting his party's nomination to run for a second term.

It was a speech that deviated from the tone of the last three days. Toning down the invective, Bush presented the face of reason, of statesmanlike analysis of where he hopes to lead the country in the next four years.

It was the perfectly crafted finale the Republicans were hoping for – a message to take back with them to their hometowns, and use in the push for votes.

'Craft' is in fact the adjective that comes to mind – the real cleverness of this speech lies in the way the President slipped in the occasional attack, every now and again, in the midst of laying out his own vision.

The ploy prevented the speech from becoming a diatribe, it fostered the image of a President above the mean-spirited fray of election politics – and yet, it skewered the Administration's pet peeves, from Democratic rival John Kerry to the New York Times as representative of the liberal media.

"Tonight," Bush said at the outset, "I will tell you where I stand, what I believe in, and where I will lead this country in the next four years."

He started off spelling out his domestic policy. "I believe every child can learn, and every school must teach," he said, on the subject of school reform, a theme he touched on at length later in his speech.

"I am running with a compassionate conservative philosophy that government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives."

Four years ago, while accepting his party's nomination, President Bush had unveiled that phrase and defined 'conservative compassion' thus: "Big government is not the answer, but the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference. It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity. This is what I mean by compassionate conservatism. And on this ground, we will lead our nation."

On this issue, he was, four years later, still on-message.

He then spoke of his plan to rejuvenate the economy, and to create jobs. "My plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation, and making tax relief permanent."

Speaking of how he intended to help those who had lost their jobs, Bush said, "We will create American opportunity zones. In these areas, we'll provide tax relief and other incentives to attract new business, and improve housing and job training to bring hope and work throughout all of America.

"We will offer tax credits to encourage small businesses and their employees to set up health savings accounts, and provide direct help for low-income Americans to purchase them."

Medical and tort reform figured prominently in the address, with Bush speaking of doctors forced out of practice by rising liability costs – a theme Indian delegates such as Dr Raghavendra Vijayanagar and Dr Zachariah P Zachariah, as also the hierarchy of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, have been pushing hard for.

"We need medical liability reform now," Bush said adding that he planned to 'ensure every poor county in America has a community or rural health center'.

The President also continued to back faith-based initiatives and said that churches and other religious organisations that provide social service should be given more government funding.

He also offered to lead a bipartisan effort to simplify the tax code, which, he said, was so complicated it was costing Americans 11 billion man-hours each year just to fill.

Bush defended the invasion of Iraq saying that America knew about former dictator Saddam Hussein's record of support for terror. "We knew his long history of pursuing, even using, weapons of mass destruction. We asked Saddam Hussein to disarm and he refused. I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office, a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make. Do I forget the lessons of 9/11 and take the word of a madman, or do I defend America? Faced with that question, I will defend America every single time."

What the speech did not address was the question of just what arms Saddam Hussein was supposed to lay down  – the Bush Administration had repeatedly called on the then Iraqi head of state to turn in his weapons of mass destruction but now admits he apparently did not have any.

While the President did not address any of the direct charges made by the Democrats on the conduct of the war in Iraq, he used the opportunity to stick a little shiv in his rival.

Referring to those countries that had backed America in the war on terror, Bush said, "My opponent called America's allies 'coalition of the coerced and the bribed'. That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador, Australia, and others -- allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician."

Again, the President was staying on-message, repeating lines that have been repeatedly heard on the platform these last three days.

More of the same came when he referred to John Kerry's votes for and against the $87 billion appropriations bill to prosecute the war in Iraq.

Without going into the background of why Kerry first voted for and then against that bill (the Democratic candidate pointed out that he voted for the appropriation, but when that bill was tagged on to one on taxes, he voted against, in order to defeat the tax measure), Bish said, "My opponent explained that the issue was complicated. There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in battle."

It was classic Republican strategy – to home in on a word, and use it to damn the speaker. And in this case, it is Kerry's voting record that has become the Republican storyline.

On Thursday, Georgia Senator Zell Miller harangued the audience on Kerry's votes against various weapons systems – what he left out was the fact that those bills were the initiative of former defence secretary, now Vice-President, Dick Cheney.

Bush said the war on terror would continue. "We will remain on the offensive, striking terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them at home."

Referring again to his opponent, Bush said Kerry had proposed initiatives that would cost $3 trillion in federal spending. This money, he argued, could only be raised through increased taxes.

"That is the politics of the past. We are on the path to the future and we are not turning back," he said, to yet another round of applause.

Time and again, the President threw in little personal stories, little reminiscences. And indulged in characteristic self-deprecating humor. "You may have noticed I have a few flaws," he joked. "People sometimes have to correct my English. I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it.

"Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called walking.

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"Some people think I am too blunt, and that is the doing of that white haired old lady sitting over there," this he said pointing to former first lady Barbara Bush, who was in the VIP box along with her husband the 41st president George H W Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, the Bush twins Barbara and Jenna, Vice-President Dick Cheney and family, and senior Administration officials of the ilk of Condoleezza Rice.

Repeatedly, he circled back to the 9/11 theme, and it was on this note that he ended a speech that lasted a shade under an hour and ten minutes.

"I have seen the character of a great nation: decent, and idealistic, and strong. The world saw that spirit three miles from here, when the people of this city faced peril together, and lifted a flag over the ruins.

"People will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose."

Democratic candidates John Kerry and John Edwards are scheduled to respond to the President's address, at a midnight rally in Ohio.

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