Amid the outpouring of tributes honoring the life and, by some measures, underrated presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush—who died Saturday at the age of 94—is the inevitable criticism of his communication skills. In his brilliant book What It Takes, about the 1988 presidential campaign, Richard Ben Cramer captured the problem in a nutshell: “People thought the President’s speeches didn’t pack any punch, so they sacked the speechwriters and gave Bush new words to prove he cared about the recession.”
Bush was widely understood to be an old-fashioned gentleman. His persona was neither affectation nor artifice. He was, by all accounts, a person of strong character and genuine compassion. He was a good man. And yet he seemed oddly unable to communicate empathy to the American people. The most infamous example was on the 1992 debate stage, when he appeared flummoxed and then defensive in response to a question about how the national debt affected him personally. Bill Clinton, in his singular style, swooped in to engage with the questioner—a moment that arguably helped win him the election.
The modern presidency has often—perhaps too often, even for me, a speechwriter—been judged by how well the person behind the Resolute Desk speaks to the American people. Still, Bush seemed notably uncomfortable with the kind of communication required of the nation’s executive. Someone whose most famous sound bite—“Read my lips: no new taxes”—backfired in spectacular fashion would understandably be wary of rhetorical flourish. But at key moments, when he needed to explain a position, persuade an audience, or move the country to follow his course of action, he did not muster either the right words or the will to use them.