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Because the President so rarely exposes himself to live, unscripted questioning, and because he has expressed himself so poorly the few times he has risked such exposure this year, the political establishment assumes that John Kerry has a big advantage in this fall's debates. Bush has been far more skillful in his debating career than is generally appreciated, and his successes in that realm put his widely noted lack of eloquence in a different light.During his career George Bush's speaking style has changed significantly, which is why the tape from 1994 was so intriguing.Bush, when asked the same question, had simply said, "I'm against casino gambling"—and when asked, after Richards's discourse, if he wanted to elaborate, said, "Not really." For years I had been told by people who knew Bush from business school or from Texas politics that he was keenly smart—though perhaps in a way that didn't come across in his public statements. The man on the debate platform looked and sounded smart and in control.
Each time she tried this, Bush calmly said, "I think this is a diversion away from talking about the issues that face Texas"—which led him right back to the items on his stump speech ("I want to discuss welfare, education.
I want to discuss the juvenile-justice system ...").
"To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so," he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles.
Richards's main line of attack—in fact, her only one—was that Bush had done so poorly in a series of businesses that he would be over his head as governor.
I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape—but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written often of the importance of metaphor and emotional message in political communications.
When I invited him to watch the Bush-Richards tape, Lakoff confirmed that everything about Bush's surface style was different.
Bush's achievement is the more surprising, because he has entered every debate at a presumed disadvantage and has had to be a giant-slayer. Garry Mauro, whom Bush trounced in his re-election campaign in 1998, was an experienced and knowledgeable Texas official.
Ann Richards was the most celebrated orator in Texas, having succeeded U. In 2000 Bush's main opponent in the presidential primaries, John Mc Cain, was beloved by the press for his mordant "straight talk." And in the general election Bush had to face Al Gore, who until then had manhandled a long series of debate opponents.
Lakoff also emphasized that what had changed in Bush's style was less important than what had remained the same.
Bush's ways of appealing to his electoral base, of demonstrating resolve and strength, of deflecting rather than rebutting criticism, had all worked against Ann Richards.