The Music: While eager fans awaited Bush's arrival, contemporary Christian songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman performed. No surprise there: mere pandering to Bush's religious-right mainstay. But loudspeakers playing an orchestra version of "This Land Is Your Land" after Chapman's performance -- that's ironic. The orchestra version was essential to avoid the song's populist lyrics. Folk singer Woodie Guthrie was probably rolling over in his grave.
The Warm-up Act: The Bush team also made a poor move in giving Gov. Bob Taft stage time for a pre-speech pep talk. Many in the crowd actually booed when the Republican leader took the stage. Taft's insistence that "It's all up to us in Ohio" came off as slightly overblown, considering the presence of 49 other states in the Union.
The Arrival: Bush showed up only 15 minutes late -- not bad. When his "Midwest Bus Tour" pulled into the parking lot, four large screens inside the Gardens allowed fans to watch him step off the bus. As "Eye of the Tiger" blared, strobes and spotlights filled the darkened arena for a show that would impress even the most jaded Chicago Bulls fan. Well done again.
But the symbolic populism implied by the bus campaign seemed somewhat unconvincing, especially since the "Midwest Bus Tour" included flights on Air Force One from Detroit to Toledo and from Toledo to Dayton.
The Look: Bush wore dark slacks and a blue collared shirt, apparently the standard campaign uniform; his likely Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, wore the same outfit during his April 6 appearance at Sawyer Point. Does fashion say anything about the candidates?
The Setting: The Gardens was a good choice, symbolizing competition as well as broad appeal. The Bush team flanked the arena with a large banner on either side. An orange banner depicting the state of Ohio stamped with a giant "W." hung on one side. But opening the concession stands would have been a helpful addition to the dinnertime event.
The One-Liners: Bush made three questionable moves here. One of his first comments was, "I'm going to find the person who put on this event and give them a raise." Fans laughed. But isn't Bush ultimately the person who put on the event?
Second, the president tried to appeal to the Hispanic community, perhaps aware the following day was Cinco de Mayo; but the gesture was unconvincing, if not offensive. With an ethnically sensitive "Viva Bush" sign behind him, he said, "Vamos a ganar!"
His Spanish accent has apparently not improved during vacation at his Texas ranch. A hush fell over the otherwise rowdy crowd.
"That means we're going to win," Bush informed his fans. They burst into cheers, but Hispanic issues were not mentioned again throughout the speech.
Third, Bush might have taken his family-friendly approach too far. He used his wife, Laura, as a basis for keeping him in the White House.
"A good reason for putting me back in there is so she will have four more years as the First Lady," he said.
The Attack on Kerry: Bush resurrected the flip-flop accusation, accusing Kerry of being a U.S. Senator "long enough to take both sides of just about every issue." Funny. Kerry had accused Bush of flip-flopping on issues, too, naming among other things the president's initial refusal -- and then granting permission -- to allow National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice to testify before the Sept. 11 Commission. Bush didn't specify exactly what Kerry changed his mind about.
Bush also attacked Kerry for basing his campaign on old bitterness.
"Anger is not an agenda for the future of this country," he said.
Tell that to the Bush supporter who was earlier moved to holler, "Yeah, kill Saddam!"
The Missing Information: Despite international outrage over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops, Bush altogether ignored the topic. His silence on this issue weighed heavily upon certain parts of his speech, including his belief in the "great decency" of U.S. troops and his statement, "Today no friend or enemy doubts the word of the United States of America." Mentioning the abuse also might have reflected negatively on the large "Integrity" banner strewn across one section of the arena. As for no one doubting the word of the United States, how about the crowd of protesters outside?
While speaking about the war on terrorism, the theme that dominated his speech, Bush said, "It is the president's job to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations."
He didn't mention the rising cost of the war in Iraq, which will certainly be passed to future presidents and generations. But his fans didn't seem to notice.
The Big Closing: Bush finished his talk with the typical conservative laundry list. He emphasized his support for families, schools and religious congregations, his distaste for judicial activists on the bench and his belief that U.S. culture is moving toward one in which "each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life."
But Bush knows how to finish strong -- or at least how to exploit a national tragedy at the end of a political stump speech. He said he'll never forget standing amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center two days after its destruction, when a firefighter pointed at him and said, "Don't let me down."
"I'm running for four more years because we have a war to win," he said. ©