President Bush outlined his proposals for health care and to cure the nation's urban ills at Dunbar High School yesterday and barely registered a blip on the Richter scale.
He was listless, uninspired and uninspiring.
He stumbled his way through his prepared remarks with his head down, speaking in a voice scarcely more animated than a telephone dial tone.
L When he strayed from the written text, he didn't make sense.
When he tried to put life into his voice, he invariably put the emphasis in the wrong places. He sounded like a grade-schooler trying to read Shakespeare.
Even the president's attempts at humor fell flat.
"I'm very glad to be here at Dunbar High, home of the Dunbar Poets," he said by way of opening his remarks. "With their unbeaten streak maybe Pete Pompey should become my adviser."
A beat passed.
"Ha, ha," said someone in the audience belatedly.
"Ha, ha," laughed the rest of us dutifully.
I might note that Dunbar's spacious, handsome auditorium was only about three-quarters full and seemed composed predominantly of upscale professionals in business suits -- health-care administrators, public officials, insurance company executives. I'm told that a smattering of people from the immediate community dotted the audience but I suppose I'll have to take that on faith.
Thus, the majority of the people in the audience probably didn't get the joke. They may not have heard that Dunbar has one of the top-ranked high school basketball teams in the country and that the team is coached by a man named Pete Pompey.
Or perhaps even they recognized the sad significance of the president, down at last from his ivory tower, in his first and only tribute to an inner city school in the speech, addressing it to the school's basketball team.
After Bush had said what he had to say, the listeners rose respectfully to their feet and gave him a polite round of applause.
Outside the school, a handful of passers-by gawked for a moment or two at the stretch limousines and television broadcast trucks parked at the curb before going about their business.
A protester held up a handwritten sign accusing Bush of being "four years too late."
A trio of teen-agers, with their baseball caps turned backward, shouted "Rodney King" as they walked by.
Nobody cheered. Nobody booed.
Police officers yawned.
I asked members of the audience what they thought of the president's speech and they just shrugged.
They had a point. What was there to think about?
I suppose what we saw at Dunbar High yesterday was an example of performance art -- the president of fering a metaphor for his urban policy these past four years: listless, uninspired, irrelevant.
Bush talked about his "Weed and Seed anti-crime initiative, his ,, HOPE housing initiative, and the need for welfare and education reform" -- all half-hearted programs that either have been languishing on the political table for years or underfunded to the point of malnutrition.
Listlessly, Bush praised the East Baltimore Medical Center as an example of "the future of health care in this country" because it represents a public-private partnership to provide preventive health care to the poor.
"In the greatest, most technologically advanced nation on the face of the Earth," said the president in a monotone, "there is no reason that one out of seven Americans has no health insurance. What we must do is clear. We must guarantee every American access to affordable health insurance."
This was the only passage in the speech that provoked moderate applause.
And, in response to the recent riots in Los Angeles, the president pledged an additional $600 million to help those who became homeless because of the riots there.
But nothing the president said moved the audience beyond the polite applause due his office.
His presentation lacked any fervor or sincerity or passion. He did not communicate in any way any sense that he meant what he said.
Above all, there was no urgency in his demeanor, despite the fact that the recent riots have, temporarily at least, moved urban issues to the top of the national agenda.
Mayor Kurt Schmoke wasn't even present yesterday.
The mayor was in Washington, testifying about the plight of the cities on Capitol Hill.
Presumably, the mayor decided his time would be better spent talking with people who might be expected to care.