Will be expected to do something that...

TONIGHT GEORGE BUSH

August 20, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

TONIGHT GEORGE BUSH will be expected to do something that even the first great master of political mass communication could not do. That is, explain a campaign promise that turned out to be absolutely and flagrantly untrue.

I mean, of course, his famous "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge of four years ago. There's just no way to wiggle out of the fact that he said it and then agreed to new taxes.

Here's how the master handled it:

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president against President Herbert Hoover.

This was during the Great Depression. The federal government had been running a deficit. FDR went to a ball park rally in #F Pittsburgh in mid-October and pledged to reduce federal spending.

As president, he promptly raised federal spending, and the deficit became worse. His opponents, including Democratic conservatives, attacked him for this in much the same manner that Bush's critics, including conservative Republicans, have ridiculed him for for going back on "read my lips."

This criticism got under FDR's skin. So in 1936 he said to his chief speech writer, Samuel Rosenman, "I'm going to make the first major campaign speech in Pittsburgh at the ball park in exactly the same spot I made that 1932 Pittsburgh speech; and in the speech I want to explain my 1932 statement. See whether you can prepare a draft giving a good and convincing reason."

Rosenman went back and re-read the 1932 speech. "That evening I went in to the President in his study [he recounted in his memoirs] and said that as long as he insisted on referring to the speech, I had found the only kind of explanation that could be made. He turned to me rather hopefully and, I think, with a little surprise, said, 'Fine, what sort of an explanation would you make?' "

"I replied, 'Mr. President, the only thing you can say about that 1932 speech is to deny categorically that you ever made it.' "

So FDR just made a speech justifying his fiscal policy and never mentioned the first speech.

While we're on the subject of FDR: Barbara Bush's remarks last week criticizing the Republican platform plank on abortion led to speculation as to whether she knew the political impact of her remarks. One commentator said, "They don't call her the silver fox for nothing."

That animal kingdom reference recalled for me what one historian of the Roosevelt era wrote about his first lady, Eleanor: She employed "the wisdom of the serpent and the guileless appearance of the dove!" She knew when to appear to speak for FDR, when to clearly be speaking for herself, and when to make people guess.

Once she asked him about supporting a civil rights bill in public he himself opposed. They both knew her statement could be politically damaging with Southern senators, but he told her to go ahead. If things got too hot, he told her, "I can always say I can't do a thing with you."

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