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Jewish World Review August 8, 2000 /7 Menachem-Av, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Was it a great speech? -- WHAT IS A GREAT SPEECH? That's difficult to define, but not as difficult to sense. One cannot separate the speech from the speaker, yet the speech must project a great idea as well. Which was only part of the complex challenge George W. Bush faced Thursday night. His acceptance speech not only had to introduce himself and his ideas, but his new party. And at the same time, he had to seize the decisive ground of two-party politics, which is the middle ground. The object, after all, was not to deliver a great speech; it was to deliver a great speech that would help him win this election.

George W. Bush did not deliver a great speech Thursday night. It is difficult to imagine how he could have, given how accustomed we are to mediocrity. Greatness might have scared us off. Instead, he may have contributed something more useful than greatness: a beautifully effective speech. It will not be easy for the opposition, though it will try mightily, to resurrect some of the old stereotypes of Republicans now that this Bush has dashed them so effectively.

Yes, the candidate's calculation showed. We were supposed to think of George W. as just another hardscrabble wildcatter from Midland, Tex., much like any other barefoot scion of the rich-and-famous you've ever met. Sentimentality is the bane of great rhetoric, and George W. came perilously close to sinking into it. He doubtless felt he had to. It's called humanizing the candidate, by which is meant dehumanizing him -- selling him as a kind of picture postcard.

But if the craft showed in this speech, so did the art. There were some fine passages, overpowering in their concise truths. Whole novels and plays might not sum up the tragedy of William Jefferson Clinton as well as these succinct lines: " For eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration has coasted through prosperity. And the path of least resistance is always downhill. But America's way is the rising road. This nation is daring and decent and ready for change. Our current president embodied the promise of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose.''

If this was not a great speech, it showed an understanding of what greatness is, and of the dynamic that is America. Somehow this candidate has managed to remake his party. One would expect a Republican nominee to stake out strong positions in foreign policy, tax reform, defense ... those are the party's strengths. But listening to George W. Bush the other night, it became clear that he's also staked out education, Social Security and health care. Aren't those Democratic monopolies, and off-limits to Republicans? Their presidential candidate must not have realized it.

Listen to George W. on education: "Too many American children are segregated in schools without standards, shuffled from grade to grade because of their age, regardless of their knowledge. This is discrimination, pure and simple -- the soft bigotry of low expectations. And our nation should treat it like other forms of discrimination: We should end it. ... When a school district receives federal funds to teach poor children, we expect them to learn. And if they don't, parents should get the money to make a different choice. Now is the time to make Head Start an early learning program, teach all of our children to read and renew the promise of America's public schools.''

And listen to him on Social Security: "For younger workers, we will give you the option -- your choice -- to put a part of your payroll taxes into sound, responsible investments. This will mean a higher return on your money, and, over 30 or 40 years, a nest egg to help your retirement, or pass along to your children. When this money is in your name, in your account, it's not just a program, it's your property. Now is the time to give American workers security and independence that no politician can ever take away.''

And on health care: "We will give low-income Americans tax credits to buy the private health insurance they need and deserve.'' Which is still another way to let Americans make their own decisions -- rather than have government make those decisions for them.

George W. Bush calls this compassionate conservatism. It is only smart conservatism. To expand the conservative base in a country, give people something to conserve. Like their children's right to a decent education; their own retirement accounts that no bureaucrat or politician can fiddle with; their own health insurance. ... In short, their own stake in a free society that respects their rights and property -- and doesn't keep them beholden to anybody. This may be a new idea to some of the habitual losers in the Republican Party who confuse conservatism with never changing -- but it's as old as Disraeli, and as effective.

Strangely enough, this year the Republicans are becoming the party of change. It must be unsettling to Democrats, but unless they wake up and start competing, they will go into this election as the do-nothing party, so attached to their old reflexes and interests, they can't change.

Sons of the rich and famous aren't supposed to be this imaginative, this daring, this down-to-earth. But the Republicans have emerged as the party with the ideas, even if they have yet to become the party of idealism. But it was clear from the rest of his speech that its new leader is working on that, too.

No, this isn't your father's Republican Party -- the sly one of Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, or the kamikaze party of Barry Goldwater. It's more like your grandfather's, or what used to be called Moderate Republicanism in the Eisenhower Era.

But this year's Republican program isn't just a moderate version of the Democrats', a Clintonism lite. It emphasis isn't having government do a little less, but on letting people do a lot more for themselves. Its presidential candidate actually seems to trust the people -- a risky scheme indeed. Freedom always is. And no new birth of it can be assured by rhetoric alone.

For now, George W. Bush's rhetoric is only that. It is a promise and a test -- only the first of many tests in this campaign and, if he is successful, afterward. At the end of the evening, as the buses full of elated Republicans pulled out of the First Union Center on to the expressway and home, one of the first offramps they'd pass would be marked Valley Forge.

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