The news readers from NPR were mum-mum-mumbling in the background the other morning as I was putt-putt-puttering around the house when . . . all of a sudden . . . running counter to every fiber of my being . . . pulling against my every natural inclination . . . I began to pay attention! President Obama, one of the news readers said, was giving a speech in the Midwest to road-test a new theme for the campaign’s final weeks: “trust.”
“There’s no more serious issue in a presidential campaign than trust,” the president said. “Trust matters!” The Midwesterners cheered.
At these words my attention loosened and my mind, what’s left of it, flew backwards in time, 20 years almost to the day, and I was sitting in a room in the White House, in 1992, huddled with two other speechwriters around a little speaker set on a table in a high-ceilinged room. We were listening to a closed-circuit transmission from a campaign rally in the Midwest. A different president was desperately seeking reelection. This was President Bush—the first President Bush, I mean, the one that Democrats hated but later pretended to like after they decided they hated his son more.
We speechwriters were anxious that afternoon because—well, because presidential speechwriters are always anxious—but we were particularly anxious because at this rally in the Midwest, the president was going to road-test a new campaign theme.
One issue surpassed all others, President Bush said. “It’s called trust. When you get down to it, this election will be like every other. Trust matters!”
The Midwesterners cheered. We looked at each other across the tiny speaker, satisfied. We had our new theme! The president’s senior staff, at their daily meeting the next morning, gave the chief speechwriter a standing ovation.
It was only over the next several days that we began to suspect that the theme wasn’t working. Voters already knew President Bush was an honorable man. They liked the other guy better anyway. As a campaign issue, “trust” seemed an evasion, deflecting a more serious criticism that was thrown at us hourly, by the press and by voters themselves, in focus groups and surveys. The president, it was said, had no agenda.
Again our campaign leapt into action. Frantic phone calls were placed to federal agencies and cabinet departments: Who’s got an agenda? From the Department of Health and Human Services came a “health care reform”—something having to do with tax credits. The Education Department sent over scraps from an “education reform” that the president hadn’t been able to move through Congress; something with tax credits. And child care—a big issue in ’92—where the hell can we find a child-care policy? Somebody dug one up at Labor, where it had been buried a year earlier. A child-care tax credit.
The agenda was strung together and packaged in a booklet with glossy blue covers. The president could hold it up at rallies, with a look that said: No agenda, eh? What do you call this, smart guy? Chopped liver? The word renewal was testing very well with focus groups—better than reform, even—so our booklet got called Agenda for American Renewal. Millions of copies were mailed to voters. Perhaps you still have yours?
Me neither. Indeed, I hadn’t thought of the Agenda in years, until I saw President Obama on TV, at another campaign appearance. His opponents say he has no agenda for a second term. In response his campaign has produced a booklet. It has glossy blue covers and a title to make a focus group swoon: The New Economic Patriotism. It’s a hastily assembled ragbag, stuff from the agencies and cabinet departments. Three and a half million copies will be mailed to voters. The president waves it around at rallies. It looks suspiciously like chopped liver.
Any veteran of the ’92 presidential campaign has learned to identify marks of intellectual exhaustion. The déjà vu this year is especially creepy. President Bush went to a Waffle House to illustrate Bill Clinton’s “waffling” on the issues. He took to calling Al Gore “Ozone Man,” and surrogates warned darkly of Clinton’s unexamined past, just as the president today dwells on Big Bird and “Romnesia,” and his surrogates raise half-baked questions about foreign bank accounts. Both presidents are dignified men, yet their campaigns have felt compelled to abase themselves in the same way for the same reason. They couldn’t think of anything else to say.
I see you can buy Agenda on Amazon for $141. It’s a ridiculous price, but I briefly thought of buying a copy anyway, for old time’s sake. Then I realized I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had it—like an incumbent with a second term.