I know youre out there I can hear you breathing!
This was nothing like Las Vegas, except for the hint of flop sweat in the air. It was a function room in a Washington hotel, and the audience was the Council on Foreign Relations, and up at the microphone, trying to win the crowd, was the President of the United States.
I know youre out there I can hear you doubting!
He never said it, but he had to be thinking it.
Tough crowd. Very tough crowd. They applauded when he was introduced, at 10:44 in the morning. They applauded again when he was finished, at 11:18. And in the 34 minutes between 10:44 and 11:18, the president spoke, and spoke some more, and for almost all that time, the only sound in the room was the presidents own voice.
This president isnt accustomed to silent rooms when he speaks. Hes accustomed to the pump-up-the-volume volume that comes from hand-picked crowds of fervent supporters applause, and wild cheering, and then more applause, especially on the good lines. So there he was, working his way toward each of the good lines lines he knows will work for him and hed turn his body just a bit to the side and lean into the lectern, the better to pound his winners home.
We will fight this war without wavering, hed say. And like the generations before us, we will prevail. And then hed stop, and wait for the applause. But there wasnt any applause.
By fighting the terrorists in Iraq, hed say, we are confronting a direct threat to the American people and we will accept nothing less than complete victory. And hed stop again, and wait again. Silence.
By helping Iraqis continue to build their democracy, hed say, we will gain an ally in the war on terror; by helping them build a democracy, we will inspire reformers from Damascus to Tehran; and by helping them build a democracy, well make the American people more secure. More silence.
And now the terrorists think they can make America run in Iraq, hed say, and that is not going to happen so long as Im the commander in chief.
Only then did the silence break that one time only and by then, hed been at it for nearly half an hour. Even then, it was just a smattering of applause a single pair of hands at first (some desperate White House staffer in the back of the room?), and then, almost dutifully, because they certainly didnt want to embarrass anyone not the lone clapper, and not the commander in chief a few more hands joining in.
But for the rest of the time, only silence. And the longer the speech went on, the more quickly the president raced through the words on the pages in front of him, as if he had decided that this was not his crowd, not his room time to cut his losses and get back to someplace safe, someplace where people show him the love.
So the question is: Did it do him any good?
Which is to say: Does George W. Bush come out of it even a slightly different man, a slightly different president, for having gone through the experience? There are, after all, plenty of ways he can react. He can think to himself:
See? I admitted mistakes and they still didnt cut me any slack! Or
I know as much about foreign policy as they do! Or
Theyre just mad because I wont let my dad and Scowcroft run the show. Or
East Coast snobs! Or
Or it could occur to him that serious people have serious questions about some of the things he does and the way he does them. And that it wouldnt be the worst thing in the world to expose himself from time to time to people who might actually raise those questions.
It could even occur to him that applause lines arent a foreign policy.
Rick Horowitz is a nationally syndicated columnist. Contact him by writing to email@example.com.