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June 25, 2015

In his 1979 announcement speech Ronald Reagan gave the nation his world view and a blueprint of how he would govern. In 2015 Jeb Bush gave us ad copy.

Here’s the thing that struck me immediately about Bush’s speech: one sentence paragraphs. There are 101 paragraphs in Bush’s speech. Seventy-seven of them are one sentence. (Another fifteen are two sentences). How much substance can someone convey in a sentence? Reagan’s 1980 announcement speech was forty-six paragraphs by my count, with six of them of a single sentence.

Bush did not deliver a detailed diagnosis of the nation’s ills, his world view, or where he’d lead the nation. He provided a mish mash of one-liners in search of applause. It was commentary on what our political leaders and their highly paid consultants think we can tolerate: understanding the world through ad copy.

I am reading the announcement speeches, not watching them. In truth they are not created for readers. They are crafted for us to watch passively on television or electronic devices or if in attendance to react enthusiastically, the better to impress the electronic audience and provide b-roll for the next campaign ad. What I am looking for is speech derived from a literal tradition, as Neil Postman described it in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “expository prose lifted from the whole page.” Postman expresses why the written word serves reason:

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization with another.

Bush told a story of national decline but he didn’t do so as sharply as Reagan. Even though Bush did assault the present regime in Washington and its big government ways, he failed to do so with Reagan’s vividness and specificity. One liners can help do this, sometimes in a telling and emphatic way. But they can’t build an argument, and that is what Reagan did in his address.

Bush will be unusually reliant on Americans’ aversion to learning anything from or even recalling much history. He referred to the more famous members of his family only obliquely, but he has problems with two of them who have been president – the successful one and the unsuccessful one. His father, George H.W. Bush, conducted a successful foreign policy and acted responsibly on the federal deficit. But he was always suspected of being a faux conservative by true believers and his acquiescence to tax increases is a cardinal sin to many on the right. Jeb’s problem beyond the party is his brother George W., architect of a calamitous foreign policy and the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.   Jeb got through the speech with cute constructions and the presence of the popular Barbara Bush, but history – should we remember it - remains a problem.

Thus, his pronouncements that he’ll “show Congress how that’s done” and “challenge and disrupt the whole culture in our nation’s capital” are not wholly convincing; not for the son and brother of presidents and the grandson of Prescott Bush, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1953-1963.

Governor Bush deserves full credit for recognizing his multi-ethnic family and for addressing his audience in Spanish. This is a source of electoral strength for him and a sign of a national – even international - outlook. He also emphasized his terms as governor of Florida. By most accounts he was a successful and popular governor. State chief executives, as Bush stressed, have to get things done rather than pontificate at problems. The record of governors being elected president – Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. – is strong and so the governorship is also a strength for the candidacy.

Hillary Clinton’s video might be the floor, though I haven’t gotten to Donald Trump’s speech yet. Good thing we have Reagan’s announcement, one that treated the voters like grown-up citizens. So here is the updated Reaganometer with Reagan, Clinton, and Bush:

Jeb Bush, Ronald Reagan

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