Tonight George Bush addressed the nation on the Iraq war – and I was saddened.
Not so much by the content, but the behavior. And what continues to amaze me in reaction to a speech like this is the emphasis on rhetoric, and the lack of anyone talking about trust.
Let me say at the start, though I’m going to review President Bush’s speech, I’m not going to get into the specific issues for two reasons. First, it was basically more of the same – no new or dramatic changes. Some mea culpa, some ‘stay the course.’ Secondly, the newspapers, websites and TV will discuss the issues exhaustively, if you’re interested. Most people aren’t, as they are already decided on their stand on issues anyway.
What most people CAN be influenced on is how they feel about the leader conveying the issues – George Bush. Is he telling the truth, can he be trusted, do we believe him, can we follow him? This is what more people need to be talking about, and the President needs to listen to as well.
Leaving politics aside, George Bush does not generate trust. I’ll get into the behavior of this in a paragraph or two, but the problem President Bush has is not JUST the facts of the situation: a perceived failed and unpopular war, a mishandling of Hurricane Katrina response and FEMA controversy, an unsuccessful Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, and a few other things….
These facts are real, and people will take their stand on them. As a matter of fact, the reaction of Democrats to his speech is predictably negative, and the reaction of Republicans is just as predictably positive. The only difference is the Republicans enthusiasm is noticeably dimmed, but they are good troopers!
For here is the heart of the matter. George Bush is a poor communicator.
In brief, he always looks like he is playing a role. In tonight’s speech he looked like an actor on a stage. The problem is, he’s not a very good actor. And even if he was, that’s not a very good approach to leadership.
I don’t doubt that George Bush is earnest, sincere and wants desperately to be believed. But he is not perceived that way. Even by most supporters.
Teleprompters and written speeches are never great for communicating, but at least the President should have better advice and training. Although only the trained eye might consciously notice, he is talking slightly to the left of camera. And EVERYONE’S unconscious eye will perceive it, (unconsciously of course.) And he LOOKS like he is reading, which of course he is. But so were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton when they gave a State of the Union, but they didn’t look like they were reading. They were skilled.
Stiff – we cry out for a real, unrehearsed gesture. A genuine smile. Actually I think he sometimes looks in pain – and at the least, very uncomfortable.
At the root of it, the President looks like he wants to be liked, (as communicated by little grimaces, nods and unfortunately ‘painted on’ smiles) rather than being the leader who has tough news to give, and he will give it, and take the heat. And inspire us to follow him.
He wasn’t always this way. Think back to 9/11. President Bush was authentic, real and powerful in his leadership, and he magnificently communicated trust in that leadership in the weeks and months after that tragedy. Who will forget him that day as he addressed the nation from the oval office with tears in his eyes and a firm voice and solid eye contact. Spontaneous, and authentic. And when he visited Ground Zero a couple of days later and wrapped his arm around the construction worker and said, “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Then he spoke without a smirk, looked straight at people or the camera, and we KNEW that he was in charge and we could trust his care. But not now.
Now we are back to what I call the ‘posing’ role that he has often had in his campaigns, the debates, and the early years of his presidency. We perceive him as playing the role of President, rather than BEING the President.
Which is unfortunate for the country, and the President himself. We NEED to trust our leaders, whether we agree with them or not. And tonight was more of the same from the standpoint of trust and believability. The effectiveness of one’s communications determines the effectiveness of one’s leadership, and we had a display tonight of how not to do it.