BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MIKE PESCA: Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Mike Pesca. On Tuesday George Bush gave the biggest speech of his presidency not related to terrorism. Plastered behind him dozens of times were the words "corporate responsibility." If that's the message that sticks, then Bush will have won the day. If, on the other hand, citizens hunger for the similar but harsher phrase "corporate reform," the Bush appeal will be overrun by congressional proposals that go far beyond what Bush advocates to rebuild confidence in the nation's business. Those were the stakes, and here to dissect the message is David Frum, who coined many a familiar phrase as a White House speechwriter during the first 14 months of the current Bush presidency. David Frum, thanks for coming on.
DAVID FRUM: Thank you.
MIKE PESCA: So were you waiting for Bush to call Enron, Worldcom and Tyco "the axis of malfeasance?" [LAUGHS]
DAVID FRUM: That might have been a little bit-- over the top. You know this issue in many ways presents him with very unusual political problems. This is a war president who's now been yanked back out of what he thinks is important and what probably his political base thinks is importance to deal with an issue that he thinks is secondary.
MIKE PESCA:Before the speech he had a pre-speech press conference where he talked about some of the issues that he was going to talk about the next day. What's the purpose of such a pre-speech speech?
DAVID FRUM: Well you know if you bring the press into the room, read a half an hour speech at them, and then ask them to report on it, they're going to get a lot wrong. You want to give them a day to digest it. He also I think wanted to deal early with some of the more personal questions that people are going to have. One of the arguments being made by some of the president's critics and some of the press is that because of the president's own background in business --because he himself was at one point the subject of an S.E.C. investigation -- he's somehow crippled or tainted in dealing with the issue of corporate malfeasance. So he wanted to answer those questions. I think the problem he had was he was not prepared for how many questions there would be and how fierce they would be, and so at that press conference he did not turn in as successful a job as I think he would have liked.
MIKE PESCA:Let's talk about Harken for a second. It never tripped up Bush before. He's dealt with it in previous gubernatorial and the last presidential election. Do you think the White House is truly scared of the issue now?
DAVID FRUM: I don't think they're scared of the issue. I think in his mind, he doesn't see that he did anything wrong. He doesn't think that he has anything to worry about, and he doesn't think that there's anything new to add to the story. So when the press is there in full-- what-did-you-know-and-when-did-you-know-it mode, I think he was surprised by that. He was unprepared, he was unready, and that's certainly a mistake, because dealing with the press is like dealing with an angry dog. I mean the moment they scent weakness, that's it.
MIKE PESCA:On to the speech. Usually in a big speech a president takes a stand and there are clearly delineated issues: to have stem cell research or not to have stem cell research. Here there are actually two big issues. It's to consider the few-bad-apple theory or to consider the systemic-reform theory. Bush pretty much just said that this was a few bad actors causing these corporate scandals, and he didn't really engage at all in this other theory that's out there. Why didn't he feel the need to even engage that point, that there are these people who are calling for broader reforms?
DAVID FRUM: Well that, that's not how presidents talk. The stem cell speech which you refer to is actually a very unusual speech. I mean in that speech President Bush entered into the details of an argument. Some say this; others say that. Here's my answer. That's not the way presidents normally communicate. They present their point of view, and ten it stands or falls.
MIKE PESCA:By framing the issue as: we just have to go after the malefactors and then we'll have our solution -- and by getting people to talk about it that way -- is that Bush's sole objective?
DAVID FRUM: This, this is one of those things where you have to accept not everything is about media; not everything is about framing. Some things are actually about hard facts. If by the time this is all said and done we discover a dozen bad companies -- not more -- and those people are apprehended and punished in some way, people will say yup, the bad apple theory was right. If it turns out there are hundreds and hundreds of companies or dozens and dozens that have been doing this, then people will call for some more systematic reforms.
MIKE PESCA:I know one tool of focus groups are those dial meters where every second of a speech can be registered as good or bad by people watching it. It struck me that during the Bush speech, right up there on the screen on the cable channel that I watched, there was the equivalent of a dial meter. It was that little arrow indicating whether the market was up or down. When he began the speech it was up. By the time he finished, it was down. You've been on the inside when a speech was occurring. Do you think that people on the inside were at least a little dispirited by that?
DAVID FRUM: No doubt they were dispirited by the juxtaposition. It doesn't make for a good image. On the other hand, I don't think anybody would imagine that that was actually a comment on the speech itself, because everyone who was buying and selling stocks that day had known for 24 hours what was going to be in the speech. So if the speech was going to depress stocks, the stocks would have fallen the day before.
DAVID FRUM: Well how about the next day when the Dow goes down almost 300? Do you think the White House was dispirited by that?
DAVID FRUM: I think what is happening there is that Wall Street is registering its opinion about who after the speech it thought was likely to win the argument -- the President or Congress, and my interpretation of that 300 point drop the following day would be that they listened to the reaction to the speech and said this speech may not be enough to stop some of the bad things that we see in Congress, and that it's going to be a tougher market in the coming little while.
MIKE PESCA:So what you're saying is that Wall Street wasn't reacting to the president's speech as a bad idea, but they were saying that the president's speech wasn't convincing enough to win the day and defeat the proposal that they truly hated. It was at least a referendum on the effectiveness of the speech if not the content of it.
DAVID FRUM: I think that's a good explanation. Now remember, Wall Street always votes in like 5 minute increments--
MIKE PESCA: Right. [LAUGHS]
DAVID FRUM: -- so the next day they might change their mind. They will be as this legislative process goes ahead constantly assessing, and the president's speech is one factor but there'll be a lot of others that give the people on Wall Street the idea are we going to see a better investment climate coming out of the changes from Congress or is it going to be worse?
MIKE PESCA: David Frum, thanks for coming on.
DAVID FRUM: Thank you.
MIKE PESCA:David Frum is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a former speechwriter for President Bush and is writing a new book on him called The Right
MAN: The Transformation of George W. Bush. [MUSIC]