Seven thousand anxious attendees waited for a discussion on Social Security when President George W. Bush visited Fargo this Thursday. I was sitting in the media section, my press pass held close to my chest, trying to take in as much of the experience as possible. I would like to point out what I thought were peculiar parts of my Presidential speech experience.
This was the first time I sat in the press section of an event. I was surrounded by writers and cameras and television reporters, all scrambling with a variety of duties.
A document detailing President Bush's ideas about Social Security was distributed. A television reporter grabbed his copy and held it, without even opening the cover, for about ten minutes. He was then going on air, and he was holding the document for the camera to see. The reporter talked about what the document contained thanks to the teleprompter. Reading was unnecessary for this reporter to get the job done; he came across as very hard-working and credible, with a nice haircut and jacket, even though he was simply a go-between for the teleprompter typist and television viewers.
Bush took the stage amid decibels of applause that only very popular rock stars achieve. His casual demeanor, however, loosened up the crowd. Four citizens were on stage with the President, three of them North Dakotans.
"Say something else."
"What else do ya know?"
When it was a NoDak's turn to speak, he said the above quotes with just as much shortness as they read on paper. The timbre of his voice seemed to say, 'look, I'm just the President, don't be intimidated by me. Let's just talk.' These awkward transitions to the "regular citizens" who Bush seems to have such rapport with were the only stain on Bush's social skills during the speech.
Bush skillfully handled two outbursts from the audience. Near the beginning of his speech he mentioned Afghanistan and, after a woman rose from her chair, asked if she was from Afghanistan. She responded loudly that she was from Iraq, and said "thank you very much," which netted a standing ovation. The President got a laugh out of the audience next when he said she "got ahead of the story," as he would be talking about Iraq a couple minutes later.
Another man from Iraq, who had begun a hunger strike to protest Sadaam Hussein over a decade ago, yelled out to Bush during the speech. It's interesting that the only two people form the audience to yell loudly to the stage were from outside the USA. Do Americans take too reverent a stance to the President? Should I yell to the President onstage if he addresses an issue close to my heart? Do Americans, or even North Dakotans, have too stuffy a code of conduct for events like this?
However, not everyone was totally silent between standing ovations for the President. I noted every time the President mentioned "God" or "the Almighty," someone from a different part of the crowd would give an audible whoop of joy. Bush's discussion had very little to do about religion, and he mentioned God only within the first fifteen minutes of the hour-long event. It still surprised me that people who held God so highly on their list wanted everyone to know with an audible "woo!"
A recurring theme of the President's Social Security plan is, "it's your money to keep." This idea resonated with the North Dakotans in attendance. When Bush said the new plan would ensure citizens "money the government can never take away," the first large applause in quite awhile was unleashed. Those in attendance wanted ownership of their money, and did not want the government to have a penny more than what was necessary.
Finally, the day could not finish without a small crack at the other side of the political bird. Mary, a 60-year-old from Walcott, earnestly said the President had "brought dignity and honor back to the White House," to which a loud slap of applause and standing ovation was produced. The key word, "back," was an obvious sleight to President Bill Clinton. Mary's sentence was worded so that no one in attendance would question about who she was talking. The applause after that comment seemed spiteful and venomous, lashing out at a former leader of the people. For the deeply-red, morally-righteous, conservative state of North Dakota, though, it was the least surprising moment of the day.