— It's a president's prerogative to change his mind, so maybe tomorrow George W. Bush will forgo his promise of brevity and stupefy us with a speech even longer than the two-hour oration that Edward Everett Hale delivered at Gettysburg in November 1863. (Abraham Lincoln also said a few words.) If, however, Mr. Bush keeps his promise to be brief, he will deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. In between the din of the last election and Wall Street's rumblings, we could use a little peace and quiet.
The photographer Macduff Everton has recently published an image of Mount St. Helen's in 1980: countless trees skittled in every direction, the entire hillside scorched free of any semblance of life. It reminds me of nothing so much as the American political landscape after eight years of President Clinton's volcanic garrulousness. Whatever one felt about the force of his convictions, one could only admire the elemental energy behind them.
Hot air, of course, has always been a feature of the Washington climate. (I noticed some time ago a neatly printed sticker above the hand dryer nozzle in a Dulles airport washroom: PRESS HERE TO LISTEN TO YOUR CONGRESSMAN.) Senators are notoriously orotund. And talking heads on television are paid large sums, apparently on a volumetric basis. But presidents are the most cyclonic talkers of all. ("Silent Cal" Coolidge would be the exception that proves the rule.) Something about the constant sight of the attentive faces — hundreds, often thousands, a day, all wearing that strange, slightly goofy smile that celebrity evokes — persuades them that everything they say is worth chiseling in marble. Theodore Roosevelt's loquacity in the White House was such that Henry Adams used to dread invitations to cross Lafayette Square for dinner. In January of 1904, the little historian found himself "at the imperial table," next to Secretary of War Elihu Root and, of all people, Edward Everett Hale. "But we were straws in Niagara," Adams recalled. "Never have I had an hour of worse social malaise. We were overwhelmed in a torrent of oratory, and at last I heard only the repetition of I-I-I . . . . When I was let out and got to bed, I was a broken man."
Oddly enough, however, T.R.'s public speeches tended to be brief and businesslike. Like Ronald Reagan (another unstoppable monologist in private), he was acutely aware of the short attention spans of crowds in public places. The Roosevelt inaugural of 1905 was shouted into a cold wind that blustered so hard, many ladies lost their hats, while Chief Justice Melville Fuller's robe inflated like a black balloon. T. R. deliberately said nothing memorable and was through in six minutes, to the relief of his audience.
One in that chilled throng was T. R.'s distant cousin, Franklin. Less than 30 years later, F. D. R. stood in the same spot and delivered one of the great inaugural speeches in our history. Its length was immaterial, in view of its practical achievement, which was to restore optimism by means of sheer sonorous splendor and the projection of a giant personality. F. D. R. was a master of what musicians call the agogic accent — the pause before a crucial phrase: "The only thing we have to fear . . . is fear itself!" Americans held their breath while he held his; and when the tension relaxed, so did the national mood.
Ronald Reagan achieved much the same miracle in 1981. His first inaugural, which he largely wrote, was plainspoken, even prosaic, but like F. D. R.'s, it projected solid certainty. Here again, speaking in a voice that had no overtones of cynicism or condescension — just a silvery sound quality that made dull words glow — was a positive president who believed in his country. Suddenly, the self-doubting 1970's seemed small and far away.
President-elect Bush will speak tomorrow in a less traumatic time, but one compromised, for him personally, by the consciousness that more than half of those who voted didn't want him. In not trying to impress us tomorrow, he may yet persuade us to give him the benefit of our doubts.
Edmund Morris, the author of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," is writing the second volume of a trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt.