The Speech the President Should Give

By SARAH VOWELL

New York Times

July 14, 2005

A couple of weeks ago, on this very page of this here newspaper, Senator John Kerry wrote an Op-Ed article imagining "The Speech the President Should Give," about that night's televised presidential address on the war in Iraq. Of course, Kerry had about as much chance of George W. Bush's following his advice as the producers of "MTV Cribs" have of getting the president's mother to show them around Kennebunkport.

Still, Kerry stunned me, not because his ideas were sane, but because he was actually able to fantasize that President Bush would give a speech offering just and concrete solutions for that black hole. Because I don't even remember being able to dream that big.

The only possible presidential speech fantasy in my wildest of daydreams, my oratorical castle in the air, is that one day, for just one measly speech, the president - the man of "mission accomplished," the man who was once asked at a press conference to discuss one of his mistakes and couldn't think of any, the man who is surely the sunniest looker-on-the-bright-side east of Drew Barrymore - would sit behind his Oval Office desk, stare into a TV camera and say: "My fellow Americans, good evening. As if that's possible."

He continues, "We are a divided people, but let us celebrate what we have in common. We don't all worship the same god. Some of us do not believe in a god at all. But the good news is that, thanks to me, we all now believe in the Apocalypse. You're welcome."

Then he would address the worried Western states - which are afraid of going up in flames because so many copters and National Guardsmen, the region's usual summertime firefighters, are deployed to Iraq - adding, "Oops." This will remind him to remind us that his "Healthy Forests" initiative has at least reduced the fear of forest fires by making it easier to chop down those deadly trees.

"Which is what I'd like to do for the state of Florida," he says.

He continues: "In the future, you folks won't have to worry about all this hurricane damage anymore because of my inability to address, much less accept, the scientific consensus on the alarming consequences of global warming according to groups ranging from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to Mrs. Atkinson's eighth graders at Theodore Roosevelt Junior High. This means more hurricanes in the short term, but rest assured that icebergs melting from the greenhouse gases of unchecked American factories will flood Florida off the map eventually, so you'll no longer have homes to worry about."

The speech goes on for hours, pre-empting Conan. There are long tangents about mercury levels, under-armored military vehicles and war profiteering. Finally, losing his voice, he hoarsely ends his diatribe in the middle of the night, whispering "sweet dreams" while putting air quotes around the word "sweet."

Then I realized I was picturing George W. Bush giving this presidential bummer speech while wearing a cardigan sweater. Which is when it hit me. I was fantasizing about Jimmy Carter. I can stop whiling away the hours writing forlorn presidential speeches in my head and look up Carter's forlorn presidential speeches instead.

Of course, my favorite is the famous "malaise" speech of 1979 (it deals with the energy crisis - but never actually uses the word malaise). Considered by some to be the worst presidential speech in history, the address asserted that our problems are "deeper than gasoline lines." And: "This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning." Then: "There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice."

Those frank words, coming out of a presidential mouth, are shocking. It will be difficult, but think back and try to remember an America dependent on foreign oil, an America with high gasoline prices, an America consumed with crises in the Middle East. And imagine you feel there is nothing you, the average American, can do. Then your president goes on TV and instead of saying you can do something vague like "stay the course," he tells you that there is something small and practical you can do. You can carpool!

These days, there's just something refreshing about reading through Carter's clear-eyed political suicide. Daydreamer though I am, I have never expected a president to solve our chaos. It's just nice to know that once, one of them acknowledged it.

Maureen Dowd is on book leave.

Sarah Vowell, a contributor to public radio's "This American Life," is the author, most recently, of "Assassination Vacation."

E-mail: vowell@nytimes.com