Where was the tongue-tied Texan? This was fluent and funny

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For a President who made his reputation as a tongue-tied buffoon with a fine line in malapropisms, this was a bravura performance. Whoever has been coaching George Bush in oratory deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom (and a congratulatory glass of champagne). Speaking - yes, speaking with fluency and considerable style - at the Banqueting Hall in London yesterday, Mr Bush must surely have slain his line-fluffing demons once and for all.

This was the keynote speech of his state visit. It was a serious speech on foreign policy, at a serious time in Anglo-American relations, and he delivered it with due gravitas. But also with the full authority of his office and not a few excursions into wry humour that bespoke the greater comfort he now clearly feels when speaking in public.

The writer, or writers, deserve bouquets, too, for a 45-minute oration that switched easily between registers and avoided the two sets of clichés that we Europeans find hardest to stomach - the gun-toting ultimatums of the Wild West and the God-toting crusading of the Bible Belt - while still preserving Mr Bush's penchant for telling it "like it is".

The President set out several arguments, most of them defensive, which was not a bad tactic given the doubts even some of this country's most devoted Atlanticists still harbour about the war in Iraq. He defended the commitment of the US, and specifically his administration, to international institutions (by which he meant, primarily, the United Nations). Message: whatever you think, I am not a unilateralist, really I'm not.

He defended the use of "measured" force against Iraq, as the last and only resort in the ongoing battle against weapons proliferation and terrorism. Message: I am not an irresponsible Texan who rushes to war. And he propounded the expansion of democracy around the world - arguing that the spread of democracy would provide the US with a cordon sanitaire against those with hostile, anti-American intent. Message: the security of the US brings with it the security of its allies, chief among them, faithful old Britain.

There was much for sceptics (about either the wisdom of the war or the wisdom of George Bush) to quibble with.

The President compared what he said was the rise of international terrorism to the rise of Hitler. He said - in a parallel that Whitehall also bandies about - that the reconstruction of Iraq was happening at a quicker pace than in Germany and Japan after the Second World War (even though the scale of the human, material and ideological difficulties are of a quite different order).

But he had some enviably good lines. Of Iraq: "Free nations failed to recognise, much less confront, the aggressive evil in plain sight" and "In some cases, the measured use of force is all that protects us from a chaotic world ruled by force." It is not necessary to subscribe to the thought to appreciate the elegance of its expression. I detected only two Bushisms: the famous "nucular" (which some insist is an acceptable Texan mutation of "nuclear") and something that half-sounded like "retain" for "restrain". Otherwise, he was word-perfect.

And the flashes of humour, delivered low-key and dead-pan, with a hint - dare one say - of affection for the sometimes eccentric way we think and talk over here, seemed calculated to appeal to this very British audience. But his first gag was perhaps his best. Mr Bush opened by alluding to the most recent American notable to grace our shores, who was confined to a plastic box above the Thames.

There were those, Mr Bush acknowledged, who would have liked to confine him to similar quarters. Thankfully, the Queen had intervened ...

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