Beyond Bushisms

Don't be distracted by the goofs

| March / April 2006

Walk into any big-box bookstore and you can easily empty your wallet on compilations of President Bush's linguistic missteps. It's well-trodden late-show material for good reason -- the president talks funny. But the focus on Bush's tongue twisting belies a more complex reality: Bumbling aside, Bush and his speechwriters have developed a savvy rhetoric that sells his agenda, bolsters his base, and stifles dissent.

Take Bush out of the hot seat of a debate or a press conference and his bemusement disappears. Gravitas and eloquence may be on hand for calculated State of the Union addresses. But it's on the stump, behind lecterns throughout the country, where Bush has honed a staccato that delivers his trademark self-confidence in rapid-fire bursts before cherry-picked crowds. Simple sentences of easily digestible words follow one on the other, eschewing complexity and sounding a now rote narrative of the United States leading the fight against evil. Patriotic and religious language is paramount, rhetoric experts say. If the president isn't quoting Scripture directly -- with explicit references to Christ neatly redacted -- he's cribbing the Good Book's syntax.

It wasn't always that way, says Roderick P. Hart, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush practiced a prudent, evenhanded style. Using language analysis software, Hart and co-author Jay P. Childers show that Bush significantly amped up his use of assured language, religious terminology, and patriotic terms between his 2000 and 2004 runs (American Behavioral Scientist, Oct. 2005). September 11th provided the narrative vehicle for the change.

Woven into the 9/11 metanarrative are various sweeping, undefined values: freedom, evil, terrorism. Invoking them shores up immediate backing (Who's against freedom?) and lays the groundwork for policy support down the road (You were with me on the freedom thing, so you must want the freedom to choose a private Social Security account, right?), according to Denise Bostdorff, an expert in presidential rhetoric and associate professor at the College of Wooster.

Indeed, the power of association is one of the president's greatest rhetorical strengths. His knack at linking 9/11 and Iraq by simply referring to the two side by side is well known. But Bush also connects an idealized past to today's conflict. Terrorism is equated with fascism and communism; U.S. soldiers in Iraq are said to be carrying on the fight of World War II veterans. Criticizing the war becomes an attack not only on the soldiers there, but also on those of the 'greatest generation.'

Bush's black-and-white world, captured in sentences devoid of modifiers and clauses, has its uses. 'When people are afraid and uncertain, that's a very comforting style,' Hart told Utne. But he and other experts think the tack may be wearing thin on a public hungry for thoughtful answers about Iraq.

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