Beyond Bushisms

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.

In his stump speech blitz late last year to buoy support for the
war (and his sinking poll numbers), Bush tried to present a more
realistic, nuanced view of the situation, says David Zarefsky,
professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. The
comfortable binaries remained: victory or defeat, freedom or evil.
But the president admitted to groups such as the Council on Foreign
Relations that the war had not gone as planned and he had
‘adjusted’ his approach.

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