Blog Center: Keith's Blog
A Simple Man - October 07, 2004
One of the more puzzling questions that can be asked about George W. Bush as a political candidate is just how a man born into wealth, and educated at Ivy League institutions, whose father was president of the United States, can have so successfully – and so effectively - cultivated a folksy image. John Kerry, in the popular imagination, is a stiff patrician from the northeast, while George Bush is an easy-going “regular guy” from Texas. Rarely in U.S. history have two candidates from such similarly privileged and elite backgrounds inspired such widely divergent characterizations.
Bush’s “aw shucks” persona, as countless commentators have noted, is largely a product of his clear and straightforward rhetorical style. The sense that he is a frank and direct person – a “straight shooter,” in Texasspeak – stems from his now famous “simple, declarative statements.” Those statements make up a potent political dialect, and it is hard not to hold some admiration for the unusually explicit candor with which Bush often speaks. Whether or not you care for his opinions or his sentence structure, you always know what he means, and that is a rare quality in a politician. It’s almost refreshing.
Almost. But not quite. Seen in another light, George Bush’s forthrightness is what is most confounding about his presidency. His capacity for clear and unequivocal statements contributes directly to his administration’s misleading and foolhardy policies. This became increasingly apparent in the first debate between Bush and Kerry, in which the president’s language crossed the fine line between incisive and infantile. Like a telemarketer, Bush repeated the same scripted lines over and over, regardless of the question. What was once effective repetition was now inexplicable redundancy; what once sounded firm and resolute now sounded dull, monotonous, and empty. The Bush White House has always been well-regulated, staying “on message” with the discipline of a traffic light; but while that sort of discipline works well for sound bites and speeches, it falters in the less predictable environment of a political debate. Under scrutiny, the Bush “message” revealed itself as the flimsy façade it has always been.
This is not just a matter of style, but of substance. The way that someone talks reveals something about the way they think, and in the case of George Bush, that connection has very disturbing implications. Those implications are most dramatically on display in a political ad currently running in some swing states. The ad is by an independent, right-wing group called the “Progress for America Voter Fund,” and while it does not carry the label “I’m George Bush, and I approve this ad,” it is very clearly an outgrowth of the president’s rhetoric and worldview. It begins with images of Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, and other known terrorists, accompanied by a simple, declarative statement: “These people want to kill us.” At first listen, that six-word, seven-syllable opening phrase sounds like English at its most straightforward: subject, verb, object. That clarity, however, rests on the implicit - but never spelled out – referents for the subject and object of the sentence. We assume that “these people” refers to the people on the screen - Osama bin Laden and others connected to September 11 - just as we assume that “us” refers to those watching the screen - Americans. But we assume too much. The ad continues: “They kill hundreds of innocent children in Russia and killed 200 innocent commuters in Spain, and 3,000 innocent Americans.” Suddenly, it is not at all clear who “they” are, let alone “us.” Although any high school English teacher will tell you that there should never be the slightest ambiguity in what a pronoun like “they” refers to, this ad relies on exactly that sort of confusion. In the split-second between the first and second sentence, “they” has changed from Al Qaeda to Chechen separatists, and “us” has shifted from Americans to Spanish to Russians, and then back to Americans. And the uncertainty of those pronouns contains the seed of Bush’s capricious approach to international affairs.
That is what is most troubling about this ad: the misleading nature of the language mirrors, almost exactly, the misleading nature of the Bush administration’s allegedly clear-cut policies. Just as the ad transforms a specific statement about September 11 into broad claims about a vague enemy and an amorphous victim, so the Bush White House has transformed a direct response to a single attack into a nebulous “war” with obscure goals, waged against an undefined enemy, and manipulated as the president and his advisors see fit. The linguistic sleights-of-hand in Bush’s simple-sounding oratory make easier the arbitrary application of his foreign policy.
“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” the president declared a week after September 11. It seemed reasonable, at the time, to assume that this sort of simple-minded, jingoistic statement was just a spark produced by the heat of that moment, and that it would soon fade. But as we know now, Bush’s pronouncement was less rant than cant, less a product of passion than of principle. One of the most characteristic qualities of Bush’s rhetoric, and of the philosophy it suggests, is single-mindedness. The Bush administration, and those sympathetic to it, tend to describe a world of absolute principles and black-and-white oppositions, a Newtonian world where nothing is relative and every action produces an immediate and overwhelming reaction. There is little about this world that is unfamiliar, or difficult, or worthy of discussion and debate; it is instead a world of rigid ideas and stubborn action, and that is both its great appeal and its great folly.
// posted by keith at 06:30 PM
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