For a man reputed to be “verbally challenged,” George W. Bush has given some important speeches — some impressive ones, too. Words matter a great deal to this president. In fact, when all is said and done, his presidency may be known for its rhetoric (among other things). Then George W. Bush, the tongue-tied embarrassment, will have the last laugh — yet another last laugh. “Misunderestimated” once more.
Of course, it makes a difference that we are at war. September 11 “changed everything,” we’re told, and it certainly changed the Bush presidency. A president must find his voice in wartime, as in no other time. Woodrow Wilson gave many excellent speeches, on a wide range of subjects. But it is his war oratory we remember. Franklin Roosevelt had the Great Depression, but then he became “Dr. Win the War,” rising from a date of infamy to put paid to Tojoism and Hitlerism alike. Abraham Lincoln? He was sharp and eloquent on agricultural policy, as on everything else. But . . .
George W. Bush is an interesting mixture: He is a Texan and an Easterner; he is Establishment and counter-Establishment; he is fancy and folksy; he is forceful and jocular; he is presidential and everyday. His formal speeches tend to be elegant, polished affairs, composed by top-notch speechwriters (about whom, more later). But he does well enough on his own: whether winging it before an audience or responding to reporters. When he is most purely himself, he is blunt, unfussy, a little salty — Trumanesque.
In July 2002, he was asked about the status of Osama bin Laden. “He may be alive,” the president said. “If he is, we’ll get him. If he’s not, we got him.” Speechwriters could labor for weeks and not come up with anything better.
This is also a quick and funny president. We all have our favorite examples, and I will cite one of mine, impressed on me by David Frum (a former Bush speechwriter himself, and the author of the superb memoir The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush — and a contributing editor, of course, to National Review). Ozzy Osbourne was a guest at a big, noisy Washington dinner. Pointing out his funky tresses, the famous rocker-druggie said, “Mr. President, you should wear your hair like mine!” Bush responded, “Second term, Ozzy, second term.”
WORDS TO GO WITH DEEDS
National Review has put together an interesting book. It’s called “We Will Prevail”: President George W. Bush on War, Terrorism, and Freedom. The book is a compilation of speeches and statements issuing from Bush since September 11. It contains very big speeches, like State of the Union addresses, and smaller — though equally resonant — statements: like the president’s message through a bullhorn to rescue workers at Ground Zero. It features the defining speech at West Point, but also what Bush said while lighting the national Christmas tree. We see him, and hear him, before a variety of audiences, in a variety of settings. He talks to military personnel, world leaders, the employees of the Dixie Printing Company (Glen Burnie, Md.). We get not only a sense of the time, but a sense of the job of president — and a sense, I dare say, of America itself.
To peruse this volume is to be forced to live through September 11 and its aftermath — once again. It’s surprising how much can be forgotten, in such a short space. (The Taliban, anyone?) The president himself recognized this tendency early on. Here he is on October 4, 2001: “I fully understand . . . there will be times when people feel a sense of normalcy — and I hope that happens sooner rather than later — and that September 11th may be a distant memory to some. But not to me…” Some 13 months later, he said, “One of my jobs is to make sure nobody gets complacent. One of my jobs is to remind people of the stark realities that we face. See, every morning I go into that great Oval Office and read threats to our country — every morning. . . . Some of them are blowhards [!], but we take every one of them seriously. It’s the new reality.”
As has often been noted, the president, on September 11, 2001, was reading to schoolchildren — a common event in that more luxurious age. Then we suffered that shock. Quick as a flash — that very day — Bush said, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Many times later, he would refer to this policy as his “doctrine.” He would state it and re-state it in assorted ways, giving the impression that he was ever more committed to it. He also said on September 11, “America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”
That may sound like the language of a comic book — but it was, to most of us, suitable language, and it reflected Bush’s conviction that the current and ongoing conflict is one of good versus evil. One sees, in “We Will Prevail”, that he speaks frequently of “evildoers,” “the evil ones,” “the forces of evil,” and the like. And he has been subjected to some mockery for this.
But he addressed such criticism head-on in that speech at West Point (the graduation exercises, June 1, 2002): “Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities.” And then he went into a flight of universalism worthy of Wilson: “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it.”
A HUGE JOB, AND A DELICATE ONE
In the days and months after September 11, the president did many things: He comforted the grieving; he exalted the dead; he assuaged fears; he encouraged alertness; he pledged victory. He stepped into — and up to — any number of roles. He was mourner-in-chief, explainer-in-chief, inspirer-in-chief — and, of course, as the Constitution dictates, commander-in-chief. We see, throughout the NR book, that he combined what you might call the soft and the hard. He said, “I’m encouraging schoolchildren to write letters of friendship to Muslim children in different countries.” He also said — just to take one example of thousands — “I’m going to talk about homeland security, but the best way to secure our homeland is to hunt the killers down one by one and bring them to justice, and that is what we’re going to do.”
That, too, is a constant theme from Bush: that there is no defense, traditionally understood, against our terrorist enemies. “In the face of today’s new threat, the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it.” “My attitude is, the best way to secure the homeland is to unleash the mighty United States military and hunt them down and bring them to justice. And the best way to fight evil at home is to love your neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself” (there’s the soft Bush).
Over and over, Bush has explained that this is a different kind of war, without obvious precedents. “There will be times of swift, dramatic action. There will be times of steady, quiet progress.” Note the following jab — a light one — at the press: “This is an unusual kind of war because it sometimes will show up on your TV screens and sometimes it won’t. Sometimes there will be moments of high drama, and, of course, good reporters will be going [now there's a little audience laughter] — all kinds of hyperventilating, about this action or that action. And sometimes you won’t see a thing.”
The president has always understood that the world may be kindlier to an America that is down and bleeding than it is to an America that is on its feet and fighting back. To the United Nations, on November 10, 2001, he said, “After tragedy, there is time for sympathy and condolences. And my country has been grateful for both. But the time for sympathy has now passed; the time for action has arrived.” In my view, this is one of the most arresting, and meaningful, lines in the entire book. On September 12, Le Monde had a headline, immediately to become famous: “We Are All Americans.” Okay — and after?
Seldom does Bush shrink from talking straight about the nature of the enemy: “America is beginning to realize that the dreams of the terrorists and the Taliban were waking nightmares for Afghan women and their children. The Taliban murdered teenagers for laughing in the presence of soldiers. They jailed children as young as ten years old, and tortured them for the supposed crimes of their parents.” And “women were banned from speaking, or laughing loudly. They were banned from riding bicycles, or attending school. They were denied basic health care,” and so on.
The Beast of Baghdad? “On Saddam Hussein’s orders, opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured.” Unflinching assessments of this sort are often useful, in the eddies of debate.
A STYLE APPLAUDED AND DESPISED
As “We Will Prevail” unfolds, we see Bush in the full range of his moods. He is purposeful and defiant; humble and prayerful; cocky and sarcastic; angry and slashing; sentimental and weepy; playful and twitting. He has his favorite words, as we all do. One of his is “fabulous.” (“What a fabulous land we have, and the reason why is because we’ve got such fabulous citizens.” Bush says “fabulous” at least as much as any interior decorator.) He has a knack for speaking directly to people, without talking down to them: “I want to explain to you about Saddam Hussein, just quickly, if I might.”
Check him out as he argues for a Department of Homeland Security: “I’m a person who believes in accountability. One reason I believe in accountability is because I understand who the American people are going to hold accountable if something happens: me. And therefore, I’m the kind of fellow who likes to pick up the phone and say, ‘How we doing? How are we doing on implementing the strategy?’ I don’t like the idea of calling a hundred different agencies. I like to call one and say, ‘Here is the strategy, and what are you doing about it? And if you’re not doing something about it, I expect you to. And if you don’t, I’m going to find somebody else that will do something about it.’”
Sometimes Bush is archly funny. Speaking to high-school students, he said, “You’ve been learning this by studying your history — at least some of you by studying your history.” Often he is funny-serious: “You know, when the enemy hit us, they must have not known what they were doing. I like to tell people, they must have been watching too much TV, because they didn’t understand America” (thinking that we were soft, materialistic, and cringing). On another occasion, Bush said, “See, they thought we’d probably just file a lawsuit or two! . . . They don’t have any idea about what makes the people here tick.”
And how about the president in his full Texas-sheriff mode (as I dub it)? Before a political audience in October 2002, he said, “We still got this coalition of freedom-loving nations we’re working with. And we’re hunting ‘em down. The other day, one of ‘em popped up — popped his head up — named al-Shibh. He’s no longer a problem.”
This is the kind of talk that thrills Bush’s fans, and exasperates his critics.
THE ‘CALL OF HISTORY’
I have been thinking about this president and words for some time now. In the fall of 2000, I took a leave of absence from National Review to assist the speechwriting staff on the Bush campaign (ah, the flexibility of the opinion journalist). At the time, the speechwriters were Michael Gerson (the chief), John McConnell, and Matthew Scully. They are still with George W. Bush, doing an extraordinary job (a fabulous job). And most would agree that Bush has grown in his ability to communicate, both in his prepared, professionalized speeches and in his unscripted remarks. In fact, some of us wish that they’d unleash him more — that he would unleash himself more. Let him mangle his syntax: He still gets his point across, usually effectively.
Proof of this lies in NR’s collection — which begins on September 11 and concludes with the Iraq campaign. There is much repetition in the book, which cannot be helped. But Bush’s utterances, taken together, are strangely compelling. As the War on Terror proceeds, he gives you new wrinkles, new information, new thrusts. When I went through the galleys, I got a shiver once or twice — reminded of something I’d forgotten. “I’m told [said Bush] that one of the pilots here, a fellow named Randy, was asked if anyone at Travis [Air Force Base] had personal connections to any of the victims of the attacks of September the 11th. And here’s what he said: ‘I think we all do; they’re all Americans. When you strike one American, you strike us all.’”
Not long ago, I did a radio interview, whose chief purpose was to discuss this book. The interviewer began roughly as follows: “First of all, are you serious about this book? I mean, Bush and oratory? Are you doing it with some irony? Is this sort of a joke book?” He could not understand how one could view Bush as a serious and important speaker, so completely had he swallowed the caricature of Bush as a stumblebum. My suspicion, however, is that “history” — if it is fair — will recall that Bush did a splendid job rhetorically, as well as in other, more concrete respects, in a most difficult time. When it mattered a lot, his words came true. Like Ronald Reagan, he speaks as though he believes what he is saying — because he does. (You can tell, very easily, when Bush’s heart isn’t really in it.)
Shortly before the Iraq campaign, Bush observed that “this call of history has come to the right country.” More than a few of us contend that — to borrow from David Frum’s title — it came to the right man, too.
— This piece is adapted from Jay Nordlinger’s introduction to “We Will Prevail”: President George W. Bush on War, Terrorism, and Freedom, a National Review book published by Continuum (265 pages, $24.95).