Thursday, January 19, 2006

Speech Maker in Chief

As the administration gears up for the State of the Union, I have some thoughts on President Bush as a speech maker -- that go beyond the usual complaints about his difficulties with the language or the usual compliments for his "regular guy" style.

Commentators often note how comfortable Bush is with the language of (Evangelical) "faith." But less noted, and in light of his administration's failures and his falling popularity more important, is Bush's extreme discomfort with both moral argument and the traditional language of small "d" democracy.

Time and again, Bush has explicitly rejected moral argument as little more than an attempt to make him justify, second guess or explain himself. Even more interesting, to me at least -- and unique among Presidents in my lifetime -- it never seems to occur to him to appeal to us, in the democratic tradition, as fellow citizens who he hopes to inspire to unite with him (in a great cause or enterprise). The reason for this, I believe, is because frankly he doesn't see us that way.

However "regular guy" he strives to be, at heart Bush is an authoritarian and autocrat.

His speeches, whatever the subject, tend to be not about us (we, the people), but, primarily about himself (he, the magnificent) -- his resolve, his faith, his beliefs, his responsibilities, his suffering ("It's hard work").

This, for instance, is how he opened the first speech (in a series) he gave to win back our support on the war in Iraq, "My greatest responsibility as president is to protect the American people."

It's a sentence (often repeated) that immediately asserts his rank, his centrality and importance as our leader, and his wish to reassure and comfort those of us who follow. But it is not one that can, or is meant to, inspire or activate. Instead, it reflects an attitude that sees "the people" as dependent, childlike, waiting to be reassured and led by the leader's higher resolve and wisdom. Not as, in the democratic tradition, a powerful, active, moral force.

There are many Americans -- and perhaps more today than in the past -- for whom the language of simple faith, unyielding authority and comforting assurance are enough (and the complexity of moral judgement and ethical choice, perhaps, too much). If that weren't true Bush wouldn't have won the last election.

But, as new information and events continue to undermine Bush's credibility, and therefore his authority, and more Americans feel less protected -- from the realities on the ground in Iraq, from the suffering of military families, from the incompetence on display after Katrina, from the shock of oil prices and health care costs, from doubts about the economy, etc. -- it may no longer be enough.

With his authority tarnished, and their faith (in him) waning, it is probably now too late for Bush to make the moral arguments, and the democratic appeals to shared sacrifice, he failed to make earlier.


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