Cheat-Seeking Missles

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Admitting Defeat In The Rhetoric War

Another famous American has followed in the footsteps of the Dixie Chicks, Susan Sarandon and a host of others to choose a foreign venue to bad-mouth Bush.

This time the guilty party was ... George W. Bush.

In an interview with the Times of London, Bush said he regretted the tone of his rhetoric in the early days of the war, believing it has led to a misunderstanding of America and its motives.
President Bush has admitted to The Times that his gun-slinging rhetoric made the world believe that he was a “guy really anxious for war” in Iraq. He said that his aim now was to leave his successor a legacy of international diplomacy for tackling Iran.

In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. “I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric.”

Phrases such as “bring them on” or “dead or alive”, he said, “indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace”.
As a communicator, I couldn't agree more. Those phrases felt good at the time. We had just been beaten up by a rancid slug in a turban and we were angry and embarrassed. Bush talked tough and it made us feel better, and we needed to feel better, but it set a tone inappropriate for a real war.

Fifty-four years earlier, America was beaten up, bruised and embarrassed, and the president at the time, FDR, took to the airwaves with his famous "day of infamy" speech. He measured out his rhetoric much more carefully, careful to set a tone appropriate for the horrific task that lay ahead. He knew thousands of our military had already died at the hands of the Japanese, and that tens of thousands more would likely fall in the war to follow, yet these were the most pitched lines of the speech:
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
Granted, "bring 'em on" was the low point in some lofty rhetoric Bush delivered in the days following 9/11, and at the initiation of the wars, but presidents have to be careful in what they say because history selects the words the world will remember. FDR chose words that set the stage for a righteous battle against an infamous foe; Bush sounded like a schoolyard thug.

The communications failures of the Bush administration are legion and will not be fixed in the final six months of his term. He not only framed our effort unfortunately, he allowed far too much illegitimate criticism to go unchallenged -- especially the criticism of the Dem congress and American hardcore left.

By the time Bush became passably adept at framing the consequences of the Dems' approach to the war, his style had already turned too many people off, so his speeches lost much of their power to influence.

Finally, Bush appears to have bought into his "dead or alive," "bring it on" rhetoric, as evidenced by the careful planning and strong execution of the first phases of both wars, and the failure to anticipate the difficulties to follow.

We are in a quandry. The candidate with the rhetorical powers to patch things up has the wrong policy, and the candidate with the right policy is perhaps even worse rhetorically than Bush. McCain might want to make his #1 qualification for running mate "soaring rhetorical power."

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