Thursday, September 01, 2005

Singing the Same Old Song

Tom Engelhardt has written an excellent piece examining Bush’s uniquely hollow brand of rhetoric. Engelhardt notes that Bush’s speeches are defined by a repetition of certain key words and phrases (freedom, terror, winning the war, the spread of democracy, etc.) that has, until fairly recently, been effective in maintaining American support for his efforts in the war on terror/Iraq/violent extremism. Painting in broad patriotic strokes has served the president well since the days following September 11th, but the technique is reaching its limit.

Sometimes, just that extra bit of repetition under less than perfect circumstances, and words that once struck fear or offered hope, that once explained well enough for most the nature of the world they faced, suddenly sound hollow. They begin to sound... well, repetitious, and so, false. Your message, which worked like a dream for so long, goes off-message, and then what do you do?
Bush’s approval ratings are sliding, a sure sign that he’s failing to connect with the people--a gift that once compensated for his lack of intelligence and experience--not because he’s changed his message, but because he’s let it stagnate in a world of evolving political realities. There’s no better illustration of this point, than Bush’s ubiquitous references to September 11th, a fact which Engelhardt points out.

George Bush's speech-world remains anchored in the defining moment of his life, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (cited 5 times in his VFW speech, 4 times in Idaho). It offers a landscape of overwhelming threat, but also of remarkable neatness. It paints a picture of a world embroiled in the first war of the 21st century, a war on a global scale, a war -- a word that peppers every statement he makes -- with multiple theaters ("from the streets of the Western capitals to the mountains of Afghanistan, to the tribal regions of Pakistan, to the islands of Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa").
In no way am I suggesting that September 11th is yesterday’s news. But every day, more people are realizing that September 11th is an inappropriate framework for understanding the war in Iraq. Bold talk of freedom is reassuring for a while, but in the long run, it’s no substitute for concrete fact.

Point is, Bush has always spoken in platitudes. At one time, his pet phrases presented the perfect mix of strength and sensitivity to Americans reeling from the first major attack on the United State since Pearl Harbor. Americans wanted to know that everything would be all right, and Bush was happy to tell them so.

Bush is still trying to sing Americans to sleep with patriotic lullabies, but his song is losing its charm.

--Matthew McCoy