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Bush's public remarks have led to 'post-rhetorical presidency,' scholars say

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Stephen Hartnett, a University of Illinois expert on rhetorical criticism, criticizes the president for the consequences of his speech style on the country in an article he co-wrote with Jennifer Rose Mercieca, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As a cautionary tale, the latest issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly could not make better reading for the ’08 presidential candidates, blue and red.

As the title of the special issue suggests, most of the articles in “Shadows of Democracy in Presidential Rhetoric” deal with the specifics of President Bush’s communication style, primarily since his “War on Terrorism,” and the grim consequences. Collectively, the articles paint a large canvas of George Bush’s public discourse, colored with deception, disinformation and fantasy.

Stephen Hartnett, a University of Illinois expert on rhetorical criticism, criticizes the president for the consequences of his speech style on the country in an article he co-wrote with Jennifer Rose Mercieca, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University.

The authors say America is experiencing a “post-rhetorical presidency” – an “anti-democratic condition wherein presidential discourse is not meant to mobilize, educate and uplift the masses; rather, by marshaling ubiquitous public chatter, waves of disinformation and cascades of confusion-causing misdirection, post-rhetorical presidential discourse attempts to confuse public opinion, prevent citizen action and frustrate citizen deliberation.”

Under these conditions, the authors write, “the president defines fantasy, not reality; he numbs citizens rather than energizing them; instead of informing and teaching, he chooses to dumb down and stupefy.”

It is no accident that this has happened, the authors contend.

“Because of the explosion of mass media, we have entered a new age of white noise; because of the disastrous extension of U.S. imperial ambitions, we have entered a new age of political deception; when these two historical factors are combined with the peculiar communicative habits of President George W. Bush, Americans are left with what we call a post-rhetorical presidency.”

For the title of their article, Hartnett and Mercieca borrow the warning of Benjamin Franklin: “A Discovered Dissembler Can Achieve Nothing Great,” and subtitle the piece: “Four Theses on the Death of Presidential Rhetoric in an Age of Empire.”

The authors pose four arguments: that presidential discourse is dead; that rendering presidential discourse trivial fits the needs of imperial deception; that make-believe presidential discourse will kill you; and that presidential discourse based on imperial hubris will ruin the republic. To support their arguments, the authors analyze President Bush’s speech on April 28, 2003, in Dearborn, Mich.; his second inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2005; and a speech he delivered at Fort Hood in Texas on April 12, 2005.

Regarding the second inaugural address, the authors argue that “By relying on apocalyptic and otherworldly images, and by speaking as though U.S. foreign policy is an ordained part of God’s larger plan, the president constitutes those who agree with him as passive subjects and those who disagree with him as unpatriotic sinners. Thus, even while championing freedom and democracy, Bush’s second inaugural address offers a decidedly non-democratic version of America’s domestic practices and foreign obligations.”

The authors note that many U.S. presidents have referred to God in their inaugural addresses. “But, whereas Bush quotes Lincoln mentioning God – ‘Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it’ – he did so as a warning to ‘rulers of outlaw regimes’ that ‘America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.’ ”

Thus, where Lincoln prayed in a humble tone, Bush “threatened with bluster and swagger, and so God has morphed from a sublime power above taking sides into a blunt instrument of empire,” Hartnett and Mercieca wrote.

“Most striking about this rhetorical strategy is that President Bush did not attempt to speak to or for the whole American population in his speech. He did not seek to unite the nation’s feuding factions. Rather, Bush’s audience was those  ‘true believer’ Americans who already supported his war plans.”

Because his rhetoric doesn’t seek to change opinions, but functions “to punish outsiders and reward insiders,” Bush’s address constitutes a form of “epideictic violence,” that is, “a form of speech meant to celebrate certain values while mercilessly silencing opponents and disabling criticism.”

The president’s rhetorical choices are shaped, the authors ague, by larger historical forces. They have argued that “because our postmodern culture produces such a dizzying abundance of images, amounting to nothing less than a blizzard of diseased brain-sucking white noise, it has become almost impossible for speakers, even presidents, to cut through the barrage and make some lasting impression, some profound sense, some eloquent gesture that lasts longer than the time it takes for the next advertisement to begin, or the next shouting provocateur to snarl, or the next ‘must see’ trash to assault our senses.”

President Bush has responded to this communicative dilemma, the authors write, “by attempting to elevate his discourse to the level of benediction; that is, he has sought to rise above the culture of white noise by delivering speeches that are not so much deliberative or informative or historical or policy-driven as sermonic – he has functioned as a high priest intoning a mythic ritual of redemptive violence.”

The authors argue that by speaking in this sermonic and violence-justifying manner, the president has sought to create a kind of moral authority that “transcends the usual banalities of mass-mediated discourse.”

But the problem with this rhetorical strategy is that “by delivering his presidential discourse in the register of eschatological religious symbolism, by pinning his presidency to the millennial quest to defeat Evil in the name of God and Truth and Justice, President Bush has created expectations that no man can fulfill.” The unfulfilled promise of deliverance has thus disappointed voters and disenchanted allies, the authors write.

Reversing these trends “will require fair debate, eloquent speech, and active citizens, precisely the republican qualities destroyed by the imperial fantasies of our post-rhetorical president.”