George W. Bush’s presidency was marked by a number of noteworthy events. Within twenty-six months of his taking office after the disputed 2000 elections, the United States had endured murderous and catastrophic terrorist attacks planned and executed by the militant Islamic group al-Qaeda, suffered a series of business scandals leading to the collapse of a number of corporations, and initiated two wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq. In the course of George W. Bush’s eight years in office, the United States economy dipped into recession twice, the housing market collapsed, leading to an untold number of foreclosures and a marked decline in property values, and the City of New Orleans was hit by a category five hurricane which breached its aging levies and left large sections of it submerged, killing, at the very least, nearly a thousand people in Louisiana (mostly in New Orleans) and displacing many many others.
Political controversy surrounded all of these events. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 resulted in the highest poll ratings of George W. Bush’s presidency, but later questions arose as to just how awake at the switch he and his administration had been prior to the atrocities. The war in Afghanistan failed to result in the capture or killing of al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden; what’s more, the Taliban, the former ruling regime of Afghanistan which had coddled al-Qaeda, was not completely routed by the armed forces of the United States.
With respect to the war in Iraq, the administration’s honesty in the run-up to the invasion was retrospectively impugned, and the prosecution of the war itself, once underway, was criticized in many quarters as incompetent.
The business scandals were an embarrassment to George W. Bush personally, owing in large measure to the fact that one of the key figures in the demise of the Enron Corporation, Kenneth Lee Lay (called “Kenny Boy” by George W. Bush), was an individual with whom the president had once seemingly been close.
In 2007, one of Vice President Richard B. “Dick” Cheney’s aides, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was convicted of criminal behavior in a case involving the disclosure of a CIA operative’s identity. Some critics claimed that this disclosure was an attempt by the Bush administration to intimidate critics of the war in Iraq, though the administration denied this charge.
As of late September, 2008, it appeared that George W. Bush would leave office with poll numbers in the low thirties (rather dismal by the standards of his predecessors), a flailing economy whose financial giants were failing, and two ongoing wars.
These introductory observations offered, our purpose here is not to present an extensive and intricate analysis of the whole of George W. Bush’s presidency. (Indeed, our prefatory remarks have failed to even touch upon the Bush administration’s arrant and unapologetic embrace of torture.) Instead we would like to suggest, more generally, that a particular essence, or operating principle, characterized its entirety. Its essential operating ethos was neither as principled as an ideology (though it may have strenuously feigned otherwise) nor as simple as an adherence to the blunt algorithm of expedience (a practice best exemplified in recent years by former president William J. Clinton). Rather, its kernel or core was an attitude which animated all of its intentions, actions, successes, failures, and recriminations. And this attitude both influenced, and was strengthened by, Bush’s gallery of functionaries: Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Feith, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Libby, Fleischer, McClellan (before turning apostate), Gates, Bremer, Rove, Armitage, et al.
It is perhaps interesting that, having been a president whose administration was so deeply embroiled in wars, the best and most concentrated example of the elemental attitude of George W. Bush’s presidency was evinced in his coded speech to the nation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A little more than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on 2005 August 29, George W. Bush delivered a speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans. In the days leading up to the speech, Bush had been roundly criticized from most quarters of the media for what was perceived to be the federal government’s sluggish and inadequate response to the effects of the hurricane. The sight of helpless, displaced people receiving no assistance from the federal government as New Orleans was left to fend for itself was a public relations disaster for the Bush administration. A photograph of George W. Bush looking out of the presidential plane Air Force One’s window on 31 August 2005 as he engaged in a 35-minute flyover of Louisiana while people were dying and in distress below, still failing to receive anything resembling adequate federal assistance, struck many as grotesque and outrageous.
It was widely believed, then, that the September 15 speech had as one of its purposes the bolstering of the President’s political standing, which, in the numerical terms of polls, had been markedly low before the hurricane and had fallen further afterwards. But this speech, once decoded, also baldly displayed the Bush administration’s operating ethos.
Bush’s speech comprised 3,308 words, 142 sentences, and 35 paragraphs. More instructively, the speech comprised a number of themes which might comprise a phrase, a sentence, an entire paragraph, or more, and which sometimes recurred.
These themes, in the order in which they appeared in the speech, and with sample instantiations from the speech, were: A) future life and hope v. present lifelessness and hopelessness (New Orleans “waiting for life and hope to return”); B) savage nature (“a cruel and wasteful storm” “a tragedy…so blind and wasteful”); C) vulnerable Americans v. merciless criminals (“fellow Americans…vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals”); D) selflessness (“Many first responders were victims themselves…with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering.”); E) God’s wrath (“a faith in God no storm can take away”); F) American determination (“a powerful American determination to clear the ruins”); G) the nation is with you (“our whole nation cares about you”); H) America will rebuild (“this great city will rise again.”); I) the federal government has already accomplished a great deal (“The breaks in the levees have been closed…and the water here in New Orleans is receding by the hour.”); J) the Federal Government is going to accomplish more (“we’re taking steps to ensure that evacuees do not have to travel great distances or navigate bureaucracies to get the benefits that are there for them.”); K) the effects of the storm are beyond what could have been expected (“This is an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis”); J again) the Federal government is going to accomplish more (“the federal government will undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans, and other Gulf Coast cities so they can rebuild in a sensible, well-planned way”); L) national oversight necessary to avoid past local mistakes (“the federal government will be fully engaged in the mission, but…state and local leaders will have the primary role” “communities will need to…change zoning laws and building codes, in order to avoid a repeat of what we’ve seen.” “When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm.”); M) overcoming persistent poverty rooted in past local racial discrimination (“We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.” “When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses”); J again) the federal government is going to accomplish more (“I propose the creation of Worker Recovery Accounts to help evacuees who need extra help finding work”); N) New Orleans is a geographically dangerous place to live (“much of the city lies below sea level” “Protecting a city that sits lower than the water around is not easy”) L again) national oversight necessary to avoid past local mistakes (“state officials…will have a large part in the engineering decisions to come. And the Army Corps of Engineers will work at their side to make the flood protection system stronger than it has ever been.”); O) Appeal for assistance and sacrifice from citizenry (“the need is still urgent, and I ask the American people to continue donating” “I challenge existing organizations—churches, and Scout troops, or labor union locals to…learn what they can do to help.”); P) I will see to ensuring that the nation is prepared for events of this magnitude (“I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority”); K again) the effects of the storm are beyond what could have been expected (“It was not a normal hurricane—and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it.”); Q) national and state government was not up to the task in the early days (“the system, at every level of government, was not well-coordinated”); R) it took Hurricane Katrina to make national solutions to crises of this magnitude apparent (“It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces”); S) I am responsible for the failures of the federal government’s response (“When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I…am responsible); T) and for ensuring that the federal government’s response mechanism is fixed (“and for the solution”); U) we will review the response to Hurricane Katrina (“I’ve ordered every Cabinet Secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response”); B again) savage nature (“nature is an awesome force”); F again) American determination (“We’re the heirs of the men and women who lived through those first terrible winters at Jamestown and Plymouth”); H again) America will rebuild (“The churches of Alabama will have their broken steeples mended and their congregations whole”); A again) future life and hope v. present lifelessness and hopelessness (“Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge—yet we will live to see the second line.”).
In total, then, and including repetitions, twenty-nine themes were sounded in Bush’s speech. Against all of these themes (expressed in simpler terms) an implied opposite could be posited, where the opposite is not already explicitly included in the theme itself (as it is in (A), for example). Additionally, one could note the number of occurrences of each theme. Doing all of this, and italicizing that side of the opposition actually uttered by Bush, would yield the following:
(A) future life and hope v. present lifelessness and hopelessness (twice); (B) savage nature v. man’s powerlessness (twice); (C) vulnerable Americans v. merciless criminals (once); (D) selflessness v. selfishness (once); (E) God’s wrath v. man’s powerlessness (once); (F) American determination v. fatalism (twice); (G) the nation is with you v. national abandonment (once); (H) America will rebuild v. national abandonment (twice); (I) immediate past federal accomplishment v. immediate past federal failure (once); (J) future federal accomplishment v. future federal failure (three times); (K) foreseeable effects v. unforeseeable effects (twice); (L) national competence v. past local incompetence (twice); (M) longstanding discriminatory poverty v. future inclusive wealth (once); (N) naturally dangerous place v. naturally safe place (once); (O) volunteerism v. complacency (once); (P) future national preparedness v. future national unpreparedness (once); (Q) past national and local unpreparedness v. past national and local preparedness (once); (R) solution result of catastrophe v. solution preexisting catastrophe (once); (S) past presidential responsibility v. past presidential nonresponsibility (once); (T) future presidential responsibility v. future presidential nonresponsibility (once); (U) memory of government failings v. forgetting of government failings (once).
Of further interest is the position with which Bush identifies himself within these oppositions. In other words, with which side of each theme’s oppositions he aligns himself.
Rather than proceeding chronologically from theme to theme as before, it is now more useful to investigate the similarity of alignments between themes. In theme (B), for example, Bush twice aligns himself with man’s powerlessness in the face of savage nature (even though his actual utterance speaks of savage nature), and this is similar to his aligning himself with man’s powerlessness in theme (E), to his twice aligning himself with the unforeseeable effects of theme (K), to his aligning himself with the naturally dangerous place of theme (N), to his aligning himself with the solution that could only be a result of an unexpected tragedy in theme (R), and even to his aligning himself with the vulnerable Americans of (C). These eight alignments within the speech’s twenty-nine (again, including repetitions) themes constitute a larger theme which can be called the “beyond my control” theme, and this larger theme, by existing within and between eight themes, constitutes, in thematic terms, over one quarter of the speech.
When we note the similarity between the alignments in themes (L), (M), and (Q) another larger theme emerges; to wit, “against local dysfunction.” In (L) Bush twice aligns himself with the national competence that is necessary to overcome local incompetence, in (M) he aligns himself with the future inclusive wealth that will displace local discriminatory poverty, in (Q) he aligns himself with unpreparedness, but distinguishes between local and national unpreparedness, and thus only actually aligns himself with national unpreparedness—which within the context of national and local unpreparedness is a nebulous and not at present, or ever, knowable quantity. “Against local dysfunction” constitutes, in thematic terms, nearly fifteen percent of Bush’s speech.
The nuance of this last alignment within theme (Q) is a useful point from which to approach the next larger theme, which results from Bush’s alignments with immediate past federal accomplishment in theme (I), future federal accomplishment in theme (J) (which recurs three times), future national preparedness in theme (P), past presidential responsibility in theme (S), future presidential responsibility in theme (T), and the memory of government failings in theme (U). The similarities of the alignments within these themes constitute the larger theme “federal performance.” What is noteworthy about the “federal performance” larger theme is that it for the most part focuses on the positive aspects of the federal government’s performance; where it acknowledges federal failure—in (S) and (U)—it does so by excluding non-federal failings from being something for which Bush will accept blame (S) and by looking forward to reviewing federal failure only in the larger context of “government”—i.e., federal, state, and local— failings (U). The larger theme “federal performance” comprises eight themes, and thus constitutes, in thematic terms, over one quarter of the speech.
Beyond boilerplate patriotism, no other larger themes of particular interest arise out of the speeches remaining themes (A), (D), (F), (G), (H), and (O) (or perhaps one might say that the larger theme that arises out of these themes is “boilerplate patriotism”).
How do the three larger themes that have been identified, and which constitute, in thematic terms, nearly seventy percent of the speech, interact with each other?
Quite simply, “Beyond my control” and “against local dysfunction” serve to create a context of Bush’s own making within which “federal performance” can be measured. As we have seen, according to Bush, federal performance has been mostly positive. That there have been some problems with federal performance cannot be denied; but it must also be recognized, according to Bush, that “federal performance” before and after the storm can only be judged against the contextualizing backdrop of “beyond my control” and “against local dysfunction.”
1) That he could not have possibly known what the consequences of his action or inaction would be, or 2) that someone else, and not he, is guilty of the crime for which he has been charged, are two of the most common defenses of the criminal defendant.
George W. Bush’s speech of 15 September 2005, with its emphasis on the impossibility of taking measures against the uncontrollable, and the exacerbating incompetence of the local (i.e., other party), and which asks the listener to consider his (George W. Bush’s) actions, or inaction, only within this context, belongs, as a text, to the tradition of courtroom oratory; it is the defendant’s plea of not guilty on all counts.
In subscribing to this attitude as its essential operating principle, the Bush administration functioned well within an American tradition which, while largely unacknowledged as a tradition, and so, because largely concealed, is neither venerated nor venerable, is nonetheless an American tradition with a long and broad reach. It is a tradition with roots in the Republic’s founding, and it becomes only more terrifying as the means and methods available to, for example, a government, to flourish within its strictures become daily more refined, powerful, and buried even further beneath rhetorical sediments characterized by their sentiment of denial.