Thursday, January 15, 2009

Words Matter: The Legacy of Bush

On Tuesday, Barack Obama, a man with a reputation as a master of words and rhetoric and the art of oration, will become the next president of the United States of America. His words at the 2004 Democratic Convention - "there is not a Black America and a White America...there is the United States of America"– catapulted him into the national spotlight. His speech on race will be studied for years to come, and his Inaugural Address is highly anticipated.

George W. Bush, the man who now exits center stage, was never known to be a master with words; in fact, it was just less than a month ago that Karl Rove alerted Wall Street Journal readers that Bush actually enjoyed the act of reading – especially when a contest was involved.

But as we say goodbye to the 43rd president, we have to acknowledge that, like every effective leader, he understood the power words have to influence, to persuade, to shape the actions of people.

So here is an examination of some of the influential words used by Bush to sway the nation over to his point of view...

Compassionate Conservative
As Bush campaigned for the presidency in 2000, he identified himself as a "compassionate conservative." In a White House fact sheet dated April 30, 2002, he defines what this means for him:


"I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results. And with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people's lives."

If you believe at all that the man who inhabits the Oval Office has any power to affect national events, then yes, Bush has made a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans. In the last two months, a million workers lost their jobs; No Child Left Behind created a maze of new education standards for schools to implement but provided little funding to back it up; Bush's decision to preemptively invade Iraq without preparing for a long war has been costly and took valuable resources away from the real war on terror. For most of the Bush era, compassion was lacking.

For many, the true image of Bush's compassionate nature came after Katrina touched land. The president lingered on vacation as the residents of New Orleans suffered the consequences of the worst natural disaster to hit the United States. When he felt compelled to stop cutting brush, he hopped aboard Air Force One for a brief fly-over of the devastation. As a president who made a point of highlighting the importance of compassion, his detached approach to the crisis showed him to be lacking a basic understanding of what it means to be compassionate.

Heck of a Job
It was during the Katrina crisis that Bush uttered some of the most memorable words of his tenure. He patted Mike Brown, the head of FEMA, on the back and claimed that Brownie did a "heck of a job" in the relief effort, when anyone who watched any news during that time could see that the job was not well done at all. Bush's accolades for Mike Brown made the president seem completely clueless and out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Sixteen Words that Made a Big Difference in the World
In his 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush made the 16-word claim that "the British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." We were in the midst of the war on terror that had recently brought down the World Trade Centers; the administration was building a case to declare a preemptive strike on Iraq; the image of a nuclear cloud appearing on the American landscape courtesy of Saddam Hussein was utterly terrifying to most Americans.

We began war on March 20, 2003; Baghdad fell on April 9th; On May 1, while on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush declared "mission accomplished" – that the war in Iraq was finished.

Today, our troops remain in war-torn Iraq; no weapons of mass destruction were ever found; a 2008 bipartisan U.S. senate committee issued a report that concluded the Bush administration misled the country into war. Here's what Senator Jay Rockefeller (D), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had to say on this:

“Before taking the country to war, this Administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the Administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence.

"In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent. As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

In other words, the 16 words Bush used in his State of the Union address were a misrepresentation of the available intelligence.

The late night comics have been making fun of Bush's inarticulate manner of speech throughout his presidency. But the real story isn't how he articulated his message; the real story of the Bush presidency is that words matter. It's what you say that counts. And for George W. Bush, his words showed him to be man who said what he didn't necessarily mean and who acted in ways that were at odds with his words. Which brings me to the last word on Bush...

The Decider
In 2006, Bush, in response to growing criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pointed out that "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best." And it is as "the decider" that he will be remembered. Bush is a world leader who decided to take the country into Iraq for reasons that shifted based on what they didn't find over there; he decided to stay on vacation when the people in the Superdome were clearly suffering terribly; he decided to remain a "hands off" president when the financial system was growing mortally ill on his watch. As a self-proclaimed "decider," his words – his actions – his decisions changed the course of this nation. He was a highly effective leader in that he accomplished much of what he said he would do.

And one of the striking lessons he leaves us with is that no mission is accomplished just because a president claims it to be so. Words spoken without the backbone of honesty are meaningless.

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