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Anorak | How To Talk Like George Bush

How To Talk Like George Bush

by | 26th, March 2007

bush-in-mouth.jpg WHAT you say : Oh Ginger, that was a bad thing. You’re a bad, bad dog, Ginger.
What a dog hears : Blah Ginger, blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah, Ginger. “Far Side” Cartoon

What Bush says : And when you engage the terrorists abroad, it causes activity and action.

What sticks in people’s minds : …engage the terrorists…activity…action.

What we do with words, wild chimpanzees do with lice. Instead of nitpicking, we humans use “demonstrative” rhetoric (epideictic in Aristotle’s book), the kind of persuasion that brings us together and distinguishes us from other groups. Demonstrative rhetoric exploits our instinct for forming tribes and rivalries, and our fear of being an outsider. “If men were not apart from one another,” said the twentieth-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, “there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity.”

The more people find themselves divided, the more they engage in demonstrative gestures a great speech like the Gettysburg address, or a heartfelt apology by a lover who nonetheless thinks he did nothing wrong. It can be a song, like the chants soldiers use when they march, or the tunes kids swap on the Web. Even a common dialect slang, jargon, or political code words lets people demonstrate how they belong together.

The Responsibility to Hug

Pundits love to talk about George W. Bush’s Christian code, but that’s only part of his grooming shtick. He also has his male code, his female code, and his military code. Bush speaks a pure language of identity, favoring the present tense and using terms that resonate among various constituencies. When he speaks the faithful, for example, he prefers “I believe” to “I think.” In the summer of 2001 he used “believe” as a kind of fugue:

“I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe—I believe what I believe is right.”

Believe it.

Before his re-election, Bush appealed to women with sentences that began “I understand,” and he repeated words such as “peace” and “security” and “protecting.” For the military, he used “never relent” and “whatever it takes” and “we must not waver” and “not on my watch.” For Christians, he began sentences with “And,” just like the Bible:

“And in all that is to come, we can know that His purposes are just and true.”

For men, he used swaggering humor that implied he personally pulls the military trigger:

“When I take action, I’m not going to fire a two million dollar missile at a ten dollar empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”

So what? Every politician uses code words. What makes Bush different is his masterful way of using code words without the distraction of logic. He speaks in short sentences, repeating code phrases in effective, if irrational, order. “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in,” he once said, “to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

But he does more than just repeat things over and over and over. He catapults his messages by leaving logic out of them. The result is what the poet Robert Frost called the “sound of sense” the meaning you intuit from hearing people speak in the next room. You pick up the sense from the speakers’ rhythms and tone, and from an occasional emphasized word. If you ever played Sims on your computer, you know what I mean. The game’s simulated characters speak Simlish, a babble language invented by a pair of improv comedians. (An angry character will exclaim something like, “Frabbida!”) You suss out much of what they say by their tone of voice. Bush’s strange statement, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream,” makes an almost poetic sense. It has the sound of sense. He has a masterful way of combining repetition, tone and code words unfettered by context.

“We look forward to hearing your vision, so we can more better do our job.”

This is a classic Bushism, fractured syntax that seems to come out of a short circuit in the language center of his brain. You know what he means, though, don’t you? If you heard it instead of read it, you would probably miss the “hearing your vision” part and come away with “look forward” and “hearing” and “vision” and “do our job.” The resulting message conveys optimism, listening, and duty. Bushisms treat audiences like the dog in the Far Side cartoon.

The Italic Slant

Clearly, Bush didn’t practice speaking Bushimistically. But he has done nothing to fix his syntax, probably because he benefits from it. Logic-free speech italicizes the words he wants to stick in our heads. When he says,

“We’ll be a great country where the fabrics are made up of groups and loving centers,”

he isn’t painting any sort of realistic picture of America. You couldn’t even call his technique “impressionism.” It’s more like pointillism, dotting the rhetorical canvas with values to create a group identity. As he himself succinctly put it, “sometimes pure politics enters into the rhetoric.” It’s his job as a politician to keep everything else out, leaving only politically useful values. “I’m a proud man to be the nation based upon such wonderful values,” he says.

What Bush says : Part of the facts is understanding we have a problem, and part of the facts is what you’re going to do about it.
What sticks in people’s minds : facts understanding problem facts.

The distracted listener gets the impression of an engaged, knowledgeable leader.

Skeptical? That’s probably because you’re receiving this in print, a logical medium. A good reader absorbs whole paragraphs, not words or phrases. Imagine hearing a Bushism on television while you’re making dinner and the dog is barking and the kids are arguing over who got to use the Play Station last and you’re wondering whether it’s time to get an oil change. A great Bushism is a work of art—neither an accurate representation of reality nor an appeal to logic, but

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Posted: 26th, March 2007 | In: Uncategorized Comment (1) | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink