The White House promised a non-political speech. Bush’s aides said the president’s address to the nation would exploit no partisan differences, and issue no calls to Congress. In technical terms, they were right. To all intents and purposes, they were wrong.
Sure, President Bush avoided the words Democrat and Republican. And there were no exhortations for legislation. But if that’s the definition of political, then there’s little that qualifies outside a 30-second TV ad and a State of the Union speech. Instead, the 9-11 anniversary speech carried all the hallmarks of politics as honed and polished by President Bush in the 12 years he has held public office.
The most important hallmark is a passive-aggressive strategy—to land a punch without looking like you’re in a fight. So Bush took the high road of patriotism, as he called for Democrats to stop opposing his policies in Iraq and elsewhere. “Winning this war will require the determined efforts of a unified country,” Bush said, “and we must put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us.”
Nothing in his speech, and nothing outside it, suggests that President Bush is ready to meet his critics half-way in setting aside their differences. In the president’s view, the people playing politics—and dividing the nation—are those who oppose his approach. That may not be explicitly partisan politics, but it is political debate dressed up in patriotic clothes.
Earlier in the speech, he was more explicit about the most important of those differences: about how to end the military operations in Iraq.
Bush’s rhetorical strategy is twofold: first, issue a statement of fact about your own position; second, caricature your opponents to look foolish. First the statement of fact: “We’re training Iraqi troops so they can defend their nation. We’re helping Iraq’s unity government grow in strength and serve its people. We will not leave until this work is done,” he explained.
Second, the caricature: “Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone,” he said. “They will not leave us alone. They will follow us.”
Are there any senior Democrats who have said that troops should leave Iraq in the hope that “terrorists would leave us alone?” The Democratic argument is that troops should leave Iraq either to encourage Iraqis to take control, or simply to avoid greater casualties in what looks like a low-grade civil war.
This kind of high-class brawl is nothing new for President Bush. In fact, it’s a strategy that found its best expression when Bush was in his deepest hole six years ago, at the start of the 2000 presidential campaign. The South Carolina primary is remembered for its bare-knuckle politicking, and under-the-radar smearing of Bush’s rival, John McCain. But Bush himself did nothing that could be characterized as aggressive, confining himself to defensive comments, while allowing surrogates to torment his opponent.
The essence of the South Carolina campaign was for Bush to tarnish McCain’s credentials as a political outsider and as a national security candidate. In Sumter, S.C., he stood alongside war veterans to promise a stronger military and better conditions for servicemen and women. It was one of those veterans who accused McCain of having abandoned his fellow Vietnam veterans in Washington.
Having portrayed himself as a strong supporter of the military, Bush staged a news conference in which he attacked a McCain ad on Social Security for being purely political. “The people in South Carolina want an honest campaign. They want an open campaign,” he declared. “They don’t want Washington-style politics.”
This is the kind of politics that Bush has used in every cycle, and he shows every sign of repeating the strategy in 2006. He questions his opponents’ weakness, and asserts his own strength; he accuses his opponents of playing politics, while asserting his own honesty and sincerity.
In Washington, such tactics have long been credited to Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff and master political strategist. In fact, Bush is using some of the oldest rhetorical tactics from classical times—and that’s not by chance.
In his last news conference, Bush fielded one question about Sen. Joe Lieberman’s woes among Democrats in Connecticut. Bush delivered a rambling response about his view of the difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of the war, when he saw reporters’ hands going up to ask a new question.
“I’m kind of getting old, and just getting into my peroration,” he quipped. “Look it up.”
Peroration? It’s a rhetorical device, a summing up of previous points that an orator would deliver towards his conclusion. Bush has been fixated on such oratory for many years. Karen Hughes, Bush’s first communications director, used to tell how Bush rejected the early drafts of his speeches because they lacked a good peroration. Hughes believed that Bush had taken a Yale class in oratory and was simply old school about his speeches. And there’s no older rhetorical trick than a politician suggesting he is no politician.
What does a non-political event look and sound like? Bush spent most of the 9/11 anniversary at those events, where he commemorated those who died by keeping silent. For instance, on Sunday he laid wreathes at Ground Zero, then attended a religious service close by.
Inside St. Paul’s Chapel, the audience was a mix of political leaders (like Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani) and the families of 9/11 victims. The only vaguely controversial note came from a Californian imam, Muzammil Siddiqi, who went off-script. To the consternation of the New York rabbi and Catholic bishop standing next to him, Siddiqi started condemning terrorists, saying, “They are not representatives of any religion and they are not the representatives of Islam.”
At the end of his remarks, the rabbi, Allan Schranz, shook Siddiqi’s hand. Bush, sitting in the front row, smiled at them both. He didn’t say a word. An hour later, Bush spoke to reporters about how he was approaching the anniversary with “a heavy heart.” Then he couldn’t resist repeating his favorite argument for going to war in Iraq—that he would never forget “the lessons of that day” and would approach the anniversary as “a day of renewing resolve.”
The sad lesson of the last five years of politics is that even the most benign ideas, like acting with resolve, have taken on political—and partisan—meaning. No matter how somber the events on Monday, this campaign season will be just as political as the last.