Why Bush's loose talk might leave him a loser

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 12:00am

WHEN UNITED STATES President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, Americans thought they knew what they were getting - a conservative Methodist who had not been the best of scholars, but whose political pedigree should see the nation right.

There were a few snide remarks about his public-speaking abilities and with his governorship of Texas came a cowboyish persona that belied his East Coast roots. The nickname Dubya seemed to say it all - down-home and honest-to-God.

More than halfway into his presidential term and with campaigning for a second term under way, the nation has realised George W. Bush is not like his father. Instead, increasing numbers of political commentators are saying Americans are living the third term of Ronald Reagan.

From rhetoric to style, the comparisons are compelling. Increasingly similar are circumstances now and during the 1980s - a stagnant economy, a rising deficit, rising unemployment, unstable stock markets and a potent enemy.

In Mr Reagan's case it was cold war rival the Soviet Union, his so-called 'empire of evil'. For Mr Bush it is terrorism and the nations who allegedly sponsor it, his 'axis of evil'.

To complete the picture, Mr Bush has even surrounded himself with Reagan-era stalwarts like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

There are differences, though, the most obvious being that Mr Reagan, a Hollywood actor before entering politics, knew how to work an audience. Lacking stage training, Mr Bush's skills in the public arena are patchy. Now that the US has embarked on a war with Iraq, his personal style could get him into political trouble, observers say.

Wayne Fields, an expert in American political rhetoric and author of Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence, sees two George W. Bushes - the one who reads chief speechwriter Mike Gerson's often masterly texts, and the other making simplistic and unsubtle off-the-cuff comments. With war and an increasingly critical opposition, rhetoric that has not been carefully thought out could easily cause political turmoil for Mr Bush, says Dr Fields, of Washington University, St Louis. Unlike Mr Reagan - and like his father - his chances of a second term as president could be destroyed by badly chosen words.

'Rather than making confident statements regarding the war, he should watch his words,' Dr Fields says. 'If it is not over quickly and with few difficulties as he has promised, it will backfire with the American public.'

The formula has been successful so far, with rousing speeches after the September 11 attacks giving a strong mandate for war on Afghanistan. Since war was declared against Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, an increasing proportion of Americans - now more than 70 per cent - have given their backing. Mr Bush's comments have had a lot to do with it. 'We have no ambition in Iraq except the liberation of its people,' he said to wild applause at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, the command centre for the war, last Wednesday. 'We ask no reward except a durable peace. And we will accept no outcome short of complete and final success.'

He exuded the same confidence in a speech made in the wake of the destruction of New York's World Trade Centre: 'Those who make war against the United States have chosen their own destruction.'

In his first State of the Union address in January 2002, Mr Bush used the same tough talk to lay down the groundwork for the war and foreshadow future American action against what were perceived as threats to the US.

'States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,' he said. 'By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the US. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.'

Less eloquent, but continuing what has been termed cowboy rhetoric, have been unscripted comments like, 'You dance with who brung ya' and 'You're either with us or against us'.

The black-and-white world of good and bad, haves and have-nots has troubled analysts, who see matters like international relations, co-operation and diplomacy requiring a more strategic approach. Perhaps for that reason, as it appears the US underestimated the Iraqi resilience, Mr Bush has made noticeably fewer appearances in the last few days, leaving officials like Mr Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell to speak of the war's progress.

'There is a harsher edge to Mr Bush and it comes through in his talk,' Dr Fields says. 'In the aftermath of September 11, it could be read as defiance. But when we moved away from that event and when it came to foreign policy or the United Nations, it became problematic. The question is whether he's got more than that note in his repertoire and can be flexible.'

This is the main difference between Mr Bush and his father, who built coalitions and constituencies of international co-operation to confront Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war. Mr Bush Jnr instead ignored the UN's authority and opted for a near-unilateral military campaign against Mr Hussein.

'Mr Bush is almost the opposite of his father in key ways,' Dr Fields said. 'The complaint about his father in the earlier campaign was that he came with a [CV], and not what the conservatives would consider passion. His son has no [CV] to speak of. He was governor of a state that asks almost nothing of its governor and compared to the father, has had limited professional success. They're quite different in ways that are sometimes almost exasperating to understand.'

Expectations of the younger Mr Bush had been low when he took office. His inaugural address proved an ability to deliver prepared messages. Dr Fields believes, though, that the president is even less compelling and convincing when unscripted.

'Eloquence depends upon being able to integrate the whole persona into all of the utterances of a presidency, not just those that somebody writes and hands to you,' he says. 'He's been more effective than anybody expected him to be, especially in the September 11 period, but he does not have a rhetorical comfort zone that allows him to think on his feet in press conferences or that keeps him from blurting things out.'

Mr Bush's main strength is his 'buddy-buddy' style, says Dr Fields. In his speech and actions, he can readily personalise a situation and instantly capture it. He did this to great effect at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York, where photographers captured him throwing his arm around workers sifting through the wreckage.

Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been studying the Bush administration's comments since September 11 and concludes that Mr Bush has sown the seeds of his own opposition. Unlike Dr Fields, he believes the president is following in his father's footsteps.

Mr Bush Jnr has also carried out a war against Iraq and has not shown too much concern for the economy. He has surrounded himself with many of his father's advisers. And like his father, he has also put his re-election at risk over a war with Mr Hussein. For this reason, Dr Pratkanis argues that Mr Bush needs a short, sharp war.

'I've been astonished at how ineffective Mr Bush has been in convincing other countries to go to war,' said the academic, the co-author of The Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion.

Mr Bush's inability to substantiate claims he has made about his war on terrorism and his campaign to overthrow Mr Hussein has cost him credibility. Among these was the allegation that aluminium tubes found by UN weapons inspectors in Iraq had been used in a nuclear weapons programme. The inspectors later said they did not believe this to be the case. A memo which the administration said supposedly showed the Iraqi leader was trying to buy weapons-grade nuclear material from Africa has been found to be fraudulent.

Repeated claims that Mr Hussein has terrorist links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network have yet to be proved. An investigation into the September 11 attacks has yet to conclusively prove that bin Laden was the mastermind.

Despite that, the war against Afghanistan's Taleban regime and the al-Qaeda cells they supported was given the go-ahead

'It's a dangerous game,' Dr Pratkanis says. 'For example, if no weapons of mass destruction are ever found in Iraq, it's going to make it more difficult the next time around to convince the American people.'

Public opinion does not seem to worry Mr Bush, though - although it is obviously a matter of concern when it comes to elections in 2004.

'His theory of public opinion is 'nothing succeeds like success',' Dr Pratkanis says. 'If he's successful, people will approve.'

With the war on terrorism far from being resolved and the bid to overthrow Mr Hussein and instil democracy in Iraq unclear, Mr Bush could face an uphill battle in the success stakes.

What is clear is that what he says in coming weeks will bear heavily on the future of his presidency.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's Foreign Editor