PITTSBURGH — PRESIDENT BUSH will have a tougher time convincing Americans to go to war than perhaps any president in this century. He may sound the same themes as his predecessors, experts of presidential rhetoric say, but he will lack their trump card: He can't say Iraq attacked Americans.
``This is a historic debate on the nature of this country and what we stand for - particularly if we attack another nation without being attacked,'' says Theodore Windt Jr., a University of Pittsburgh professor and an expert on presidential rhetoric. ``That is a major change historically.''
Past United States presidents have always had some provocation they could point to. Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor allowed President Roosevelt to proclaim the ``day which will live in infamy'' and get Congress to declare war. President Johnson used an attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify military action in Vietnam. Truman moved troops to South Korea so quickly after the invasion from the North that the US entered the war before a real debate could take place. Recent US ventures into Grenada and Panama were over almost before they started.
``The problem in the Gulf is that we drew the line and now we are trying to step over it,'' says Wayne Fields, a Washington University professor and an expert on American campaign rhetoric.
It will be especially difficult for Bush, these analysts say, because he is not skilled at using his bully pulpit to rally the public. ``The president is not very sophisticated rhetorically because he's seen no need to be,'' Professor Fields says. Now, ``you can't all of a sudden decide that you are going to be rhetorically effective.'' Rhetorically effective presidents have built a relationship with their audience, he adds.
``He's been terrible on that,'' says Dom Bonafede, an American University professor who has gotten a grant to study Bush's communications strategy. ``He seems to be lobbying more the Congress and his allies than the American people.''
``War rhetoric is a moral rhetoric,'' says Professor Windt. ``People are not willing to die unless there's some kind of a moral goal or value that transcends private interest.''
Already, Bush has begun to make these moral appeals. Most of them are similar to those made by other postwar presidents, some remarkably similar to Johnson's statements about Vietnam.
For example, in a July 28, 1965 press conference, Johnson said, ``We learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict.'' Bush used this same lesson from history to argue his justification for going to war in an Aug. 20, 1990 speech: ``Half a century ago, the world had the chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it. And I pledge to you, we will not make that mistake again.''
Both presidents also argued that it was dangerous not to act. ``The state of Kuwait must be restored or no nation will be safe, and the promising future we anticipate will indeed be jeopardized,'' Bush said in a Nov. 8 press conference. In the July 1965 press conference Johnson said: ``As long as there are men who hate and destroy, we must have the courage to resist, or we will see it all, all that we have built, all that we hope to build, all of our dreams for freedom - all, all will be swept away on the flood of conquest. So, too, this will not happen. We will stand in Viet-Nam.''
Unlike Johnson, however, Bush has not tried to play down the escalation of troops. He has called up reservists for active duty - something Johnson declined to do for fear of alarming the public. And, in sharp contrast to the Vietnam conflict, Bush has the backing of the UN and, by the slimmest of margins, the support of Congress to go to war.
It will be up to him to make the case to the American people.