More John Wayne rhetoric infuses politics

Bush's 'bring 'em on' line is indicative of a growing machismo in public discourse.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

American culture may be awash in action heroes from the Hulk to the Terminator, but increasingly, it seems the summer's biggest display of testosterone is coming not from Hollywood - but from Washington.

"Bring 'em on," President Bush declared, when asked about guerrilla attacks on US troops in Iraq.

"A bunch of bull," former press secretary Ari Fleischer said this week, in dismissing charges of hyped intelligence before the war.

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Even Democrats - the so-called "Mommy Party" - are spouting locker-room language: At a house party in New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry reportedly told the crowd: "We're going to have to get up off our [rear ends] and work" to win the White House.

Tough talk and displays of machismo are nothing new in politics, of course. Presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson were known for blunt, even coarse utterances - though they rarely made them in public.

But in a post-9/11, post-Iraq war era, Washington officials seem to be starring in the ultimate Bad Boys remake, projecting a new "America with attitude," as Gen. Tommy Franks recently put it in his retirement speech.

It's as if LBJ's "political power talk" has evolved into "clichés that seem to jump out of B movies," says Wayne Fields, a political rhetoric expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

The star of this movie is clearly the president himself, whose "bring 'em on" comment was simply the latest in a string of cinematic one-liners. In the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists, Bush famously vowed to "smoke 'em out," and bring them in "dead or alive," evoking comparisons to tough-guy icons from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood - though more recently, the presidential imagery seemed to shift to Tom Cruise, after his highly visible "Top Gun" landing on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

But while Democrats have on various occasions attacked the president's "phony, macho rhetoric," as Rep. Dick Gephardt labeled it, they're not immune to the trend, either. Washington's fondness for the phrase "Bring it on" may well have originated with Sen. John Edwards, who uses it routinely in his stump speech when defending against GOP attacks on his trial-lawyer background. And the rise of former Gov. Howard Dean is often attributed in large part to his blunt, aggressive tone on the trail.

TO some extent, all this tough talk can be seen as the culmination of a decades-long political battle. As Republicans began taking the Southern power base away from Democrats, the GOP, once typified by pinstriped bankers or accountants, has adopted an image more in line with Arnold Schwarzenegger and stock-car racing. Democrats, too, fighting to maintain a toehold in the region, are using more decidedly male symbolism - Sen. Bob Graham is now sponsoring a NASCAR truck.

On top of that, the backdrop of 9/11 and war in Iraq - both of which played out on television to a much greater extent than any past war or tragedy - may be fueling the action-movie theme, as politicians strive to offer the nation emotional outlets and a sense of clarity. "This is a country that is a sucker for clichés," says Professor Fields. "And we would like some simple answers."

In a general sense, the trend reflects the increasing dominance of pop culture in American life, says Allen Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College who's writing a book on how to talk like a president. While once Americans may have bristled at such informal language from their leaders, now "We're all so used to pop culture," he says, that when Bush talks like an action hero, "we get the message that he's serious, he's being tough."

Still, too much rhetorical swagger can be risky. Bush's "Bring 'em on" line - a phrase first popularized by World Wrestling Federation star The Rock, who, perhaps appropriately, appeared at the 2000 GOP convention - may well appeal to his supporters as a sign of strength. But with attacks on US troops in Iraq escalating, the president's line may also come to strike some as an unwise taunt.

"It's one thing if the commander in chief is saying that, and his horse is leading the others," says pollster John Zogby. "It's a whole other thing when the troops are in harm's way and the president, from the comfort of the White House, says 'Bring it on.' "

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