Presidents as communicators in wartime
Mr. Bush's blunt style gets high marks from some for conveying clarity, but others see it as overly simplistic.
WASHINGTON — One of the more curious aspects of George W. Bush's presidency is how the public relates to him. Just as the president himself tends to speak in black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us terms, so, too, do Americans fall into historically polarized camps of "for him or against him."
President Bush's rhetorical style - blunt and unelaborated, frustrating to some and comforting to others - exacerbates the polarization that is a hallmark of the 2004 campaign, political analysts say. And at a time of high uncertainty and US casualties in Iraq, with the need to keep the American public on his side growing daily, Bush's ability to woo and persuade is being tested as never before.
"He makes a very convenient target, but he also makes a convenient object of adoration; it's two sides of the same coin," says Roderick Hart, an expert on political communication at the University of Texas. Professor Hart calls Bush's verbal style direct, though lacking in poetic flourish.
"He's not elliptical like Bill Clinton often was," Hart adds. "And he doesn't have that lift of the driving dream that Ronald Reagan had, which can mystify politics, sometimes productively. Bush's style does march him out ahead of the pack. And that lets people take shots at him, but also inspires people who follow him."
Like a Rorschach ink blot, Bush's performance in a rare primetime news conference Tuesday evening was interpreted by the public and pundits, usually according to their established ideas. Republicans thought he was effective, showing resolve and determination to see through his vision of turning Iraq into a model of democracy. Democrats found his lack of detail and range exasperating.
One notable exception, from the Republican camp, was William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, who supports the war in Iraq, but told the Los Angeles Times he found Bush's performance depressing, because the president didn't explain how the US is going to win in Iraq.
Mr. Kristol's concern is that Bush needs to make an explicit case to the growing ranks of Americans who are doubtful or worried - not just to those who already support him.
"He's a cheerleader," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. It is a point not without irony: Bush was head cheerleader in prep school.
"Lyndon Johnson did that, too - and we know where that got him. He also complained about nervous Nellies and the need to stay the course, there's light at the end of the tunnel, we're making progress, we can't not back up the boys, it'll come out all right."
Professor Dallek believes that kind of rhetoric can work for a while, because as president, Bush gets some leeway. But over the long haul, facts on the ground - televised on multiple channels at any hour - will outweigh the words from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"This is not Vietnam, but it comes in the shadow of Vietnam, so the patience that people will show with this kind of rhetoric will be substantially curtailed," Dallek adds.
Presidential historian Fred Greenstein contrasts Bush's style with that of President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the last massive attack on American soil before 9/11, Roosevelt elaborated on it in depth to the public, using strong, eloquent rhetoric, "the way his buddy Winston Churchill did."
"His impulse was always to tell the American people where they were and where they were going, and explain the vicissitudes and adversities," says Professor Greenstein of Princeton University.
In contrast, Greenstein refers to a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last year, in which Mr. Blair went on at length about course of the Iraq war, with Bush jumping in every so often with a terse "as long as it takes."
Bush is fortunate that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his Democratic opponent for the presidency, also wins no prizes for rhetorical style, often described as leaden and stentorian, or even preachy.
"If Kerry was as nimble as a [John] Kennedy, Bush would really be hurting," says Greenstein.
The other dimension of Bush's communications style that reflects an important hallmark of his presidency is his professed born-again Christian faith, and regular references to the Almighty.
Before his press conference, it was easy to predict that he would work in, over the course of the hour, this oft-repeated reference: "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."
It has been observed that Bush's grand design for the Middle East has taken on characteristics of a crusade, though with careful avoidance of that loaded term. And so viewed from a global perspective, the religious aspect of Bush's rhetoric may be its most important feature - sending a signal to the rest of the world, including his Islamic extremist foes, that he is pursuing his goal with a sense of religious mission.