From stump to State, Bush's rhetoric

Once known for linguistic stumbles, the president has honed a mix of conviction, gravitas, and twang.

He came into office famous for his malapropisms, from "making the pie higher," to "Is our children learning?" He raised eyebrows in his first term for gunslinger rhetoric, calling for Osama bin Laden to be captured "dead or alive," and taunting those who attacked US troops, "Bring 'em on."

Yet as George W. Bush prepares to give the first State of the Union address of his second term Wednesday, observers say he has evolved into a more confident, eloquent - and, more important, often quite effective - presidential communicator, whose critics, as Mr. Bush once put it, misunderestimate him at their peril.

Lately, it seems, Bush has been seizing every available opportunity to get his message out and shape public perceptions: The past few weeks have been a blitz of presidential communication, from a spate of newspaper and television interviews, to the second inaugural address, to last week's press conference. Later this week, the president plans to take his message on the road in a campaign-style swing to promote his policies.

Most observers agree that Bush's strongest format is still on the stump, where he can best display his man-of-the-people style, and feed off his audience.

But the president's formal addresses, such as Wednesday's State of the Union, have also proven an increasingly important tool in selling his policies. Ever since 9/11, analysts note, the president's speeches have been marked by a compelling blend of gravitas and conviction, using Biblical language, historical sweep, and his own personal appeal to convey both loftiness and familiarity, while projecting a clear vision and priorities.

"Where he's really improved is in the formal state speeches," says Trevor Parry-Giles, an expert on presidential communication at the University of Maryland. "He's able to capture the seriousness of the situation, but at the same time maintain his connection to the people."

Of course, much of the credit for Bush's speeches is shared by his speechwriting team - and their future effectiveness could certainly diminish with the replacement of his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson.

Nor does Bush's communications style appeal to everyone. His speeches are still routinely mocked by critics, both in this country and abroad, who tend to see his remarks as overly simplistic and lacking in nuance, as well as occasionally arrogant and even belligerent.

That criticism may also be a reflection of the cultural differences that tend to divide the country. Many blue-state residents may be less comfortable with Bush's Texas twang, or even suspicious of its authenticity. Moreover, experts say, partisanship increasingly tends to color voters' judgments of their politicians on personal as well as policy grounds, with Bush's critics and supporters hearing his words through different partisan filters.

"Ever since Reagan, there has been a growing tendency for partisan attitudes to shape reactions to style as well as substance in the presidency," notes Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

But to less partisan voters, Bush comes across as "somebody with whom they can feel comfortable, who seems to know what he wants to do without excessive fear of who might disapprove," Professor Buchanan adds.

Indeed, in some ways, Bush's reelection victory - despite a weak economy and evidence that the public had serious doubts about his policies in Iraq - could be attributed at least in part to his superior ability to communicate and connect well with voters.

One factor that has undoubtedly enhanced the effectiveness of Bush's rhetoric is the fact that the nation has been at war throughout much of his tenure. When presidential speeches come at a time of challenging circumstances, experts say, people are simply more inclined to listen to them.

"The two things that go into making a great speech are the moment in time - and particularly moments of crisis - [and] eloquent expression," says Martin Medhurst, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Baylor University. "It takes really both of those things."

Certainly, Bush's speaking style has evolved with his presidency and the circumstances he's faced in office.

Most obviously, experts say, the attacks of 9/11 seemed to give him a sense of mission that underscored and to a large extent transformed his rhetoric. The foreign policy sections of Bush's speeches gained a new urgency and power - and have typically been more central and memorable than the domestic policy sections.

Bush has also indicated that he thinks more about the power and consequences of his words, and is working to modulate his off-the-cuff remarks. Speaking to a group of reporters recently, Bush expressed regret for some of his more controversial statements.

"Sometimes, words have consequences you don't intend them to mean," Bush was reported as saying. " 'Bring 'em on' is the classic example, when I was really trying to rally the troops and make it clear to them that I fully understood, you know, what a great job they were doing. And those words had an unintended consequence. It kind of, some interpreted it to be defiance in the face of danger. That certainly wasn't the case."

Still, some observers note that while Bush may have faced criticism from some quarters for his earlier tough-guy remarks, he likely gained support among others, who saw the statements as evidence of the authenticity of his feelings.

Apologizing was "a relatively easy and cost-free way to throw his critics a bone on the question of 'Well, can't you ever admit you're wrong about anything?' " says Buchanan. But, he adds, it doesn't necessarily mean Bush won't use that kind of language again.

Not all of Bush's formal speeches have gone over well, either. His second inaugural address, while hailed by some as radical and visionary, was criticized by others as vague and naive - and forced White House aides to spend subsequent days clarifying the president's message.

In that sense, Wednesday's State of the Union will carry additional weight, as a vehicle for Bush to expound on the vision he put forward in his inaugural address - matching policy substance and details to the values he already set forth.

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