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(un)Clear and (un)Present Danger?

(A commentary on Bush's State of the Union Speech 1/28/03) -- by Michael Rectenwald

In commemoration of Thomas Paine's Birthday (January 29)

O Ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!-- Thomas Paine

Make no mistake about it, Bush's State of the Union Address was a rhetorical masterpiece. Clinton may have been the master rhetorician, but we never suspected the same of Bush. We can chalk it up to the writers, but nonetheless, it was Bush's mouth that delivered a speech that took the wind right out of the sails of his opposition by casting them again in the dwarfed "domestic" role (which they gladly but very mistakenly are accepting), while he assumed (and his party by proxy), with greater dimensions than hitherto, the role as the stern fatherly protector, he defender of the nation, the preserver of peace, and the strong leader of the world's only superpower -- poised to take corrective action against any possible threat to the Homeland. Mothers and children can feel safer now. Democrats are the weaker party, the assumed wards of the Man himself, who willingly embraces even the critical and puling, while def. The world is now the stage and Bush is going to act on it. So the story went.

Lest I seem to shock my readers as being suddenly a credulous "believer," allow me to say that I believe that this was the effect aimed at and for the most part, achieved. Even his hard-line opponents in the room strained to deflect it, to deny it, to defy it, or to counter it. Democrats were hard put to resist and one could see Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, and to a lesser extent, Ted Kennedy, realizing what a force they were up against--not in Saddaam Hussein, mind you, but in Bush himself, or whatever operates this Bush machine to such overwhelming effect.

I'll want to examine the rhetoric. I want to see roughly how the Bush team styled and managed this rhetorical victory, and just how the language operated. First of all, I should state my belief that all argument, all language, all discourse, even the scientific, is rhetorical; I do not use the term pejoratively. Despite this, I also confess that the object of rhetorical analysis, for me, is to see just what was said and how certain issues were run together for a particular effect. What might have been smuggled in under veiled statements; what was elided; what magically disappeared? And just what does it all mean? How much is really political posturing, and what is actually policy in the making from his standpoint? The project of deconstruction that I undertake here, is not, of course, "innocent"--in terms of political aims. When we see how things were constructed, we deconstruct them and likewise, demystify them. And that is indeed the goal here. The speech was nothing if not mystifying, breathtaking in its mythological and imagistic renderings and its diminishing of other concerns and perspectives. Looking at the rhetorical packaging right-sizes the myth and the goblins. This right-sizing makes manageable the objects of argument. Let's hope so, for Bush himself suggested that the stakes are indeed quite high. An entirely unopposed near declaration of massive war would be a failure of democracy on several grounds.

So, just how did it all go down? First of all, Bush lead with the weakest cards--starting with the partisan plans that few Democrats had hardly to move for. (Movement is here figured as at least a partial concession by the opposition. The more movement the worse. Standing up is actually being put in one's place). On several occasions, all hands were dead on the left. Bush talked about making the tax cut permanent. The standard Republican move; according to the other side, this is the tax cut started the deficit ball rolling and helped the Republicans to justify cuts to domestic programs. Supply-side economics have been disproved repeatedly, or so goes the Democratic argument. In such a weak economy, this is a strength. The permanence of such tax-cuts only signals more pain for the majority, and thus the Democratic argument against them is strong. Thus, this part of the address posed no threat.

The tax cut on dividends came along shortly thereafter. This plan barely has the approval of Bush's own party and will surely fall flat on its face. Democrats need not have even winced at the sound, and if they did, Dick Cheney, who never looked their way once all night, didn't notice.

There came the now requisite promise to convict corporate criminals. Compared to 'enemy number one,' these guys now look like errant altar boys; they were off scott free after one line. The energy plan--was it only in my head--did Cheney blush at this point? Also, I recall a promise to do something about the forests, which, we vaguely remember from before, involves some sort of "stewardship" that includes logging and planned fires. These fires would soon wane like smouldering ashes with talk of a "real: fire. These small fires died down in anticipation before even flaring up. Such was the insignificance of such matters...

Of course, there were the usual declamations against malpractice suits and the (unstated) promise to limit them to $250,000. To many a Republican, this is a sweet sound, and for many others, signals guardianship of the health care industry--unless, of course, you're one of the people who've had an organ mistakenly removed, or a hand chopped off by accident. Likewise, these were relative rough spots. The easy silence on the left spelled strength. But the casualties, again, would seem slight in comparison with the 'real risks' we run...

A few surprises came that seem to preempt the opposition by stealing their thunder. Bush proposed 1.2 billion for clean-energy hydrogen burning cars that emit only water (surely in the form of steam). A bit about drug addiction--400 million for drug addiction treatment. 400 million for Medicare reform. A promise to reduce air pollution by 70% over 15 years or so. Surely a surprise, since Bush has done nothing but increase it over his tenure in federal and state government. But most people don't know this, and likewise, he scored some jabs. Just what pollutants he meant was not clear. Given his rejection of the Kyoto protocol for reducing Green House emissions, the announcement sounded a bit like a religious conversion--to the initiated, or the uninitiated, whatever the case may be.

State of the Union dollars cost less than real money and the state of the Union address is the president playing monopoly with the budgetary dollars. All the while tax cuts and spending increases didn't square, but this was only a speech. Therefore, he could spend away, as if in a fantasy republic delighting in outspending his liberal opponents (after sending them to spenders' jail and telling them not to pass Go). But just what was he up to here? Well, as we shall see, Bush was in the process of gathering some rhetorical steam as he headed into the main engine. He gained something and left nothing on the table; he was more than certain that these lost leaders have about as much chance of being passed by HIS--the majority party--than would universal, nationalized health introduced if by Hillary Clinton this year.

But a few quick rights scored first: one for faith-based initiatives. Oh, there are a few pesky matters about the Constitution involved, but nothing that a warm glow of old time religion couldn't burn off. After all, the Bible trumps the Constitution for the conservative Christian and the feelings of the conservative Christian are more precious than everyone else's, at least when there are a few of them around. Banking on Biblical grace, he parlayed faith-based initiatives into a proposed 450 million for mentors for troubled youths, making it hard for Democrats to see their way clear to opposing it (i.e. to refusing to clap), although its relationship to the former was unclear.

Fifteen billion for AIDS in Africa (and at home). Here Bush expressed his fellow-feeling for the suffering Africans with AIDS and how easily it could be addressed. It was hard not to believe he feels it, and I'm sure he could muster, easily, the emotion. Tears welled up in his fluttering eyes. But the sadness of the standing African guest only comes home when we realize that this initiative will probably not come to pass. Most likely it will slip into a budgetary crack somewhere between the aisles. But the compassionate conservative was back...just in time for the war...

AIDS, a "natural" threat, segued into terrorism, the "man-made" threat. And here the matters of Homeland Security came to play. Here then, to the heart of the matter. Now the talk of Terrorism and how it is thwarted, beaten, day in and day out. And paradoxically the domestic itself began to shrink when threats inimical to it were invoked. And finally to Iraq. Iraq and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Iraq and moving vans of chemical weapons. Iraq and Al Quaeda, connected. Iraq, protecting terrorists and handing off, without fingerprints, agents of terror to the terrorists. Iraq and non-complicity. Iraq and utter resistance to UN Inspections. The goal is not a process. The goal is a result. The result is the goal, the goal is to end the danger posed by Iraq. Iraq is "the real" danger. Other dangers pale (including the domestic, the unmentionable). Nothing compares to the actual enemy, the real threat. And nothing compares to the real, ultimate object: freedom. To free the Iraqi people from tyranny. The freedom we bring is not the gift of America to the world. It is the Gift of God to Humanity. That is, the gifts of America and God are conflated and America bears the Gift of God. The two are one. And being opposed to one must mean being opposed to both, being opposed America is being opposed to God, to Providence. Being opposed to the freedom we bring is being opposed to the Gift from God. War brings the peace. Being opposed to the war is being opposed to God, freedom and peace. We bring the gift of God, so the Iraqi government, or Hussein must be of the devil, or the devil incarnate. If he is not evil, "evil has no meaning."

And so we have it, the mythological warfare. The imagery of such myth dwarfs all others. The economy is quotidian, ordinary, and mundane by comparison. The secular, mundane world becomes not only trifling, but those concerned with it, somewhat tainted. They are tainted by material concerns, even selfish desires. The economy is small scale compared to the celestial battles fought in the theatre of God's wars. There lies a greater economy, where the losses and gains are tabulated in sums of "Providence," "freedom" and "democracy."

Of course, there are those of us who see in this rhetoric a magical metaphor of exchange, where values are secretly swapped, inverted in fact. We see economic exploit cloaked in spiritual disguise. The economy of the few is masked as protection of the many. The goal of international domination is transformed into the language of "freedom." The actual "spirit" of humanity is trampled, as bodies are bombed into submission. The will of the mighty becomes "Providence."

The inversion of terms is almost total, except for this: the possibility exists that Power can actually serve the cause of liberation. Relative evil actually exists, but the polarities drawn between any supposed moral opposites represents a mythology. The use of such mythological imagery is the sure sign of a lie. And when such is the case, the clear and present danger may not be so far from home. As Bush said to the people of Iraq, the enemy may not be the armies surrounding your country, but the tyrant ruling it from within. Yes, power can serve the cause of liberation, but the question is, whose power?


Michael Rectenwald
Founder and Chair
Citizens for Legitimate Government
January, 29, 2002.

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