SOTU Analysis–Part 1


I have to preface this post by admitting that I neither saw nor heard Junior’s address–I was working and simply forgot to turn the radio on in time–so my remarks are predicated entirely on the text alone, absent all facial or vocal cues. In a way I’m at a disadvantage, but in another way relying solely on the text can eliminate the misdirection of carefully-crafted emphasis–or lack of it. In addition, my background as both a political junkie and an actor/director/writer may give me some insight into the actual meanings of the lines, since finding that meaning in a bare script is more or less what I do every day.

So here, fwiw, is my take on this year’s SOTU. If it seems unnecessarily long and detailed, discussing the pros and cons of individual phrases and even single words, please bare in mind that that is how these speeches are written and approved: every single word is gone over with a fine tooth comb for the correctness of the impression it leaves, the meaning it promotes, and the subliminal impression it makes. Just like with advertising copy, the words and phrases used in Presidential speeches are honed and tinkered with and fought over endlessly. Therefore the only way to understand them is to take them apart in exactly the way they were put together: why did they choose this word instead of that one? why did they choose to open with this phrase? why did they bundle these seemingly disparate batches of grafs as if they were the same topic? and so on. (Text of speech will be in italics.)

Mr. Speaker, Vice President Cheney, members of Congress, distinguished guests and fellow citizens:

America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them.

Opening lines are always significant and writers spend a great deal of time diddling with them until they’re just right. They set the tone of what will follow but even more important they frame the whole speech by summarizing its overall goal. The opening line of Junior’s SOTU does two things:

1) The use of the word “responsibilities” is intended to cast all of the Admin’s moves as inevitable decisions forced on them by circumstances beyond their control, suggesting that if they had made any other decisions or responded in a different way, they would have been irresponsible, which in turn suggests rather strongly right off the bat that any critics who disagree with their decisions must be irresponsible as well. This word tells us that what will follow won’t be explanations or justifications but assumptions based on the belief that nothing else could possibly have been done.

2) The word “rising” in the second sentence is simple verbal code for “upbeat, uplifting, positive”, as in “leaving the darkness and rising into the light”. This word tells us that what follows will be a catalogue of positives and that any doubts or alternative options to the decisions taken will be given short shrift if they’re mentioned at all.

As we gather tonight, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women are deployed across the world in the war on terror. By bringing hope to the oppressed, and delivering justice to the violent, they are making America more secure.

The interesting phrasing, “deployed across the world”, is a bit of a departure for a “war-time president” because it doesn’t acknowledge his responsibility for that deployment. Lyndon Johnson during the Viet Nam War, Reagan before Grenada, Bush I before the First Gulf War, and Clinton before Kosovo all used either the word “I” or the word “we” in acknowledgement of their responsibility for the decision they had made. Instead, Bush II phrases it as if the troops had decided on their own to deploy themselves and he’s just backing up that decision. It’s a curious choice of words for a president because it suggests his disconnection to events, a disconnection so profound that it’s almost like he’s on the outside, a mere onlooker rather than a main player and major decision-maker, and presidents don’t usually like to be thought of that way.

The phrase “delivering justice to the violent” is equally curious, combining as it does a high-concept word like “justice” with a low-concept word like “violent”. Normally speech-writers prefer not to mix the two since that’s apt to create confusion and even wound the intended tone of the speech. They would be more likely to use some version of the phrase “delivering justice to the unjust” which maintained the high moral tone of the key word. We must therefore assume that the choice of the word “violent” was deliberate and probably not that of the speech-writer.

In addition, the phrase “delivering justice” is usually followed not by a reference to the perpetrator of the injustice but to the victims of it; one “delivers justice” to those who have been deprived of it. Bush’s focus on the perps instead of their victims gives the phrase more the ring of “justice defined as revenge” than “justice defined as righting wrongs.” As such, it’s a disturbing sentence yet it explains to some degree his choice of the word “violent”: injustices do not automatically either involve or excuse retribution; violence demands them.

Each day, law enforcement personnel and intelligence officers are tracking terrorist threats; analysts are examining airline passenger lists; the men and women of our new Homeland Security Department are patrolling our coasts and borders. And their vigilance is protecting America.

Americans are proving once again to be the hardest working people in the world. The American economy is growing stronger. The tax relief you passed is working.

As promised by the opening line, these grafs contain no hint that anything whatever is wrong–no problems that need to be fixed, no adjustments that need to be made. Neither the criticisms leveled against the HSD nor the enormous deficits caused by the tax cuts (called “relief” here for obvious reasons) are alluded to even in passing. Most presidents would refer in the SOTU to criticisms of their decisions even if just to debunk them.

Tonight, members of Congress can take pride in great works of compassion and reform that skeptics had thought impossible. You are raising the standards of our public schools and you are giving our senior citizens prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

The use of the phrase “great works of compassion” defines the programs that will come after it in those terms without further explanation. “[R]aising the standards of our public schools” may be a worthy goal but why is it “compassionate”?

In this graf Bush begins to use a personal pronoun–you. Doing so is an attempt to give his audience credit for the work they’ve done, which is fine. But it also again distances him from that work, suggesting that–as before–they weren’t passing initiatives which he developed and sent to them but acting entirely on their own. That may make them feel good but its effect is likewise to remove him from any responsibility for them.

What’s interesting about this verbal distancing is the almost complete lack of political reasons for doing so. If he was certain the actions of the Congress were or would become anathema to the voters, then giving all the credit to the legislature would make some sense. But these are clearly programs in which he believes and for which he fought, either for their own sake or for the sake of their political value. What does he think is to be gained by ducking responsibility for them if he believes–as he clearly does–that they are perceived by the electorate as positive programs? Why not use the word “we” rather than “you”, which would have the same effect of giving the Congress due credit bit also acknowledge his own role? For a political animal, the choice is baffling. Does he really think he had nothing to do with these initiatives? Does he think the public believes he had nothing to do with them? Odd.

We have faced serious challenges together — and now we face a choice. We can go forward with confidence and resolve — or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us. We can press on with economic growth, and reforms in education and Medicare — or we can turn back to the old policies and old divisions.

We have not come all this way — through tragedy, and trial, and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished. Americans are rising to the tasks of history, and they expect the same of us. In their efforts, their enterprise and their character, the American people are showing that the state of our Union is confident and strong.

Finally, Bush elects to use a personal pronoun which includes himself: “we”. He does so in the context not of the actions or decisions of either his Administration or his work with the Congress but in the context of the people–Americans–as a whole, thus identifying himself with and as “the people”.

And now we begin to understand why this is the first time Bush has included himself in his own speech. While identifying yourself with “the people” is a fairly common rhetorical practice for any politician, what’s highly unusual here is Bush’s deliberate refusal to refer to himself in any other role. He not only avoids acknowledging his political role–a standard ploy for presidents wishing to give the impression that they’re “above partisan politics” because they’re far too busy running the country–he also avoids acknowledging his executive role, that of running the country, precisely the opposite of what one expects from a president in a major address. He takes no credit–and no responsibility–for anything that has happened; he is speaking not just for but as “the people”, projecting himself as the “common man” in the role of a dispassionate observer reporting objectively what he sees around him: the military decided to deploy themselves “across the world in the war on terror”, and by doing so they are “bringing hope to the oppressed”; the Congress has passed many “compassionate” initiatives in which they can “take pride”. As the personification of America, he looks on and approves.

Rhetorically, one has to ask oneself what he wants to achieve with this sort of approach. After all, politically speaking it’s counter-intuitive, possibly counter-productive–it separates him from the successes politicians need to be able to point to and take credit for. So why is he doing it?

Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people. Twenty-eight months have passed since Sept. 11, 2001 — over two years without an attack on American soil — and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us. That hope is understandable, comforting — and false. The killing has continued in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Baghdad. The terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world. And by our will and courage, this danger will be defeated.

Apart from the conflation of “America and the civilized world” which suggests that any country not aligned with us must therefore be “un”-civilized, this is a fairly standard political plea not to change horses in midstream.

Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us. And one of those essential tools is the PATRIOT Act, which allows federal law enforcement to better share information, to track terrorists, to disrupt their cells and to seize their assets. For years, we have used similar provisions to catch embezzlers and drug traffickers. If these methods are good for hunting criminals, they are even more important for hunting terrorists. Key provisions of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire next year. The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule. Our law enforcement needs this vital legislation to protect our citizens — you need to renew the PATRIOT Act.

This is the first graf to mention pending legislation and again it acknowledges no difficulties: he doesn’t refer to the fact that many towns and cities have passed laws against the implementation of the PA or try to persuade them that they should back it; he doesn’t mention the myriad numbers of police depts that are uncomfortable with its provisions and have said so publicly, some outright refusing to co-operate; he doesn’t even make a pitch for the PA itself. He uses the word “needs” twice without explaining its necessity except to say it’s “important for hunting terrorists”. He doesn’t even try to explain how it’s important. In this section we get the first example of Bush’s assertion-as-fact strategy.

America is on the offensive against the terrorists who started this war. Last March, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a mastermind of Sept. 11, awoke to find himself in the custody of U.S. and Pakistani authorities. Last August 11th brought the capture of the terrorist Hambali, who was a key player in the attack in Indonesia that killed over 200 people. We are tracking al-Qaida around the world — and nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed. Thousands of very skilled and determined military personnel are on a manhunt, going after the remaining killers who hide in cities and caves — and, one by one, we will bring the terrorists to justice.

This graf claims many victories for his “war on terror”, some true but one demonstrably false–his first outright lie: “nearly two-thirds of their known leaders have now been captured or killed.” A resurgent Taliban now controls sizeable sections of Afghanistan and are increasing their forces daily, most of them slipping across the border from Pakistan. By no one’s realistic–or rational–count could it be claimed that we have “captured or killed” 2/3 or anything like 2/3 of known Taliban leaders. Personally I’d be surprised if the number exceeded 5%, and that’s assuming that the majority of Taliban leaders are unknown.

As part of the offensive against terror, we are also confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The United States and our allies are determined: We refuse to live in the shadow of this ultimate danger.

This is as close as Junior gets to repeating his WMD argument from last year. Once again, despite the widespread criticism of his pre-Iraq claims he offers no actual evidence either that the regimes we are “confronting” support terrorists or that they “could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons” if they were. The two assertions are treated as undeniable facts that everyone knows and with which no reasonable person could differ, and he neither explains nor defends either statement.

The first to see our determination were the Taliban, who made Afghanistan the primary training base of al-Qaida killers. As of this month, that country has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With help from the new Afghan Army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against surviving members of the Taliban and al-Qaida. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free, and proud, and fighting terror — and America is honored to be their friend.

The lies-by-omission in this graf are staggering. Had he said “Kabul” rather than “Afghanistan” or “the country”, he might have been able to make a plausible case, but the truth is that outside Kabul none of the conditions he lauds in fact exist–there are no schools operating in the countryside, women are being oppressed by the warlords and suppressed by the Taliban in the areas they control, and the “new Afghan Army” is a toothless joke, untrained, ill-equipped, and increasingly subject to the influence of the war lords. The picture he paints can only be considered a deliberate distortion–iow, a lie.

Since we last met in this chamber, combat forces of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Poland and other countries enforced the demands of the United Nations, ended the rule of Saddam Hussein — and the people of Iraq are free. Having broken the Baathist regime, we face a remnant of violent Saddam supporters. Men who ran away from our troops in battle are now dispersed and attack from the shadows.

This is a repetition of Rumsfeld’s “remnant” meme which even his own commanders have debunked. Either this is another lie, or Junior is months behind the curve.

These killers, joined by foreign terrorists, are a serious, continuing danger. Yet we are making progress against them. The once all-powerful ruler of Iraq was found in a hole, and now sits in a prison cell. Of the top 55 officials of the former regime, we have captured or killed 45. Our forces are on the offensive, leading over 1,600 patrols a day, and conducting an average of 180 raids every week. We are dealing with these thugs in Iraq, just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein’s evil regime.

The predictable gloating over Hussein’s capture–the cause of the last bump in his approval rating–is followed by a recitation of the number of army raids each week. He doesn’t mention that the vast majority of these raids–something in the 90th percentile–have turned up nothing useful and are alienating the population we supposedly just “freed”. (Incidentally, given past history, the numbers are probably bogus.)

The work of building a new Iraq is hard, and it is right. And America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right. Last January, Iraq’s only law was the whim of one brutal man. Today our coalition is working with the Iraqi Governing Council to draft a basic law, with a bill of rights. We are working with Iraqis and the United Nations to prepare for a transition to full Iraqi sovereignty by the end of June. As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear. They are trying to shake the will of our country and our friends — but the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom.

Month by month, Iraqis are assuming more responsibility for their own security and their own future. And tonight we are honored to welcome one of Iraq’s most respected leaders: the current President of the Iraqi Governing Council, Adnan Pachachi. Sir, America stands with you and the Iraqi people as you build a free and peaceful nation.

For the umpteenth time, bald assertion replaces fact and no acknowledgement of the difficulties involved or the dissension among the members of the IGC or the brewing revolt of the clerics or the split among the sects or the increasingly widespread criticism of the PCA within Iraq or any other potential difficulty is forthcoming. But then, the opening line told us it wouldn’t be.

Because of American leadership and resolve, the world is changing for the better. Last month, the leader of Libya voluntarily pledged to disclose and dismantle all of his regime’s weapons of mass destruction programs, including a uranium enrichment project for nuclear weapons. Col. Gadhafi correctly judged that his country would be better off, and far more secure, without weapons of mass murder. Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya, while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not. And one reason is clear: For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible — and no one can now doubt the word of America.

A transparent attempt to link the Iraq invasion to Qadaffi’s decision. Given that negotiations with Qaddaffi had been going on for years and that there were only a few difficulties left to be resolved by the time of the invasion, it’s unlikely that fear of the US doing what it did to Iraq was the cause of that decision.

Different threats require different strategies. Along with nations in the region, we are insisting that North Korea eliminate its nuclear program. America and the international community are demanding that Iran meet its commitments and not develop nuclear weapons. America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes.

This graf has virtually zero substance unless you link it to the preceding graf. He starts by referring to “[d]ifferent threats” and “different strategies” but the remainder of the graf makes no mention of anything “different”; the graf only makes sense if you assume that the Iraq invasion is making all American adversaries think twice about their anti-American positions lest the same thing happen to them. If you remember that the neocons have long preached the virtues of military action as intimidation, insisting that one pre-emptive strike would frighten our other enemies into backing down, then the mention of NKorea and Iran directly after pinning Libya’s decision to Iraq is a natural sequel. Otherwise there’s no point to its being there. We must conclude that the beginning phrase (“different threats”, “different strategies”) is political sleight-of-hand.

When I came to this rostrum on Sept. 20, 2001, I brought the police shield of a fallen officer, my reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end. I gave to you and to all Americans my complete commitment to securing our country and defeating our enemies. And this pledge, given by one, has been kept by many. You in the Congress have provided the resources for our defense, and cast the difficult votes of war and peace. Our closest allies have been unwavering. America’s intelligence personnel and diplomats have been skilled and tireless.

Breath-taking, a shameless reminder of a sleazy, manipulative moment followed by a claim to have kept his “commitment” when in fact he had promised on that occasion to authorize $20B of federal money to help NY rebuild only to renege on that promise scant weeks later and fight his own party in Congress to eliminate the appropriation (the Congress did not eliminate it but they did cut it down to $5B on the strength of Junior’s insistence that the country “couldn’t afford more”).

And the men and women of the American military — they have taken the hardest duty. We have seen their skill and courage in armored charges, and midnight raids, and lonely hours on faithful watch. We have seen the joy when they return, and felt the sorrow when one is lost. I have had the honor of meeting our servicemen and women at many posts, from the deck of a carrier in the Pacific to a mess hall in Baghdad. Many of our troops are listening tonight. And I want you and your families to know: America is proud of you. And my administration, and this Congress, will give you the resources you need to fight and win the war on terror.

This graf and the one before it are the first times we have seen the use of the pronoun “I”, first in a link with a policeman killed at the WTC and then in a link with the troops. Now, suddenly, it’s “I want you to know” and “my administration”, both used in the service of a promise to “give you the resources you need to fight and win the war on terror”, a promise that has already been broken: our troops in Iraq, almost from the beginning, have had to buy with their own money much of the equipment they need, from boots and clothing to night-vision goggles, because that equipment has not been available. Surely a curious place to take personal responsibility, especially since he has refused to attend a single funeral for any soldier killed in Iraq, and done so for purely political reasons.

Since the promise is worthless, I can only conclude that he is either angling for credit he doesn’t deserve after refusing to accept credit for what he actually did, or else that this is an attempt to identify himself with the military in the same way he earlier tried to identify himself with “the people”.

I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime — a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments. [An approach that has been very successful in other countries since the early 70’s–m] After the World Trade Center was first attacked in 1993, some of the guilty were indicted, tried, convicted and sent to prison. But the matter was not settled. The terrorists were still training and plotting in other nations, and drawing up more ambitious plans. After the chaos and carnage of Sept. 11, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States — and war is what they got.

Small correction–war is what Afghanistan and Iraq got; the “terrorists” who attacked the WTC are either dead–or in jail due to the activities of law enforcement agencies. Except for bin Laden, of course, who remains free. Interesting that there was no mention of bin Laden, not even one of the many promises to “get him dead or alive” that we heard repeatedly with Hussein. Likewise, there was no acknowledgement whatever of the growing belief in many quarters that our focus on Iraq and military solutions has in fact made us less safe, much less an attempt to undermine their case. At least he has finally recognized and acknowledged a criticism. This is a first.

Some in this chamber, and in our country, did not support the liberation of Iraq. Objections to war often come from principled motives. But let us be candid about the consequences of leaving Saddam Hussein in power. We are seeking all the facts — already the Kay report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations. Had we failed to act, the dictator’s weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world. Iraq’s torture chambers would still be filled with victims — terrified and innocent. The killing fields of Iraq — where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children vanished into the sands — would still be known only to the killers. For all who love freedom and peace, the world without Saddam Hussein’s regime is a better and safer place.

Only the second acknowledgement of criticism, but it’s a beaut–as is his reply. Labeling the criticism “principled” (at least he didn’t stoop to calling critics “traitors” as many of his Republican supporters do), he attempts to counter it by painting a picture of the alternative so at variance with reality that if they aren’t lies, they have to be proof that his beliefs don’t need to be bolstered with “facts” for him to believe them. Claiming that he wanted all the “facts”, he says, “…already the Kay report identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations.” Dozens of weapons? Significant amounts of equipment? Kay found nothing–10-year-old missles whose range was under or barely over the limit set by the UN and a single vial of botulin, not weapons grade. In this sentence we have not one but two lies: the first claiming that items were found which were not found, and the second that the discoveries were detailed in Kay’s report when they were not. It’s impossible that he was unaware of these discrepancies, so they must have been deliberate falsehoods.

He then follows this highly inaccurate picture with a slap at the “weak” UN combined in the next breath with Saddam’s “torture chambers” and “killing fields”; the inference that one could not exist without the other is clear but he doesn’t attempt to explain the connection–he simply makes it and moves on, but the cleverly-implied connection sets up the next graf:

Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq. As we debate at home, we must never ignore the vital contributions of our international partners or dismiss their sacrifices. From the beginning, America has sought international support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we have gained much support. There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.

The preceding graf–the dismissal of the UN as an important international body–allows him to make the point that we don’t need the UN because he can form one of his own. Made up of “willing partners”, Bush’s private UN is supposed to prove that his unilateral action wasn’t and that the UN is superfluous. To drive the point home, he compares UN ratification of pre-emptive war to “seek[ing] a permission slip” to leave class in high school. This is a dismissal of the UN charter so profound as to render the body meaningless. Is he preparing to pull the US out of the UN once and for all? Or does he just want his conservative base–which has never believed in the UN, often dismissing it as a “debating society”–to think that’s what he’s going to do? Either way, these two grafs taken together are a blow to the UN’s ability to act as a negotiator in cases of conflict–“If the US doesn’t care what the UN thinks, why should we?” After all, any country could put together a “coalition of the willing” if they were prepared to bribe a few poverty-stricken countries to sign the papers.

Altogether, a very ominous section.

We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.

As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friends. To cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda, the Voice of America and other broadcast services are expanding their programming in Arabic and Persian — and soon, a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region. I will send you a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and to focus its new work on the development of free elections, free markets, free press and free labor unions in the Middle East. And above all, we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, so those nations can light the way for others, and help transform a troubled part of the world.

A re-statement of the neocon philosophy that democracy trumps every other system. These grafs could have been written, in all their over-heated fervor. by Wolfowitz or Perle–and probably were. The question is, “What if they don’t think so?” Like the neocons, Bush gives this possibility little attention since he, like the neocons that advise him, apparently cannot envision that a free people might choose a different system from the one he prefers. But a SOTU is probably not the place to have this discussion, iac.

America is a nation with a mission — and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace — a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great Republic will lead the cause of freedom.

A subtle attempt to counter the growing perception that America is, in fact if not law, becoming a 21st century empire. This graf is all assertion, but since it goes to “intent”, assertion is what is required. The question this raises is, quite simply, “Do you believe this assertion?”

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