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President Finds a Voice, or Two

Bush proves himself bilingual, speaking the languages of both statesman and cowboy.

January 10, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Both professional Bush bashers and rock-ribbed supporters of America's 43rd president got some new ammunition last weekend. On Saturday, during a brief California stopover, George W. Bush told an approving crowd that congressional Democrats would be allowed to raise taxes "over my dead body," a phrase that echoed the bellicose tone of Bush's wartime rhetoric since Sept. 11.

To his admirers, the tough-worded trope gave further proof that a politician once derided as a lightweight was no longer pulling his punches. To his critics, the phrase had the smart-alecky ring of a schoolyard taunt--in poor taste, at best; divisive and insensitive, at worst. On both sides of the political fence, some also predicted that Bush's pledge might come back to bite him in 2004, just as his father's (in)famous vow of "Read my lips: No new taxes," helped sink his own 1992 reelection bid.

Has the "war on terrorism" helped Bush finally find his voice and a commanding public persona, as many supporters contend? Or was the president's boast another example of what some see as his tendency to revert to an over-the-top, tough-guy shtick reminiscent of a pulp-fiction private eye?

What Bush may have been seeking to do with his "dead body" metaphor was extend the idea of an urgent need for national unity from the foreign policy realm to the domestic front. The president's remarks apparently were aimed at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who had criticized Bush's tax cut. The president characterized this criticism from Democrats as akin to a call for a tax increase. "I challenge their economics, when they say raising taxes will help the country recover," Bush said. "Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes."

Technically, however, the president's metaphorical cadaver was slightly misplaced. The correct expression, of course, is "over my dead body," minus the "not," signifying a determination to lay down one's life rather than let something unspeakably awful occur. Untold generations of parents have used it to indicate displeasure over their teenage children's Saturday night dating plans. ("When hell freezes over" is an acceptable substitute in these situations.)

Joyce Newman, president of a New York City firm that specializes in public speaker training, said that for some time Bush has flip-flopped between two very different styles of expression. The first was displayed in his Sept. 20 speech before Congress, in which a statesmanlike Bush magisterially and poetically proclaimed that America would "define our times, not be defined by them," and vowed to bring justice to those who had "hijacked Islam itself" and were going to wind up in "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

On that occasion, Newman said, the president was "was elegant and eloquent." She praised "the language of the speech--it was so well-written--his pacing, his pausing, his tone, his ability to use the prompter so that everybody felt he was talking to them."

"He really rose to the occasion at a time when the country needed him to do that," she said. "And I didn't even vote for him."

By contrast, Newman continued, Bush's "dead body" remark was a rhetorical misfire.

"If you think about where the country is today, 'over my dead body' is not a phrase we need to hear, given that we have a country that is littered with dead bodies. It's just a very startling and negative image. On the other hand, he certainly let us know where he stands, and Bush is not beating around the bush when he comes out and says something like that."

Newman said that Bush still is trying to figure out the image he wants to project. "Does he want to be this testosterone-based cowboy who says, 'Not over my dead body,' which was not the same caliber or eloquence of the [Sept. 20] speech?"

But with America still reeling psychologically and awash in patriotic sentiment, it may not matter much which style Bush adopts, said Robert Hariman, a professor in the department of rhetoric and communication studies at Drake University in Des Moines and author of "Political Style: The Artistry of Power." In the aftershocks of the terrorist attacks, Bush's public remarks have been virtually off-limits to criticism, Hariman maintains.

"The bar is so low after Sept. 11," he said, "there's virtually nothing he could do that would provoke a serious reassessment or a drop in the public approval rating he's getting. The media is asking such softball questions."

What's more, Hariman said, in the weeks since the attacks, the mass media have taken on the role of stirring up nationalistic feeling and boosting morale, providing a rhetorical context for the nation's elevated emotions. As an example, he pointed to a halftime show of patriotic imagery that ran during a recent broadcast of ABC's "Monday Night Football."

"A lot of what was a traditional function of presidential rhetoric isn't done through presidential speaking. It's done thorough sophisticated use of visual media," Hariman said.

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