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Speaking Terms

President Appeals to Our Thirst for Metaphor

Bush's bingeing/hangover speech about the economy will resonate with the public, some experts say.

July 16, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes it's difficult explaining things to the American people, especially when it comes to complex topics such as the economy. But President Bush made plain Monday the reason behind the sad state of the U.S. stock market, which recently hit a five-year low: It's the bingeing, stupid.

"America must get rid of the hangover that we now have as a result of the binge, the economic binge, we just went through," Bush told business leaders at the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Monday.

As metaphors go, Bush could have scarcely invoked one that resonated more with the American people, no strangers to the mood-altering substance.

"It's language people understand," said James Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida. "We're fiercely puritanical about drugs, but alcohol somehow made it through the sieve. We think of it as being the mother's milk of drugs.

"In fact, the analogy is made all the more poignant by a guy who has gone dry," Twitchell added.

This isn't the first time a U.S. president has used the alcohol metaphor in reference to the economy. Both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan made similar comparisons during their tenures, said Frederick J. Antczak, a University of Iowa professor who has studied presidential rhetoric. Presidents also have been fond of comparing a bad economy to an overheated engine, Antczak said.

"The hangover talk is common anytime there's a gust in the economy that slows things down," he said. "Presidents feel the populous is acquainted with this, and they are usually right."

Exactly why the president thought Americans would understand a comparison based on alcohol consumption is open to debate.

It could be Bush was familiar with recent U.S. census figures that put the average American alcohol consumption at more than 36 gallons per year. According to those statistics, the average American tosses back about 10 more gallons a year of beer, wine and distilled spirits than he does coffee.

Of course, it could have been his own family history with alcohol. Bush has acknowledged alcohol-related problems in his past that included an arrest for driving under the influence when he was 30. He gave up drinking, he has said, after his 40th birthday. Meanwhile, both of his daughters were ticketed for underage drinking last year.

Whatever the inspiration, debt counselors applauded the sentiment.

"I think he's right on," said Ray Cooper, the education director at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a national nonprofit organization that helps people get out of debt.

"The whole nation got intoxicated from the boom era of the last eight years, and I think a lot of people thought it was never going to end. Well, it did, and we have a serious headache."

But those who treat and study addictive behavior and alcohol abuse think Bush's alcohol metaphor was off base.

"I'm not sure that's an appropriate comparison," said Norman Hoffmann, an associate professor at Brown University who studies alcohol addiction. "If we're talking about a stock market tanking in response to scandal after scandal where investors are continually lied to, then it seems to me a realistic reaction based on a loss of confidence in leadership in corporate America more than it is someone overindulging or having a hangover."

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