Thursday, September 15, 2005

The President's Address

I watched President Bush’s address from Jackson Square in New Orleans. My emotional response was “boy howdy, that man is running scared.” I can’t imagine him coming out and giving this speech unless he had taken a look at his approval ratings and been alarmed at what he saw.

Normally the president uses a lot of hand gestures and facial expressions to augment his words. Nothing wrong with that. I do it a lot myself when speaking in public. I do think the president tends to go overboard with it. However, this evening he was remarkably restrained, at least at the beginning of his talk. You barely saw his hands and his expression was grave. I think someone must have sat on him forcefully. His use of gestures increased the longer he spoke and his facial expressions became more varied. It’s hard to change your delivery style, especially as you move further into a speech, so I think we saw his more natural style coming out more towards the end. It isn’t a very presidential image, though; something I thought came across very clearly in the debates.

I can’t speak with any authority on historical precedent or current policy so I will limit my remarks to his use of language. I’m not a trained linguist but I do earn a part of my living with words and am viewed, in my own small sphere, as having a good feel for them. It was clear that he had employed a skilled speechwriter. The allusions and phrasing was beautifully done. There were a few “huh?” moments, but not many.

“a cruel and wasteful storm” -- an interesting use of anthropomorphism. Storms cannot be either cruel or wasteful, but the second adjective is the most unusual by far. Certainly one might think of nature as cruel, especially in this case, but wasteful? You might say a storm laid waste, but wasteful is an unusual word here and it jumped out at me as not quite fitting in.

“vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy” – very nicely done, good alliteration, it trips off the tongue. Also nice was his story of the homeowner who took in the looters. It some ways it sounds Biblical, but it also reminds me of a chapter of Les Miserables I had to read in college French class, wherein Jean Valjean steals something from a bishop who befriended him. When the police catch him and take him to the bishop’s house to check his story that the stolen items were gifts, the bishop gives him the valuable candlesticks too.

“the American people expect the work done to be done honestly and wisely” – well, that is a hopeful statement. I imagine the American people expect dishonest politicians and cagey businesspeople to get as much government money in their own pockets as possible while spending as little as possible on actual rebuilding. What we would like, and always would like, is for someone to knock a few heads together if anyone is caught at it. For more detail, see the Philadelphia corruption trials and use of airport contracts as personal favors.

“deep persistent poverty” – a good description

“take the side of the entrepreneurs” – a nice homage to the bookstrap American businessperson that we all like to hear about. Note who has gotten the contracts so far – Halliburton, et al. I also wondered if this phrase would, in the long memory of a region that views the Civil War as recent history, bring to mind the image of the carpetbagger. May not have been the best choice of words.

“everyone should find their role and do their part” – another homage to the can do American spirit. The armies of compassion have indeed been mobilized and it is a wonderful thing to see. The armies of scam artists are also on the move. It is always thus.

“I as president as responsible for the problem and the solution.” It was wonderful to hear. This sentence more than any other in his speech led me to believe that he was running scared. From all the news coverage I have seen to date (and I only saw a little), the federal authorities were pushing blame down the ladder as fast as possible.

“the despair of any touches us all” – a lovely thought and one that we all want to be true. I’m spoiled, though, having heard Barack Obama’s speech and the Democratic convention. I think he said the best version of those words I have ever heard.

These are my thoughts. I will leave it to the pundits and spin artists to decipher the speeches meaning and presidential historians to judge its long term value.

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