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The Bush Speech: How to Rally a Nation

7 minute read
Frank Pellegrini

George W. Bush, President of the United States at the darkest hour almost any of its citizens can remember, pronounces the word terror “terra.” He’s helpless with Latin. And he still needs work on waiting out his applause. But Thursday night, in front of the U.S. Congress and the nation, eight months to the day after he took office following an election that was pretty dark itself, Bush delivered the finest, strongest, clearest, several-times-chill-giving speech of his life. Here’s how he did it:

Step One: Explain it all

“Americans are asking, ‘Who attacked our country?'”

Here, Bush did a smart thing for a president who obviously intends to be at this war against terrorism for a very long time, who will need the patience and sustained support of a populace not always known for that. He mentioned Osama bin Laden only once. He replaced the man with the minions, the villain with the villains, a face with an organization — al-Qaida — and pronounced it right.

“The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al-Qaida Al-Qaida is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money. Its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.”

Then he set about replacing a shadowy, stateless organization with something Americans are more used to dealing with: the villainous leadership of a country, a leadership we can despise, a Milosevic, a Saddam. Someone we can threaten — and if necessary, punish — before frustration sets in.

That would be Afghanistan. “These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion. The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.”

Two: Distinguish, for the sake of not only peace at home but diplomacy abroad, between the faith and the men

“I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.”

He appeals not only to the West here, but to Muslims themselves around the world. These terrorists are distorting your beautiful faith. They are desecrating your graceful mosques. They are undermining the basis of one of the world’s great religions.

Bush then put the terrorists in historial perspective, adding them to a grisly Murderer’s Row of history: “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.” And again, these are battles we have won, not easily and not immeidiately, but slowly, painfully over time.

And then Bush delivered the kind of line that you give your speechwriter a new nickname for, the kind of line that sends chills down the spine, and this time he was up to it.

“And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Oratorical brass ring.

Three: Get down to brass tacks

“Americans are asking, ‘How will we fight and win this war?'”

“We will direct every resource at our command — every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence and every necessary weapon of war — to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.”

This, of course, is the tough part — winning — and Bush said about as much as anyone could have said about that right now, and maybe for a long time. He said it straight: it’s not going to be like Iraq, not like Kosovo “where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.” (Please, America, remember that part about the casualties.)

More preparation. “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.” (Nice bit — we were spoiled watching the Gulf War on CNN.)

The strategy, necessarily vague, and yet with ultimatums easy to remember, easy to stick on the front pages of newspapers:

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” See Colin Powell for details.

Then mix it up — some concrete news, a visible, tangible step, a man we can turn to and Bush can delegate to. And as a bonus, a man who centrist, politics-watching America has been rooting for a long time to get a promotion. Tom Ridge, former Marine, former congressman, soon-to-be former governor of Pennsylvania, and the new Cabinet-level Head of the Office of Homeland Security.

Welcome Tom, and good luck — it’s a thankless job, almost as bad as Drug Czar, which is a sure sign that it’s important.

Four: Give the marching orders

“After all that has just passed, all the lives taken and all the possibilities and hopes that died with them, it is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear Americans are asking, ‘What is expected of us?'”

He then answered his own rhetorical question with a line Americans wanted to hear.

“I ask you to live your lives and hug your children.”

He could have stopped there — a gem of a line, a Hallmark-card-sized summation of the littlest and best things we can do — but when American shores are smoldering still, Bush must have realized that more couldn’t hurt. Be calm, not scared; be tolerant, not blind; be generous, not selfish; be patient, patient, patient, at airports and skyscrapers and landmarks and hotels and traffic stops and bus stops and train stations and anywhere else it is possible to imagine a public vulnerability, which of course is everywhere.

And for God’s sake keep shopping — “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy” — and keep praying:

“And finally, please continue praying for the victims of terror and their families, for those in uniform and for our great country. Prayer has comforted us in sorrow and will help strengthen us for the journey ahead.”

This is the call of the president beginning a mysterious war. Be very, very patient.

Five: Rise to the occasion

No gathering was too august for this occasion, of course, and indeed this joint session was super-charged, adding Rudy Giuliani and Tony Blair while subtracting Dick Cheney and Dick Armey just in case, though the helicopters circled overhead.

He seemed at one point to know how many of the high notes he was hitting, staring off to his left with a unsmirky beam, and if you were rooting for the leader of the free world to do well on this night it was impossible not to smile unsmirkily with him. He did what he was supposed to do — take the responsibility, grab the job with both hands, seize the evening on an evening when America wanted to be seized.

” As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world. Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss.

“And in our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment.”

George W. Bush’s mission, his moment, found him on that terrible Tuesday. And last night, he found his voice.

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