Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

When GWB speaks, does anyone listen?

Peggy Noonan doesn’t think so:

People don’t say as often as they used to, "You watch Bush’s speech last night?" Or they don’t ask it with the same anticipation and interest.

I think that Americans have pretty much stopped listening to him. One reason is that you don’t have to listen to get a sense of what’s going on. He does not appear to rethink things based on new data. You don’t have to tune in to see how he’s shifting emphasis to address a trend, or tacking to accommodate new winds. For him there is no new data, only determination.

He repeats old arguments because he believes they are right, because he has no choice--in for a penny, in for a pound--and because his people believe in the dogma of the magic of repetition: Say it, say it, to break through the clutter.

There’s another reason people don’t listen to Mr. Bush as much as they did. It is that in some fundamental way they know they have already fully absorbed him. He’s burned his brand into the American hide.

I agree with some of this. What’s impressive about the President is often not what he says or the way he says it (no Churchill, he), but the conviction with which he says it. Of that conviction we’re already convinced. Some of us like it a lot, some a little, some not at all. (Rasmussen has lately pretty consistently had the "strongly disapproves" of the Bush presidency at 38%. There’s likely nothing other that "I’m resigning" that could win any plaudits from that group.)

Far be it from me to dissaude President Bush from speaking. I’m in love with, perhaps overly so, with words, which is an occupational hazard of the business I’m in. But I don’t think too many people will pay close attention until some big event makes them do so. Then words matter, as they did in the days immediately after 9/11.

I’d like to put two propositions out there for NLT’s master logicians to chop up into tiny bits. First, because events don’t speak for themselves but must be set in a coherent and meaningful framework, speeches are important. But speeches themselves rarely (not never, just rarely) set the events in motion. Speeches depend upon deeds (our’s, or the other guys’), which in turn demand both an active and verbal response. But without actions, speech degenerates into mere talk, to which we pretty quickly cease to pay attention. (Bill Clinton might have been entertaining, but we knew he wasn’t too serious.)

Second, despite their ultimate importance, the relative weakness of speeches tempts us to discount them and to rely on deeds alone. Presidents sometimes act without trying to explain themselves. Of this approach, Richard Nixon was the champion, but George Bush also falls prey to the temptation, which is especially powerful when so many people refuse to listen, or willfully misunderstand what they’re hearing.

In the end, you have to talk and act (d’oh!), but the actions have to be intended to provoke a rational response. Thus when GWB served the ball into Congress’ court last week, he was doing the right thing. Unfortunately, the response he seems to have elicited involves just plain talk.

Discussions - 18 Comments

I followed you until the last paragraph, including the link. What does that paragraph mean? (Do you mean that the Senate response is not rational? That may be so, but then what’s all the rest of the post for? I don’t get it.)

I mean that the Senate response is irresponsible posturing. The President will either get the kind of authority he needs to fulfill his responsibility to keep the nation safe, or he’ll act without authorization. McCain, Graham, and Warner (and of course Colin Powell) are playing politics.

Now you are crystal clear.

There is lots of politics here. But the president said quite clearly in his news conference that if he fails to get what he wants from Congress he will end the [CIA] "program." That’s meant to put additional heat on the Senate, but he did SAY he wouldn’t let operatives act without authorization/ legislation, thus putting themselves, he said, at legal risk.

Whether the president needs what he wants to keep the nation safe is of course precisely what divides serious people, including serious people in the military.

If Bush spoke more strongly, without the inhibitions that are clear in almost every sentence he utters, people would pay more attention. If people thought he might actually act, instead of hoping this utterly dysfunctional joke of a Senate will act, they would pay even more attention.

It’s nut-cutting time. Bush must speak boldly in order to save the Republican Congress and therefore his presidency.
And if we are to save this country, he must at some point ACT boldly, which frankly probably means he must risk impeachment.

Bring it on.

Bush should use his pardon power aggressively if it comes down to that. He should let it be known among the relevant players (this does not include anyone in Congress) that he will do so. Lincoln’s "all the laws but one" quote is the touchstone here.

I do not recognize the Lincoln I know in your post. This country is not engaged in a great civil war. Despite the rhetoric on all sides, we are debating the details of national security policy and the respective roles of Congress, the Executive, and the courts in making policy.


You’re right, that’s what he said here. And you’re right that he’s saying that to press his case, but I can’t believe that he’d actually let the interrogation program lapse if, in his judgment, we could get information vital to the nation’s security out of it. He’d have to come up with some other means of immunizing the interrogators.


I agree. Did you hear Bush take it Matt Lauer this week? He sounded fairly bold to me.

Joe - I agree. There is politics here, and there’ll probably be some heavy negotiation to get a bill. I think the question is, given the high stakes and the public...well, posturing, can an acceptable bill emerge before the election? The president is going to have to move some, to get a bill out of the Senate, I’d guess. Meanwhile, many people will prefer no bill. I’d bet on no bill before the election.

I don’t see how the president, on his own authority, can immunize. (David Frisk seems to think otherwise.) As a practical matter, in the short run there may be nobody of real significance to interrogate, but of course how can any of us know that.

Mr. Thomas, my Lincoln reference was not to the Civil War, but to any war in which the country is at stake. That applies to this one. Lincoln would not have taken the Colin Powell, Lindsey Graham, John McCain approach to this issue.

Erik, no I didn’t see this. Bush will need to be tough, and clear -- which means, very specific, not his strong suit -- every chance he gets. A tall order for him. But we shall see. Maybe he can.

I should make it clear, so nobody will think I am being overly agreeable, that if I were in the Senate I would be supporting McCain-Warner-Graham, and I would not do so happily.

I say we hand Guantanamo over to Prison Fellowship Ministry. I’d certainly regard having to attend praise services regularly as an incentive to cooperate with interrogators.

Sorry, I hit the wrong button. I found I didn’t have anything more to say for now.

The issue is pure politics.

Sure, Article three is vague. But Article four excludes the very people the Supremes said should be covered.

The three Republican Amigos are playing a game on the American people. The press should have been all over this a long time ago.

I do fault the Administration for not highlighting the ridiculous concept of separating one part of the convention from its qualifiers.

One quick observation and one quick prediction:

1. Even assuming the extremely remote possibility that any of our enemies, Iran, Korea, al Qaeda, Hezb’allah or any of the others were to pay the slighest attention to G.C. Article 3, if we pass an interpretation of it, those countries will interpret it any way they want to. If we don’t pass an interpretation of it, those countries will interpret it any way they want to. To argue that they will interpret our interpretation in a way that could hurt our people is REALLY silly. To argue that by US interpreting it our enemies will feel free also to interpret it is equally silly.

2. Eventually, whether before or after the election, the legislation will pass and McCain will have egg all over his face. ANY chance he had at a nomination is gone now.

17: You’re right on the substance but I wonder about the political analysis, Uncle. The argument "McVain," Warner, and the rest of the "bipartisan" Republicans are making is utterly foolish. But without a change of mind on their part, which seems unlikely, how in God’s name can Bush’s reasonable proposal pass Congress?

Last time GWB came across so passionately, John Sununu, et al were voting against the Patriot Act. Bush won. I think he’s going to win this one too. They’ll put some face paint on it so that McCain can claim a compromise victory, McCain and the others will support it and it’ll pass. That’s my guess. I’m just stunned that McCain didn’t triangulate this before he opened his mouth.

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