George W. Bush: Father, Freedom Fighter, Figurehead

by Tony Palmeri

Presented at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, Miami Beach, November 20, 2003 as part of a panel on "Bush's War on Terrorism: Two Years Later."

Anti-terrorism ideology consumes every facet of the Bush Administration as much as anti-Communist ideology consumed every president from Truman to Reagan. Anti-terror ideology will rule the United States government for at least the next generation, regardless of who is elected president. Though the United States eventually defeated Communism (or at least something that was called Communism), the war against it featured numerous acts of bad judgment, from Vietnam abroad to police state tactics like COINTELPRO at home.

I believe that George W. Bush's war on terror has featured much bad judgment and even some incompetence. The fact that the president is still at a 50% favorable rating in the polls is extraordinary when one considers the continuing lack of confidence in the economy, the mishandling of Iraq, and the increasing hostility aimed at the United States even from its traditional allies.

If President Bush has shown bad judgment in fighting the war on terror, why has he been so effective at getting the congress to give him virtually all the resources he wants to fight it? Why has he maintained a relatively high level of popularity? To answer these questions, I will do two things:

  1. Explain what I see as Bush's specific acts of bad judgment since 9/11.
  2. Explain why Bush is effective at getting his way with the congress and maintaining popularity in spite of these acts of bad judgment. I will argue that the rhetoric of George W. Bush situates the president at various times as Father, Freedom Fighter, and Figurehead, three roles that allow for a grabbing of a "moral high ground" that resonates deeply with voters

Bad Judgment Since 9/11

Let's think about the Bush administration's major initiatives during the two years since the horrors of 9/11 in terms of What We Needed and What We Got.

What We Needed
What We Got
*Airport and "Soft Target" Security *Department of Homeland Security
*First Responder Resources and Training *The PATRIOT Act
*Global Unity of Allies Against Terrorism *The Invasion of Two Muslim Countries

As I noted in a recent column for the northeast Wisconsin Valley Scene, if a president Al Gore had advocated the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, the Republicans would have said that he was asking for a Washington solution to what is really a local problem. The Republicans would have been correct. The federal government is now larger than it has ever been in history, and yet its largesse is not for health or even public safety but for what I call DTA--Duct Tape Advocacy. Meanwhile, almost every week we are told of another airport security breach or the ease with which other soft targets can be hit.

The PATRIOT Act supposedly provides law enforcement with the tools necessary to deter terrorism at all levels of society. Yet the Act's police state like provisions allowing federal searches of private records without a warrant has drawn concern even from conservative members of congress who voted for it. At the same time, a major Rand Corporation study last year demonstrated that the so-called first responders to terrorism report that their level of resources and training since 9/11 has not improved and that we are not at all better equipped to handle emergencies.

As for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration has failed to allocate sufficient resources to stabilize the former, while grossly underestimating the level of resistance to be faced in the latter. More troubling is the fact that in its dogged pursuit of making Iraq the test case of its "preemption" doctrine, the Administration squandered almost all the global goodwill and cooperation received from allies and other sympathetic countries after 9/11. If one of the goals of Islamic and/or other militant extremists was to sow division among the western Democracies, the Bush Administration has handed them a victory. The Administration's spokespersons appear unable to comprehend that their call for a United Nations that is "relevant" is perceived as absurd by a world convinced that it is the Administration's arrogant unilateralism that has made the organization irrelevant

George W. Bush: Father, Freedom Fighter, Figurehead

So if the Bush administration has been marred by bad judgment and incompetence in its terror war, why has the president been so successful at getting his way with the congress? Why has he maintained a relatively high level of popularity? While it is true that he enjoys Republican majorities in both houses, that fact in and of itself does not explain his success with the congress. And it is true that Bush still benefits from the public's post 9/11 pursuit of a reinvigorated patriotism, but that too by itself does not explain his success.

I believe that George W. Bush skillfully grabs the moral high ground on issue after issue, often making it appear as if his political opponents lack resolve or are only interested in politics. How doe Bush do this? Mostly by situating himself in three roles that I refer to as the "Three Fs": Father, Freedom Fighter, and Figurehead.

Bush as Father: We see this role mostly in the president's advocacy of his domestic agenda. The best example is in education reform, where the "No Child Left Behind" (or is it No Child Left Untested?) bill was promoted with a "tough love" rhetoric akin to a father grounding his children if they misbehave. Bipartisan majorities of both houses of congress heralded the president's attempt to demand accountability from local school districts, without insisting on sufficient levels of funding. NCLB might in fact be the greatest unfunded mandate in the history of the nation.

Similarly, on tax cuts the president has taken the Republicans' "it's your money" mantra and turned it into a moral crusade. The tone of his argument is that the government as tax collector takes on a fatherly role that should only be played by real fathers in their own homes.

Bush as Freedom Fighter: Since 9/11, this has been the dominant Bush role. From "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" to the "axis of evil," the president allows no gray area in his framing of the manner in which the war must be fought. Bush is true believer in this role, playing hardball politics to get like minded people elected to congress and actively lobbying for his war on terror policies. Republican successes in the midterm elections, especially in the Senate, were in no small measure the result of Bush's personal fighting for candidates. A war hero like Georgia's Max Cleland was voted out of office and made to appear as if he was somehow soft on national security because he did not support the president's vision of a Homeland Security Department and preemptive strikes.

While pundits, scholars, and political opponents might see Bush's freedom fighting rhetoric as overly simplistic and dangerous, for the Republican base and huge segments of southern Democrats and Independents, Bush in this role exudes moral clarity and the guts to stand for freedom.

Bush as Figurehead: At some level all American presidents are figureheads. That is, they are symbols of certain values like democracy and human rights even though government policies frequent conflict with those values. On Iraq, Bush now speaks rarely of weapons of mass destruction or protection from an imminent threat. Instead, he has become somewhat of a modern Woodrow Wilson, talking about making the world safe for democracy. While his Democratic opponents discuss bad postwar planning and exit strategies, Bush mouths platitudes about democracy and freedom, even making connections to postwar Germany. London's Mayor Ken Livingstone, who has spoken out against Bush regularly, recognizes the president's ability to grab the moral high ground. In his own speech to protesters, Livingstone argued that it was they the protesters, not Bush, who have the moral high ground.

In London's Whitehall Palace on November 19, 2003 Mr. Bush delivered a speech on Iraq Policy that had elements on the father, freedom fighter, and figurehead. He said,

The evil is in plain sight. The danger only increases with denial. Great responsibilities fall once again to the great Democracies. We will face these threats with open eyes, and we will defeat them.

In such statements we see Bush framed rhetorically as the enemy of fascism, even as we see him pursue police state policies at home (PATRIOT Act) and a foreign policy principle (preemption) traditionally associated with authoritarian states. Firmly couched in the roles of father, freedom and fighter, and figurehead, Bush is able to deflect attention from his actual policies by riding the moral high ground these roles allow for someone credible in playing them.

Conclusion: Two More Fs

In his skillful playing of the roles of father, freedom fighter, and figurehead, George Bush takes on a fourth F: formidable. That is, he will be very difficult to defeat in campaign 2004 unless the Democrats find a way to grab the moral high ground on major domestic and foreign policy issues.

The Bush administration may have already entrenched its war on terror policies so deeply that the the population at large may be getting a fifth F regardless of who is elected in November of 2004. Out of respect to my esteemed colleague Dr. Sanders*, I will not actually say that F word!

*Dr. Sanders organized the panel on which this talk was delivered. Gerald H. "Colonel" Sanders is a military veteran and legendary academic debate and forensics coach. Dr. Sanders is Professor of Communication Emeritus at Miami University (Ohio). He won the first National Intercollegiate Debate Championship while a college undergraduate. He coached the winner of the 1970 Delta Sigma Rho-Tau Kappa Alpha National Tournament while at the College of Wooster. He also served two terms as President of American Forensic Association, the professional association of argumentation scholars and coaches. Every year he sponsors a dinner at the National Communication Association conference for former and current professors and students active in forensic activities. I had the pleasure of attending the 2003 Sanders dinner in Miami Beach and must say it was one of my most memorable convention experiences of all time. Dr. Sanders treats his friends and colleagues with a warmth that is difficult to describe.--Tony Palmeri