Presidents as Communicators in Wartime ; Mr. Bush's Blunt Style Gets High Marks from Some for Conveying Clarity, but Others See It as Overly Simplistic

Article excerpt

One of the more curious aspects of George W. Bush's presidency is how the public relates to him. Just as the president himself tends to speak in black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us terms, so, too, do Americans fall into historically polarized camps of "for him or against him."

President Bush's rhetorical style - blunt and unelaborated, frustrating to some and comforting to others - exacerbates the polarization that is a hallmark of the 2004 campaign, political analysts say. And at a time of high uncertainty and US casualties in Iraq, with the need to keep the American public on his side growing daily, Bush's ability to woo and persuade is being tested as never before.

"He makes a very convenient target, but he also makes a convenient object of adoration; it's two sides of the same coin," says Roderick Hart, an expert on political communication at the University of Texas. Professor Hart calls Bush's verbal style direct, though lacking in poetic flourish.

"He's not elliptical like Bill Clinton often was," Hart adds. "And he doesn't have that lift of the driving dream that Ronald Reagan had, which can mystify politics, sometimes productively. Bush's style does march him out ahead of the pack. And that lets people take shots at him, but also inspires people who follow him."

'He's a cheerleader'

Like a Rorschach ink blot, Bush's performance in a rare primetime news conference Tuesday evening was interpreted by the public and pundits, usually according to their established ideas. Republicans thought he was effective, showing resolve and determination to see through his vision of turning Iraq into a model of democracy. Democrats found his lack of detail and range exasperating.

One notable exception, from the Republican camp, was William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, who supports the war in Iraq, but told the Los Angeles Times he found Bush's performance depressing, because the president didn't explain how the US is going to win in Iraq.

Mr. Kristol's concern is that Bush needs to make an explicit case to the growing ranks of Americans who are doubtful or worried - not just to those who already support him.

"He's a cheerleader," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. It is a point not without irony: Bush was head cheerleader in prep school.

"Lyndon Johnson did that, too - and we know where that got him. He also complained about nervous Nellies and the need to stay the course, there's light at the end of the tunnel, we're making progress, we can't not back up the boys, it'll come out all right."

Professor Dallek believes that kind of rhetoric can work for a while, because as president, Bush gets some leeway. …