The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents

The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents

The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents

The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents

Synopsis

"Shogan's argument that moral rhetoric stems more from the political context of a president than from his personality or leadership style is right on the mark.... a valuable contribution to the literature on presidential rhetoric."--Terri Bimes, Associate Director, Center for American Political Studies, Harvard University

Excerpt

Four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Pres. George W. Bush stood before Congress to give the annual State of the Union Address. With an 85 percent approval rating from the American public and firm support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, Bush seized this rhetorical opportunity to showcase his role as the nation’s moral spokesman. in his speech, Bush called the war in Afghanistan a “just cause” and announced that times of tragedy have made Americans realize that “God is near.” Not content with that, Bush pushed the moral dimensions of his presidential rhetoric further: he described North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an “axis of evil” that threatens “the peace of the world.” the President ended his speech with the observation that “evil is real, and it must be opposed.”

Bush’s moral posturing would be remarkable and noteworthy, even if the “axis of evil” remark had not started an international controversy. a president who lost the popular vote in the 2000 election asserted the moral authority to speak for the nation only a year after taking office. During his first presidential campaign, the media often depicted Bush as a lightweight ingénue of less-than-admirable mettle. in little over a year, Bush had become not just a beacon of patriotic inspiration but a leader confident enough in his political authority to judge which of the world’s countries should be damned as evil.

Bush might have described North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as dangerous “rogue nations” that posed a security risk to the United States. But the term “axis of evil” brought a purposeful moral dimension to his leadership posture. Bush used his rhetoric to redefine the war against terrorism; his words implied that terrorism was not a foreign policy problem but a moral struggle. the categorical language in his speech (“America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere”) assaulted the realist belief that morality is indeterminate in world affairs. Through his rhetoric, Bush . . .

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