The George W. Bush Presidency: A Rhetorical Perspective

By Conley, Donovan | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2013 | Go to article overview

The George W. Bush Presidency: A Rhetorical Perspective


Conley, Donovan, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The George W. Bush Presidency: A Rhetorical Perspective. Edited by Robert E. Denton, Jr. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. 184 pp.

The preface to The George W. Bush Presidency declares that "there are a few academic volumes on the Bush presidency, but they were completed while he was still in office. They tend to be uniformly negative" (p. ix). The book thus recommends itself as a fresh, distanced look at the forty-third president through the prism of rhetoric. Eight chapters constitute this effort.

The first, by Joseph M. Valenzano III, is titled, "The Presidency that Almost Wasn't: George W. Bush's First Inaugural." Valenzano's central point is that President Bush fully unveiled his governing ethos and philosophy in his first inaugural address and that the 9/11 attacks did not change his approach. The man who took office "was overtly Christian, valued individual over governmental action, and would emphasize freedom and democracy promotion around the world" (p. 17). According to Valenzano, the attacks simply afforded Bush the political capital to become the president he had already announced himself to be. This is a fair and well-argued point, ultimately functioning as a defense of the man's principled consistency.

The second chapter, Ben Voth's "George W. Bush at a Global Gettysburg," redoubles this effort in a 10-speech joyride through the president's invocation of the trope of freedom, which Voth sees as the metaphysical inheritance of the Gettysburg address. This chapter is not a piece of critical-rhetorical reflection but a Lincoln-Bush-inspired rhetorical performance in its own right, complete with an easy dismissal of "the conscience of moral relativism" (p. 24) and a cheap shot at "Obama's rhetorical flourishes in Cairo" (p. 38). A more measured version of the same theme-tracking approach follows in Chapter Three, Robert V. Friedenberg's "George W. Bush's First Year of War Time Rhetoric." The author traces four themes through the first year of the president's speeches: good versus evil, American exceptionalism, swift justice, and national character. Although there is no critical interrogation of these themes, Friedenberg concludes productively, noting that Bush's initial use of epideictic rhetoric to rally a nation into war must ultimately give way to more deliberative reflections on how that war is conducted.

The fourth chapter, "War Stories," by Patrick S. Loebs, tracks narrative shifts instead of a common trope or set of themes. Loebs is interested in how President Bush used his 2002-2006 State of the Union addresses to explain the changing nature of the war on terror. Here, we get a more penetrating look at how Bush composed these speeches; it is a study of the adaptation of rhetorical means (symbolic construction of a threat) to political ends (military success). Loebs offers the additional insights that the symbolic construction of an enemy is a constitutive feature of U.S. political discourse, that the changing nature of this construction testifies to the power of the people, and that Bush was among "the great panoply of leaders who view victory as more important than absolute truth" (p. 87). For the conceptual and political stakes raised by these final comments alone, Loebs's chapter is handily the book's most illuminating.

Chapter Five, "George W. Bush, the American Press, and the Initial Framing of the War," by Jim Kuypers, Stephen Cooper, and Matthew T. …

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