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September 05, 2006

Who's Doing Bush's Speechwriting?

I spent about a year as a tutor for kids between 5 and 13; all subjects, but mainly English. What always struck me about their writing was the way they'd deploy facts. Where older kids and adults will just mention a statistic or tidbit once, younger kids will keep circling around it, repeating it again and again from slightly different angles and approaches. I assume developmental psychologists actually have a term for this. I don't. But I notice the same sort of hyperfactuality in Bush's speeches. Take this paragraph from his Labor Day address:

Today, on Labor Day, we honor those who work, and we honor those who work because, in so doing, we recognize that one of the reasons why we're the economic leader in the world is because of our work force. And the fundamental question facing the country is, how do we continue to be the economic leader in the world? What do we do to make sure that, when people look around the world next year, and 10 years from now, they say, the United States is still the most powerful economy in the world? I think that's an important goal to have, because when we're the most powerful economy in the world, it means our people benefit. It means there's job opportunities. That's what we want. We want people working. We want people to realize their dreams.

There are two main pieces of information in there: First, that our economy is strong because of our workforce, and second, that the strength of our economy is important. By my count, he says the second fact seven different times, in seven different ways. He even uses the sixth-grader's trope of "I think that's an important..."

As you get older, you know what's important or not, and you know that your relative belief in the importance of an issue is rather immaterial. So you either simply assert something's relevance or you construct an argument for it. The importance of the economy, for instance, is the sort of thing you'd just assume others understood and, if you didn't, you'd prove through a couple statistics. When you're young, though, you're neither sure of your judgments on how much something matters nor able to effectively argue the case. So you simply say that you think it matters, and hope that its importance to you will make it important to others. It's a coping tactic that relies on the self-absorption of youth, when what's important to you is, at least in your family, important to others.

I don't want to belabor this point, but it's, uh, important. This speech looks like it was either crafted or delivered by a sixth grader. There's something wrong with it; it's not how adults speak. I don't know if Bush's writers have decided their target audience is 10, or his on-the-fly translations of text-to-speech are dumbing-down the address, but the total effect is very, very weird.

September 5, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

I read the title of your post as "Who's doing Bush's speechwriters?"

So it was a very interesting post and all, but not quite what I was expecting.

Posted by: Stephen | Sep 5, 2006 12:02:35 PM

Maybe they've decided not that their target audience is 10, but that the person who will be giving the speeches has a mental age of 10. Since whatever they write is going to be spoken in very short segments with smirking, self-satisfied pauses between them, they've accepted the need to write for that delivery.

Posted by: KCinDC | Sep 5, 2006 12:12:30 PM

It's good propaganda. Keep it simple and hammer, hammer, hammer until the pulp between the listener's ears loses its will to hear anything else.

Posted by: Seen and Heard | Sep 5, 2006 12:20:39 PM

Whatever Bush's staff write, he's still the one speaking. This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that Bush has the mentality of a six year-old.

Saints preserve us, Bush is ad-libbing!

"The missiles will be launched in 3...2...1..."

Posted by: John | Sep 5, 2006 12:27:01 PM

"I don't know if Bush's writers have decided their target audience is 10..."

Bush always talks like that. Take this recent quote: "We face an enemy that has an ideology. They believe things. The best way to describe their ideology is to relate to you the fact that they think the opposite of the way we think."

Someone in the blogosphere said that he probably explains things in that way because that's how they are explained to him. I think that's very likely to be true, given his well known aversion to written briefings.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Sep 5, 2006 12:35:21 PM

While there is no doubt a sizable fraction of the electorate that has understanding of the issues at the ten-year-old level - and Rove surely wants to speak to those folks in their language - the bottom line is the speech-writers produce what the boss wants (it not being clear if the Boss is Rove, Cheney, or Bush).

But we elected Bush (although 'some' would contest that so-called 'fact'), so we get Bush. Is there doubt that he thinks and acts at a sub-adult level?

The more interesting question to me is whether Bush is degrading over time. Is his mind/brain wasting away like Ronnie the Veggie in his second term?

At what point, if he's getting worse, - it it seems he is - does it become dangerous to the world to have a mentally incompetent leader of Teh Amerikcan Empire? We have no recourse legally or procedurally to deal with early Alzheimer's or other progressively deteriorating mental/physical conditions (like the effects of non-treated alcoholism in early life rotting out the brain in their 60's) in our Preznit. Should his diet include more pretzels?

Maybe we should stand back and feel good that (so far) the Constitution prevents him from getting the '4 more years' that Republican election-stealing and Rovian manipulation of issues and media would surely bring.

Why, Oh, Why (as Brad DeLong says so often) can we not have an adult mind in our President?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Sep 5, 2006 12:55:40 PM

When you have only two points you want to appear on the news, you stick to those two points in your speech, no matter how idiotic it makes you sound. Message discipline.

Posted by: Misplaced Patriot | Sep 5, 2006 1:29:02 PM

I think I found the problem with your reasoning.

As you get older, you know what's important or not, and you know that your relative belief in the importance of an issue is rather immaterial.

True of you or me, yes, but the second part is not true of Bush... unfortunately. If he believes that invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place, or that it is and has been going well, there are some pretty damn big consequences. And the same for his views on economics. The repetition in this situation might be annoying, but that's a problem of writing/speaking style, not of relative importance.

In fact, I wish he were so repetitive about everything, not just a relatively minor holiday. If his handlers had let/encouraged him to pontificate following Ginger Yellow's quote the way he did in the Labor Day speech, it might make a few more people realize that that the emperor is, indeed, wearing a polyester flight suit that suspiciously resembles pajamas with feet. (Hey, you never know.)

Posted by: Cyrus | Sep 5, 2006 1:42:56 PM

I tend to agree with Jim, but I'd say it slightly differently - I think there's a cynical belief on the part of the Administration that a vast majority of the audience can't handle deeper thoughts or complex ideas, coupled with the fact that Bush is a terrible speechgiver, making it difficult if not impossible for him to get more complex thoughts across well. What's interesting to me is that I think this approach has gotten them just the low approval ratings they're suffering with now and the intra-GOP fighting we've been seeing lately - when all you have is propaganda like that jobs speech, it's hard for even your true believers to know what you're really going for (is he in favor of more free trade? more Wal Marts? Who can tell?); and for a more sophisticated audience tghe reaction is more direct - "I know he says terrorismn is bad, I agree with that. But what the hell does "stay the course" mean?" think Bush's credibility as a speech giver is all but dead; at this point if he gets up, reads the text reasonably well and no one copmplains about the text, they think thsy've won. But the numbers go nowhere when he's done (except maybe down), and nothing really changes. If they can't get momentum out of his Iraq speechec this week, I'd say it's pretty clear the Dems have a winning case for November.

Posted by: weboy | Sep 5, 2006 1:54:37 PM

You have to remember, he's not trying to make a substantive argument. He's just trying to spread his message. As Misplaced Patriot said, it's message discipline.

If people hear the same message over and over, it gets incorporated into their thinking. Raise the minimum wage? No, that might hurt our STONG ECONOMY. Our STRONG ECONOMY is IMPORTANT. STRONG ECONOMY. STRONG ECONOMY. STRONG ECONOMY. Sadly, it works. (See: death tax.)

This isn't debate. It's advertizing.

Posted by: Royko | Sep 5, 2006 2:07:05 PM

How is the 6th grade level of Bush's speeches any different than the 6th grade level of USA Today or most other daily newspapers? I'm no fan of Bush either, but why does everything have to boil down to how evil or dumb Bush is? Instead, shouldn't you conclude that Bush's speeches are geared towards a growing illiterate segment of our society?

Posted by: Dignan | Sep 5, 2006 2:34:35 PM

Regarding the dumbing down of our society - yuh think? Duh. ;)

But I think the issue may have another angle and that is the "we know what's best for you so take it like a man" attitude the administration has demonstrated since it came to Washington. They talk to us like children because they believe we ARE children.

I think it's time for the 'children' to grow up and begin demanding the keys to the car.

Posted by: momly | Sep 5, 2006 2:47:22 PM

I'm still waiting for one of his speeches to begin, "I did my book report on...".

Posted by: apantomimehorse | Sep 5, 2006 2:48:35 PM

It's a coping tactic that relies on the self-absorption of youth,

"Self-absorption" is the key phrase here. More than a juvenile manner of expression, Bush has a manner that indicates that he thinks everything's about cute li'l him. From the same speech:

And then we had a terrible storm hit, and I hope you understood -- understand why I needed to be there than up here last year.
Yeah, that was the tragedy last year--missing your speech. I know he's pretending it's a gag, but it's not one that suggests he's thinking about the audience, only about what what he himself has been up to.

Or more commonly, he'll say something terminally obvious about a genuinely serious problem--Iraq, the economy, etc--followed by : "I understand this." He's not just running his mouth; he really does expect credit, not for doing anything, but simply for for grasping that the problem exists. Can you think of a more minimal accomplishment for a man in his position? Or any grown man, or woman? It's a step past expecting your mom to come into the john and praise the way you poop.

But Bush expects us to be impressed because, hey, it's him.

Posted by: Molly, NYC | Sep 5, 2006 2:53:10 PM

I think Jon Stewart once said, "It's not that Bush is stupid. It's that he thinks we're stupid. That's why he speaks to us that way."

Posted by: Constantine | Sep 5, 2006 2:53:51 PM

It's not just that his talking points are simplistic but rather that he can barely think them up and get them out. I seriously doubt Bush is truely as dumb as the way he speaks in public, but it hardly speaks well for his mental capacities that he plays this game so poorly when he sets the bar so low.

Posted by: apantomimehorse | Sep 5, 2006 2:58:19 PM

Clinton, remember, also spoke simplistically and directly, but he did so very skillfully.

Posted by: apantomimehorse | Sep 5, 2006 3:05:10 PM

Bush isn't the only one who does it. All politicians (and many other public figures, especially TV talking heads) pronounce things as if we don't already know them and then expect to get credited as some sort of visionary for pointing out the blindingly obvious. Terrorism is bad, crime is harmful, eating too much and exercising too little makes you fat, fat people are bigger than the rest of us, etc. I hear/read so much bullshit like this every day that I'm genuinely surprised and pleased when someone tells me something I DIDN'T know. I think Bush (and his speechwriters) have read the same simplistic how-to-persuade-people crap that evangelists do, which stresses repetition and simple, simple language, language that an intelligent third grader would find tiresome. It isn't about having the better, more logical argument, it's about breaking people down as if they're a POW at the Hanoi Hilton.

Posted by: LL | Sep 5, 2006 3:06:41 PM

Re: I seriously doubt Bush is truely as dumb as the way he speaks in public.."

Agreed. Although I'll always like the word "stategery".

And I'll tell you, as a former Bush supporter,
he can make it extremely difficult to defend him.
I think I've grown some wrinkles just from grimacing during his news conferences.

Regards, HM

Posted by: HM | Sep 5, 2006 3:31:11 PM

The Labor Day speech is inept propaganda because it doesn't tell a story or evoke any emotion. I bet the speech writers just threw that one together. It's not like they want the American people to feel all warm and fuzzy about Labor Day, anyway.

Popular authors who write for a school age audience don't meander like that. Even ten-year-olds like a buildup and a punch line.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Sep 5, 2006 5:00:54 PM

If people hear the same message over and over, it gets incorporated into their thinking. Raise the minimum wage? No, that might hurt our STONG ECONOMY. Our STRONG ECONOMY is IMPORTANT. STRONG ECONOMY. STRONG ECONOMY. STRONG ECONOMY. Sadly, it works. (See: death tax.)

It's of a piece with the soundstage backgrounds that they always used to arrange for a Bush "major speech": Blue (I dunno what the color choice means) with a simple, maybe two word mantra repeated endlessly ("United We Stand", or "Corporate Responsiblity" after Enron)

Posted by: sglover | Sep 5, 2006 5:02:21 PM

but the total effect is very, very weird.

Yeah, that's about the best I can do, too. Weird. I mean, "...they believe things?" WTF?


I like KCinDC's explanation best; he still has to read the damn things, so they've taken to writing speeches that he's at least capable of giving.

Posted by: merciless | Sep 5, 2006 6:29:25 PM

Instead, shouldn't you conclude that Bush's speeches are geared towards a growing illiterate segment of our society?

You sure our society's getting increasingly illiterate? I'm not convinced things were that great in the American past, and I would imagine that the popularity of the internet and IMing means that young Americans are probably reading more words now than they were 15 years ago.

Which isn't to say that 35% of the electorate doesn't function at a 10-year-old level.

Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Sep 5, 2006 7:57:06 PM

Don't you think speeches should be spoken spontaneously? I mean if the president will spontaneously say his speech then we will really know he means everything that comes out of his mouth. Then he ought to be careful.

Posted by: liz10 | Sep 5, 2006 9:16:22 PM

younger kids will keep circling around it, repeating it again and again from slightly different angles and approaches. I assume developmental psychologists actually have a term for this

I believe you are talking about perseveration, a tendency to repeat and repeat a word (or phrase or request) over and over that is common in young children. It's also something one frequently encounters when dealing with kids who are ADHD or have other neurological or learning challenges: it's as if the speaker's thought processes keep bumping against some small glitch that prevents the proper registration of feedback such as Yes, you are right, that is such an important and true thing you just said, urging him to mention it once more time just to be certain his point was made.

In Bush's case, there is perhaps a tiny, itchy little voice going Liar, liar, pants on fire! And being the Decider that he is, our Preznit opts to drown out the annoying communiques from his conscience by saying, over and over, We gotta keep the 'merican people safe...9/11...War on Terror...keep the 'merican people safe...

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 5, 2006 11:03:32 PM

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