Catapulting the Propaganda
The President, Cindy Sheehan, and How Words Die
By Tom Engelhardt
“See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.” — George Bush, “President Participates in Social Security Conversation in New York,” May 24, 2005.
Forced from his five-week vacation idyll in Crawford by the mother of a dead boy he sent to war, the President has recently given two major speeches defending his war policies and, between biking and boating, held a brief news conference at Tamarack Resort in Donnelly, Idaho. On August 22nd, he addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City for 30 minutes; on August 24th, he spoke for 43 minutes to families of the Idaho National Guard in the farming community of Nampa, Idaho.
As his poll figures continue on a downward spiral, he has found it necessary to put extra effort into “catapulting the propaganda.” Though he struck a new note or two in each speech, these were exceedingly familiar, crush-the-terrorists, stay-the-course, path-to-victory speeches. That’s hardly surprising, since his advisors and speechwriters have been wizards of repetition. No one has been publicly less spontaneous or more — effectively — repetitious than our President; but sometimes, as he says, you “keep repeating things over and over and over again” and what sinks in really is the truth rather than the propaganda. Sometimes, just that extra bit of repetition under less than perfect circumstances, and words that once struck fear or offered hope, that once explained well enough for most the nature of the world they faced, suddenly sound hollow. They begin to sound… well, repetitious, and so, false. Your message, which worked like a dream for so long, goes off-message, and then what do you do?
This is, I suspect, exactly what growing numbers of Americans are experiencing in relation to our President. It’s a mysterious process really — like leaving a dream world or perhaps deprogramming from a cult. Once you step outside the bubble, statements that only yesterday seemed heartfelt or powerful or fearful or resolute truths suddenly look like themselves, threadbare and impoverished. In due course, because the repetitious worldview in the President’s speeches is clearly a believed one (for him, if not all of his advisors) and because it increasingly reads like a bad movie script for a fictional planet, he himself is likely to look no less threadbare and impoverished, no less — to use a word not often associated with him — pathetic and out of touch with reality to some of those who not so long ago supported him or his policies.
Under these circumstances, it’s worth taking a close look at his recent speeches and comparing his linguistic landscape with that of Cindy Sheehan, at the moment a stand-in for the mute (and previously somewhat hidden) American dead from his war as well as an encroaching Iraqi catastrophe.
George’s World of Words
George Bush’s speech-world remains anchored in the defining moment of his life, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (cited 5 times in his VFW speech, 4 times in Idaho). It offers a landscape of overwhelming threat, but also of remarkable neatness. It paints a picture of a world embroiled in the first war of the 21st century, a war on a global scale, a war — a word that peppers every statement he makes — with multiple theaters (“from the streets of the Western capitals to the mountains of Afghanistan, to the tribal regions of Pakistan, to the islands of Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa”). In his vision of our planet, a vast struggle on the scale of the Cold War, if not World War II, is underway, a Manichaean battle between two clear-cut sides, one good, one evil, in which you are either for or against. There can be no other choices between our mega-enemy, the terrorists, and us. As he put the matter in Idaho in reference to Iraq, the central theater in his global war, “The battle lines are now clearly drawn for the world to see, and there is no middle ground.”
The problem is that what the President “sees” and what Americans are now seeing seem to be diverging at a rapid rate. For George, the details matter not at all. You won’t find any Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds at each other’s throats in the President’s Iraq, or unable to agree on a constitution, or at the edge of internecine warfare, or living in a country lacking electricity, oil, and jobs, or potentially installing an Islamic government in Baghdad allied to the neighboring Iranian fundamentalist regime, or any of the other obvious features of the present situation, most of which can finally be caught any night on the national news. In his Salt Lake City and Idaho speeches, the only “Iraqi” George even mentioned was a Jordanian, “the terrorist Zarqawi,” against whom, in at least the President’s fantasy life and in his recent radio address, Sunni and Shia Iraqis actually come together in mutual defense in a touching show of national unity.
In the President’s world, there is just them, the enemy, aka the terrorists, and us, the people who (in a nearly copyrighted phrase) spread freedom to the rest of the world. When you look, for instance, at his speech in Idaho, the word terror (war on, sponsored, will be defeated) is used 13 times; terrorist or terrorists (threats, attack, murdered, harbor a, cells, defeat the, converged on Iraq, defiance of the, have sworn havoc, can kill the innocent, victory over, were to win, will fail, Zarqawi), 33 times; and terrorism (safe haven for), once — for a total of 47 uses. (Now that’s repetition for you!) However, in the remarkably equally balanced linguistic struggle between good and evil that weaves through the President’s speeches, freedom (they despise our, spreading, spread the hope of, advancing the cause of, the march of) appears 37 times and, when free is thrown in, a triumphant total of 48 times. In addition, while the terrorists skulk in the shadows, freedom is no passive thing. It confronts, defeats, prevails, and conquers. No wonder they despise it so. (In the shorter VFW speech, the linguistic balance remains the same: terror and its cognates: 33; freedom with its fleet of frees, 36.) Add together the Idaho totals for the struggle — 95 — and you’re talking about 1 out of every 48 words in that speech being either terror or freedom, with us or against us.
Admittedly, the President’s speeches do sometimes show small signs of change at moments when reality forces its way onto the premises. For obvious reasons, for instance, weapons of mass destruction have disappeared from his speeches when the focus is Iraq (though mention Iran and). Recently, Cindy Sheehan made herself such a thorn in the Presidential side that his speechwriters were forced to let him acknowledge the actual numbers of American dead. (“We have lost 1,864 members of our Armed Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 223 in Operation Enduring Freedom.”) And the growing debate about withdrawal from Iraq, which began with unapproved statements from his own military, has forced the President’s speechwriters to create a new jingle to describe our plan for the Iraqi future: “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”.
In speaking off-the-cuff, as to the reporters in Donnelly last week, he repeats his usual words, phrases, and lines, mix-and-match style; still, it’s easier in such a session (no matter how weak the questions lobbed at him) to sense an edge of confusion about how to make his world stand in some relation to reality. For instance, in the Donnelly exchange, which lasted 12 minutes including the niceties — “Q: Any fishing? THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know yet. I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m kind of hanging loose, as they say. (Laughter.)” — he offered this strange, new explanation for the development of terrorism in the Iraqi neck of the woods:
“[W]e had a policy that just said, let the dictator [Saddam Hussein] stay there, don’t worry about it. And as a result of dictatorship, and as a result of tyranny, resentment, hopelessness began to develop in that part of the world, which became the — gave the terrorists capacity to recruit.”
However, in his speeches, those perfect artifacts from another universe, delivered only before the most receptive audiences, usually under campaign-like conditions, everything is as the President wants it to be. There, at present, he inhabits a world that begins with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 — imagine how a Democrat might be pilloried for comparing the making of the already tattered “Islamic” constitution of Iraq (just hailed by Iranian Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who heads that country’s ultra-conservative Guardian Council) to ours — passes through World War II (where we successfully occupied two countries, Japan and Germany) and more or less ends in the glory days of the Cold War. Missing, of course, is the one “small” conflict that, right now, is on everyone’s mind all over Washington, not to say the U.S. — Vietnam. You won’t find that name, nor words like “quagmire” or “bogged down” either.
The President’s speech-world is a world of the will in every sense. (The terrorists typically try to break ours and get us to retreat.) In Idaho, he used will, as in “will of the majority,” 6 times, but the will of the willed act (we will not allow the terrorists, America will not wait to be attacked again, will confront emerging threats, will stay on the offensive, will fight, will win, will be on the hunt, will prevail) 34 times. There may never have been political speeches that used the word in all its senses (except as a document of bequeathment) so often. In this tic, his speeches catch perhaps the most striking aspect of his administration since September 11, 2001 — its driving urge to impose a worldview by force on the rest of the planet.
In speeches like those in Utah and Idaho, he offers up a warrior’s world of words. The word war itself appears in his Idaho speech 26 times, along with attack, attacks, attacked (11), fight, fighters, fighting (10) , battle lines, battlefronts (2), struggle (2), strike (2), and one of his absolute favorites, the phrase on the hunt or alternately hunt down (we will stay on the, side by side with Iraqi forces, our common enemies), used 3 times. Of course, no war would be worth much if you didn’t win (the war on terror, in Iraq), used twice, for which you need to defeat (the terrorists), wielded 9 times.
In the President’s speeches, the world of “the enemy” or “the terrorists” is imposingly frightening, terrifying enough to fit the bill for any Evil Empire. Here is just a partial list of words associated with it from the Idaho speech:
Enemy (fight the, in our midst, across the globe, on many fronts): 6
Threat, threatened: 8
Fail (what terrorists will do in the end)/failed (as in, states — what terrorists cause): 7
Brutal, brutality: 5
Violence (brutal, and extremism): 5
Retreat (what they want us to do, back into the shadows): 5
Murder, murdered: murderous: 4
Destroy/Destruction (our way of life, havoc and, death and): 4
Hateful, hate-filled: 3
Dangerous (times, enemies): 2
Plotted, plotting: 2
Crushing/crushes (blow, all dissent): 2
Evil (seen freedom conquer): 1
Between the two sides in this global war stand the innocent and, as it happens, we do share one thing in common with the terrorists in relation to the innocent — a strategy (we’ve followed a clear), 4; (they have a, crushing blow to their), 2.
Fortunately, on our side of the ledger in support of our strategy to spread freedom and destroy the terrorists, can be mustered a powerful set of words that are ours alone:
Help, helped, helping: 10
Protect, protecting (your neighbors, all Americans, the American homeland, our people, our cities and borders and infrastructure, against every threat): 8
Security (of every American, false sense of, to our own citizens, forces, for our children and grandchildren, for the election, of our country): 7
Democracy (link to any of the above as in “freedom and”): 6
Hope (usually connected to freedom): 6
Secure (democracy, their freedom, the peace): 3
Homeland (American, the): 2
On our side of the ledger, even God makes a series of cameo appearances (4).
You could yourself take the above words and phrases and, as you might a deck of cards, shuffle them into some of the countless combinations that make up any Bush speech or meeting with the press. And yet there is still a study to be done of how words live and die in given moments. After all, this President has spoken the words terror, war, and freedom literally hundreds of thousands of times since September 11th, 2001, and yet now they are visibly dying on the lips.
Cindy’s World of Words
For a long time, George had a knack for speaking to audiences and seeming so personal, no matter how large his crowds, impersonal the setting, or scripted his performance. It was this sense of him that Cindy Sheehan seems to have begun to crack open. Put her words up against his — she’s willing to be no less repetitious, no less fierce in her view of the world — and hers are the words that now feel personal, that come from the heart and cut to the bone, that connect. They seem like telegrams sent directly from reality, and from an irrefutable core of loss — of lives, of safety, of security, of well-being — that ever more Americans are beginning to fear is what George’s world is all about. That’s undoubtedly why the normal set of right-wing attacks and smears launched against Sheehan, however successful against others in the past, have simply not penetrated. Who, after all, can deny the reality of the individual world of the mother of a war-dead son?
And let’s remember, we’re talking about a woman who most distinctly does not live on a fantasy planet. Here’s how she describes Bush’s newest reason to stay in Iraq — to honor those who already died there: “Since the Freedom and Democracy thing is not going so well and the Iraqi parliament is having such a hard time writing their constitution, since violence is mounting against Iraqis and Americans, and since [George Bush’s] poll numbers are going down every day, he had to come up with something.” Put that up against the President comparing the ethnic and religious horse-trading inside Baghdad’s Green Zone to the American Constitutional Convention.
To illustrate her language, I’ve taken two brief, recent passages she wrote around the time the President made his speeches in Utah and Idaho. The first is a mere 225 words on “Coming Back to Crawford”; the second, just over 1,000 words and entitled “One Mother’s Stand”. I’ve treated them as a single document. Place this set of words against the President’s above:
Son/sons (my, their, have been killed): 6
[Her son] Casey (Camp, love of): 7
Mother/mom (to feel the pain we feel, Gold Star, regular): 8
Children (lose their, my other): 2
Country (our, my, an innocent): 4
Grief (unbearable): 1
Pain (as much as I am, feel the, and heartache, feel their): 4
Love/loved (of Casey, peace and, ones): 6
War (senseless, George Bush’s, his, insane): 4
Invade (an innocent country): 1
Monstrosity (of an occupation): 1
Lies (his): 1
Misuse and abuse (of power): 1
Killed/killing (in George Bush’s war, Americans, continue the): 6
Died (Americans have, my son, others who have): 5
Death/deaths (sent him to, meaningless): 3
Responsibility (the president’s): 1
Accountable (hold George Bush): 1
Cojones (I do have the to tell the world that our “emperor” has no clothes): 1
It seems that George Bush was right. “You got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in.” He (and his advisers and his speechwriters) simply forgot that others might also do the repeating.
The Wordless Dead Offer Their Own Form of Testimony
Increasingly, the American, if not Iraqi, dead are entering our world and, after a fashion, making themselves heard. Their eloquence lies in their very names, which appear daily in our papers, as they have for two years now. Here, for instance, are the names of the American dead, all thirteen from Arcand, Elden to Seamans, Timothy, reported by the Pentagon for the three days beginning with the President’s VFW speech and ending with his Idaho speech. These were presented in a little box on an inside page of the New York Times with the following explanation: “The Department of Defense has identified [number] American service members who have died since the start of the Iraq war. It confirmed the deaths of the following Americans yesterday:”
BOUCHARD, Nathan K., 24, Sgt., Army; Wildomar, Calif.; Third Infantry Division.
DOYLE, Jeremy W., 24, Staff Sgt., Army; Chesterton, Md.; Third Infantry Division.
FUHRMANN, Ray M. II, 28, Specialist, Army; Novato, Calif.; Third Infantry Division.
SEAMANS, Timothy J., 20, Pfc., Army; Jacksonville, Fla.; Third Infantry Division.
ARCAND, Elden D., 22, Pfc., Army; White Bear Lake, Minn.; 360th Transportation Company, 68th Corps Support Battalion, 43rd Area Support Group.
CATHEY, James J., 24, Second Lt., Marines; Reno, Nev.; Second Marine Division.
MORRIS, Brian L., 38, Staff Sgt., Army; Centreville, Mich.; 360th Transportation Company, 68th Corps Support Battalion, 43rd Area Support Group.
NURRE, Joseph C., 22, Specialist, Army Reserve; Wilton, Calif.; 463rd Engineer Battalion.
PARTRIDGE, Willard T., 35, Sgt., Army; Ferriday, La.; 170th Military Police Company, 504th Military Police Battalion, 42nd Military Police Brigade.
ROMERO, Ramon, 19, Pfc., Marines; Huntington Park, Calif.; Second Marine Division.
DÍAZ, Carlos J., 27, First Lt., Army; Juana Díaz, P.R., Third Infantry Division.
HUNT, Joseph D., 27, Sgt., Army National Guard; Sweetwater, Tenn.; Third Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry.
LIEURANCE, Victoir P., 34, Staff Sgt., Army National Guard; Seymour, Tenn.; Third Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt