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Words, Words, Words

Asking more than rhetorical questions about the Republican ticket

By Rena Xu

If John Kerry is a flip-flop, then President Bush is a stiletto driven straight into my heart.

Language presents us with many opportunities to compromise accuracy for cleverness. In the statement above, the bargain is clearly worth it. Kerry is a “flip-flop,” just as his accuser is another type of shoe? Double entendre, phallic imagery, anti-war allusions? Incredible!

To avoid any potential confusion, I will make explicit what my intentions are not: to mock George Bush’s capacity for verbalizing coherent thoughts. I promise I have grown out of that. Yes, there was a time when I considered myself supremely cool for owning the book Is Our Children Learning?, when “subliminable” and “wings take dream” made for a satisfactory criticism of our alleged president. Not anymore. These days, I will be the first to defend George Bush’s command of rhetoric and verbal manipulation. His words are, after all, a large part of why he currently appears to hold the lead in the presidential race. I don’t mock that sort of thing.

Take, for instance, the art of implied association. This has become one of Bush’s tried-and-true recipes: one part Iraq, one part terrorism, mix and stir in the same sentence. It really is a brilliant strategy; he preys on the fear, compassion and patriotism evoked by terrorism in order to rally support for a war that has nothing to do with terrorism. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Bush showed off this manipulative prowess: “In Saddam Hussein, we saw a threat... And I faced the kind of decision...no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make: Do I forget the lessons of September 11 and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country?”

His selective amnesia might explain why in this sea of wartime chaos and controversy, Osama bin Laden has been conveniently lost. Not that Bush ever found him, of course, but now the Saudi fellow has vanished not only in reality, but also in rhetoric. I bet he is hiding away in some cave right now, feeling quite indignant. After all, he’s the one who did the work, and Saddam got the credit. That’s like plagiarism, only maybe a lot worse.

And besides, Bush has already got his plate too full with Kerry to be worrying about leftovers like bin Laden. I’ve got to hand it to Bush: “Fuzzy math” was pretty clever, but “flip-flop” just might be a new personal best.

One of Bush’s favorite “flip-flop” stories involves the $87 billion of supplemental funds that Congress proposed for operations in Iraq, which Kerry says he initially supported but then later opposed: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Bush clearly cannot forgive his opponent for this oratorical inferiority. By “flip-flop,” I think he is trying to say that at first, when a fair and economically feasible version of the bill was on the Senate floor, Kerry supported it, but after the Bush administration used the threat of a veto to change critical clauses of the bill, he decided to vote against it. Yeah, I guess if you put it that way, Kerry does sound pretty outrageous.

But, if Bush is the rising star of verbal deceit, then Dick Cheney is already a formidable maestro of manipulation. He has recently made it clear that putting anyone but Bush in the Oval Office is an open invitation for terrorism: “If we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States,” said Cheney. The implication, of course, is not only that Kerry is a national safety hazard, but also that the presence of Bush’s regime somehow deters terrorism. The way Cheney tells it, I’m almost ready to write off September 11 as just a minor gloss in an otherwise pristine record.

Taken together, Bush’s amiable prevarications and Cheney’s clever malice just might spell a winning ticket. In a sense, they’ve already won a personal victory: they have transformed their public image from that of tongue-tied oratorical brutes to veritable acrobats of rhetoric. If that doesn’t count as a flip-flop, I don’t know what does.

Rena Xu ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a biochemical sciences and government concentrator in Eliot House.

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