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The Rhetorical Presidency of George H. W. Bush.

The Rhetorical Presidency of George H. W. Bush. Edited by Martin J. Medhurst. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006. 207 pp.

Some might argue that this book is mistitled. It could have been called The Anti-Rhetorical Presidency of Bush 41, given the volume's thesis: "George Bush as president preferred principles to politics. He identified rhetoric as part of politics rather than as part of governance and thus rejected it, too. That was a costly misidentification, both to Bush personally and to the country" (p. 16).

That anti-rhetoricity, if understood as a rejection of self-interested consciousness of how one adapts public arguments and language to audiences and the situations within which a person discourses, is demonstrated in every chapter, as well as in the afterword. If, however, rhetoric is conceptualized more broadly as the impact of those arguments and bits of language upon situated audiences regardless of an agent's intentions or desires, then this work affirms Martin J. Medhurst's moral of the story: that of "costly misidentification" for which both a leader and those he led suffered. The political world is rhetorical to the core, and no attempt to deny that proposition goes unpunished. And so we have an oddly fascinating set of studies of how ineffectual--often purposely ineffectual--rhetorical-political efforts to implement programs limited or undercut the efficacy of those programs.

The eight case studies of actions in the first Bush presidency treat the "vision thing," German reunification, the Persian Gulf War, the New World Order, educational reform, the Earth Summit of 1992, the agenda of the religious right, and economic policy. We journey from Bush's single greatest weakness (rhetorical scope), through arenas of his strengths (foreign policy and relations), and into the domestic issues that doomed his reelection in 1992.

The strongest chapter comes from Wynton C. Hall, who takes on Bush's reactions to the 1990-1992 recession. Analytical robustness marks Hall's examination of Bush's "ideological, personal, and rhetorical constraints" working within the "voters' perceptions of economic indicators" (p. 172), the perceived salience of economic issues in particular circumstances, and media priming and framing. While playing off both Bush's own habits and the public's mediated understandings of economic forces, he analyzes three of Bush's economic speeches for their rhetorical efficacy. Hall approaches not only what was said and how it was received but also why the Bush economic discourse could not work, given the constraints.

Martin Carcasson's study of Rio is equally satisfying. Here is a study of political rhetoric as expressive--of Bush's "philosophies of government, the environment, and rhetoric" itself (p. 121). Framed by discussions of rhetorical acts, political judgment, and audiences, Carcasson documents Bush's inability to see issues from positions other than his own and hence as a rhetor lacking phronesis. Carcasson's analysis of the Earth Summit's central issues--the North-South global split between the haves seeking to stop global warming and the have-nots needing development--and Bush's focus on American nationalist positions vis-a-vis a multinationalist perspective helps us make sense of Bush's rhetorical activity within the frames of his own background. The president's speeches can be understood, if not appreciated, thanks to Carcasson's careful detailing and analysis.

Other chapters more simply document Bush's failure to inhabit the bully pulpit to lead a people. Catherine L. Langford counts the number of times the president mentioned "vision" and examines six particular speeches, arguing that "Bush's endeavor to create a vision floundered because he failed to develop a coherent narrative to frame his commitment to public service and because he lacked a clear program of action" (p. 33). William Forrest Harlow finds Bush acceding to foreign governments' warnings about antagonizing the Soviets or urging German chancellor Helmut Kohl into reunification too quickly, thus remaining reserved in his reactions to the fall of the Berlin Wall; here, Bush's silence is taken as a policy virtue.

One of the most disappointing chapters is Rachel Martin Harlow's on Bush and the Persian Gulf War; she seeks to understand how Bush could "authoritatively define, defend, and shape the conflict through its many stages and to publicly manage issues of international authority and sovereignty" (p. 57), but does not. Because she does not tap into the rich literature on media coverage of the Persian Gulf War and examine the particular means by which the press was controlled--pool reporting, control of uplinks, twice daily briefings by the armed force services in the field, misinformation campaigns, the framing of the presidential talks--Harlow can only offer thin language analyses of good and evil. Left out are such rhetorical factors as oralisms (such as Bush's pronunciation of "Saddam") and the situations and settings in which he spoke, congressional debates prior to the invasion, the yellow ribbon campaigns and support-the-troops rallies, and vilification of antiwar demonstrators.

Similarly, Amy Tilton Jones starts into a probe of the political complexities of the religious political right, though she really can only conclude that Bush ignored and so lost them--a simplistic analysis that ignores the religious right's places in state politics, so important to 1992. Holly G. McIntush begins a selective review of federal initiatives into education from Harry S. Truman to Bush. Then, she argues that Bush could not be the "education president" because he did not link goals to programs--a study that cries for its author to tie the work of one President Bush to the next one and to nongovernmental educational reform movements. Roy Joseph's examination of "New World Order" talk rehearses Bush's statements; yet, because Joseph insists on tying the concept to the United Nations charter rather than to previous or concurrent American foreign policy options (as did Thomas A. Hollihan in "The Public Controversy over the Panama Canal Treaties," Western Journal of Communication, 1986), he offers idealist-normative rather than political assessments of Bush's choices.

Even though the researchers have variable experience and insight, the essays in The Rhetorical Presidency of George H. W Bush are based on solid research at the Bush Presidential Library, provide fascinating rhetorical studies of someone with limited rhetorical credentials, and offer enriching accounts of the transitional political culture from the Ronald Reagan to the Bill Clinton years--and into our time.

--Bruce E. Gronbeck

University of Iowa
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Author:Gronbeck, Bruce E.
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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