An emotional State of the Union

Not long ago President George W. Bush gave his State of the Union Address for the year 2006. Most of us no doubt saw it through a political lens. It was a moment for appropriately adult beverages, as either toasts in triumph or draughts of despair. But as a teacher of rhetoric, what interested me was not so much the political ideas or ideology, but how the President chose to persuade us, his listeners.

The first questions to be asked are: who was the audience and what was the President’s goal? The beginnings of the answer is found in the US Constitution, which mandates such addresses. As outlined by the Constitution, the State of the Union should be what Aristotle, the father of rhetorical analysis, termed deliberative rhetoric -- an act of persuasion to a future course of action.

America in 2006 is not, however, America in 1787. Bush’s audience was not simply the Congress, but all of America (and, indeed, the world). So he chose another kind of discourse -- epideictic rhetoric, which seeks to praise or blame people or institutions in the present. We must keep Bush's choice in mind as we turn to the speech itself.

The first thing we notice is that the address narrows as it progresses. We begin with America ridding the world of tyranny and poverty and move to defending ourselves, to national prosperity, and to personal quality of life. Structurally, this is sound because some of Bush’s most controversial policies -— those dealing with US military action and the “Patriot Act” -- are dismissed early on, allowing him to spend most of his time on less controversial issues such as environmentally sound energy sources and curing disease. Closing with such matters leaves the audience with a positive final impression.

The appeals chosen for the address also reveal how Bush seeks to persuade. Aristotle says that there are three appeals in rhetoric: logos (appeals to reason), ethos (appeals to character), and pathos (appeals to emotion). Bush uses all three, yet ethos and the pathos, not logos, dominate.

A President’s State of the Union Address does not lend itself to logical syllogisms. Time is short, so he relies on enthymemes, or rhetorical syllogisms. Though the enthymeme does not lack logical cohesion, it requires that the audience supply the logical links in an argument.

Let’s look, for example, at Bush's call for the re-authorisation of the Patriot Act. “Our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home. The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us.” Matching this threat, however, are “professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, the military, and homeland security.” Then Bush gives us the following enthymeme: “[These professionals] also deserve the same tools they already use to fight drug trafficking and organised crime -- so I ask you to reauthorise the Patriot Act.”

The unspoken assumptions of this are that whatever tools used to fight drug trafficking and organised crime will also be effective against terrorism, and furthermore that the Patriot Act would give these tools. If the audience shares these assumptions, then the logic holds; if not, the logic is dubious. In every such appeal the president makes, the assumptions upon which the logic stands are left unargued and unproven. Of course, enthymemic logic is a necessity -- who would sit through a fully argued case for the Patriot Act? But the ultimate persuasiveness of the president’s logic depends on such shared assumptions.

Moving on to the ethos of the speech, or its appeal to the speaker’s character, we find that Bush relies more on his character than on logical coherence. This is not unreasonable: if the President is trustworthy, his proposals may also be sound. Of course, appeals to ethos have their limitations, for a person may have a good character and faulty reasoning. How, then, does Bush go about constructing his own ethos in his speech?

The character that the President projects to his audience is one with which we are all familiar -- the honest, earnest American leader, confident in himself and his cause. He constructs this with egalitarian language, humour, and delivery. Re-read or listen again to the State of the Union and consider how many times he uses the first person plural. All throughout the speech he talks about what we must do, what we believe, and what awaits us. He stands there as a humble public servant: “Every time I'm invited to this rostrum, I'm humbled by the privilege, and mindful of the history we've seen together... it has been my honour to serve with you”. By portraying his presidency in terms of privilege and service, he casts himself as a “servant-leader”.

And as a man with a sense of humour: “This year, the first of about 78 million baby boomers turn 60, including two of my Dad's favourite people -- me and President Clinton (laughter). This milestone is more than a personal crisis (laughter).” Humour helps make him more trustworthy.

His style of delivery also helps. The President’s intonation, gestures, and expressions reveal a man sure of himself and sure of the goodness of his ideas. The assumption is that if I am so sure of the goodness of my plans, you can be sure of their goodness as well.

Finally, we should consider the president’s appeal to pathos, or emotion. This, too, has its limitations, but it is a legitimate and useful appeal. It is perfectly reasonable to feel pity, anger, and fear at the HIV/AIDS epidemic; it is perfectly reasonable to be disturbed by the prospect of “leaving women in nearly 1,500 American counties without a single OB/GYN”. Strictly speaking, however, pathos is not rational.

Bush’s language is skilfully and deliberately chosen to evoke postive a emotional response in his audience. Let’s look at a few of these devices.

Two rhetorical figures which convey a sense of balance abound: anaphora and antithesis. Anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, appears throughout. “Keeping America competitive requires” opens four paragraphs. “A hopeful society” opens five. Anaphora drives ideas into the minds and hearts of an audience: “The only way to protect our people, the only way to secure the peace, the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership”.

The speech also relies on constant use of antithesis, or putting opposites in parallel. This depicts a world of positives and negatives: “We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom -- or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy -- or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity.”

For better or worse, antithesis creates a black and white world: “Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbours, and join the fight against terror”. If anaphora drives important ideas into the minds of the audience, antithesis suggests how they are to view such ideas.

Metaphors are also important. The prevalence of military and religious metaphors in Bush's speech shows that he is speaking to a martial and religious audience. He talks about “pursuing the enemies of freedom” and “retreating” from duties. He appeals to martial honour: “There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honour in retreat”. Most tellingly, perhaps, Bush warns us against “economic retreat”. It is as though only two choices lie before every aspect of American life: victory or retreat.

Even more interesting is the prevalence of religious language. When Americans are urged to avoid the “broad and inviting... road of isolationism and protectionism”, they may think of the narrow path to heaven. “The violent [must not] inherit the Earth” echoes the Beatitudes. Not specifically Biblical, but still religious, are references to “God-given dignity and worth” and “human life [as] a gift from our Creator”. And there is, of course, the signature close to any speech by President Bush: “May God bless America.”

Lastly, the repeated use of the language of progress and destiny is remarkably prominent. From the very opening of the address, Bush tells us that the “nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal -- we seek the end of tyranny in our world”. It is up to America to obey the mandate of history: “Sometimes it can seem that history is turning in a wide arc, toward an unknown shore. Yet the destination of history is determined by human action, and every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing”. This is language that harkens back to the days of the Puritans and their vision of America as John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill”, a nation chosen as an example for other nations.

Bush’s State of the Union Address of 2006 is a rhetorically conscious act which is carefully structured and phrased to make its appeal on logical, ethical, and emotional levels. Does it succeed? It depends on the audience. Its logic will only be accepted by those who share his assumptions. Its ethos will only persuade those who find the notion of an average American as a servant-leader attractive. And its pathos will only stir emotions in those who cherish military honour, Christian ideals, and an America predestined to be the scourge of tyrants.

In short, only those who were with Bush before the State of the Union address could be with him after it. Rather than an act of deliberative rhetoric, it is primarily epideictic rhetoric, a hymn of praise to the President’s own ideas and policies. It is worth considering what such rhetorical choices suggest about the state of political discourse in 2006.

Professor Sean Gordon Lewis teaches Rhetoric at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC.


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  • Sean Gordon Lewis