It seems like a lifetime ago since we were happily chuckling at the words, phrases and thoughts of an American presidential candidate, linguistic gaffes that came to be known as Bushisms. "You teach a child to read and he and her will be able to pass a literacy test." "More and more of our imports come from overseas." "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."
How we all laughed, and those whose job it is to write rather than to do led the mockery. But then, if it was slightly alarming that someone who mangled his sentences so grievously was about to become the most powerful person in the world, it was also not that serious. His job was to lead, to make decisions. Who cared if his way with grammar, vocabulary or even sense was a touch wayward at times?
Politics, we have learnt in this age of spin, is about action, about personality. Words, because they are available from a team of smart phrase-makers and speech-writers, are of secondary importance. If now and then the nation needs to be united, bolstered or comforted, then a small army of communicators are on hand behind the scenes to provide leaders with language appropriate for the moment.
During the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher used to blame her political difficulties on problems of presentation – as if words were little more than fancy wrapping in which policy is delivered – and the world generally agreed. In government and leadership, being articulate was a luxury.
We may be about to change that view. The events of the past few days have pitilessly revealed that, at times of crisis, words matter almost more than anything else. They are action and personality, even if the language used is not poetic, resonant or Churchillian. In his clear and heartfelt pronouncements, Mayor Giuliani has established a tone of dignity, humanity and authority by saying, simply and directly, the right thing. He has talked like a leader.
In contrast, President Bush has, since last Tuesday, presented himself as a man floundering in the flood of events. His body language has been unconvincing – he has seemed to shrink every time he appears on TV, his eyes becoming dark buttons of panic – but it is the language of words that has really exposed him.
The twitchy, knee-jerk reaction of the regular-guy politician, which saw him vowing to "hunt down and find those folks who committed this act" could be put down to an inexperienced leader caught on the hop without his speech-writers, but the gap between what was happening and the inappropriateness of his own articulated response has been embarrassingly apparent every time he has spoken unscripted.
"This is a difficult time for America," he said later, invoking, like many others, the absurd playground insult of "cowardly" to describe an act of mass suicide. When visiting the wreckage of part of the Pentagon, he groped hopelessly for words before telling the world's press that what he saw made him feel sad but it also made him feel angry.
The terrible, frightening truth that is emerging is that language is not merely the window-dressing of leadership: it is a fundamental expression of emotional and intellectual readiness for what lies ahead. Those invocations of sadness or anger may have been intended to sound simple and touching but in fact came over as simple-minded and bathetic. The tearful Oval Office press conference on Thursday – "I am a lovin' guy but I am also someone, however, who has a job" – was meant to communicate humanity but merely expressed weakness.
The rhetoric has continued to lag behind what it is intended to convey. "Our opponents think they are invisible but they are not," the President told his people, sounding strangely childish. The talk of his government's determination "to smoke them out and get them out" managed to make a global military campaign sound like a hunting expedition of good ole boys in Texas. Attempting to reassure his people, he has invariably hit the wrong note – warning them, for example, that since war had been declared "people may not be able to board flights as quickly".
Last year, on his first visit to Britain, President Bush was taken to see the papers of Winston Churchill in the Cabinet War Rooms. He told journalists that he had always been intrigued by Churchill: "He was one of the really fascinating leaders." Just over 60 years ago, when that really fascinating leader was addressing the nation at a time of profound crisis, he told them, "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind ... I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." Last week, George Bush adopted a different approach, urging the country to "get on about its life. I understand major league baseball is going to start playing again". That's right, 5,000 people dead and the Presidentwas talking about major league baseball. Let us all hope in the coming weeks and months that, as that famous Bushism has it, expectations rise above that which is expected.Reuse content