George W. Bush, "AN ADDRESS TO A JOINT SESSION OF CONGRESS
AND THE AMERICAN PEOPLE" (20 September 2001)
Sarah E. Spring and Joseph Clayton Packer
W. Bush's first term as president of the
days later, on
The Bush Presidency--Before 9/11
Bush presidency started on unstable footing. The election in 2000 between Bush
and Vice-President Al Gore was one of the closest in
Bush's first Inaugural Address was a relatively short speech. The speech centered around the theme of reconciliation, as Bush tried to establish his legitimacy despite his narrow victory. Even though the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, they controlled only fifty seats in the U.S. Senate, so the cooperation of Democrats would be critical to the success of Bush's agenda. Bush's Inaugural Address emphasized the shared ideals, values, and heritage of all Americans in an effort to reach out to Democrats. He even complimented challenger Al Gore for conceding the election "with grace," which communicated to other Democrats that they ought to do the same. The Washington Post reported that Bush's "eloquent speech focused primarily on the overriding reality that confronts him, which is the need to provide reassurance to, and find common ground with, his opponents if his presidency is to succeed." The speech also identified several issues at the top of his agenda, including educational reform, a new weapons system, and support for religious charities.
first months of Bush's presidency brought a mixture of good and bad news for
the new chief executive. In September, MSNBC
reported that his approval rating stood at 55 percent. Yet the economy was doing poorly by many
accounts, with the New York Times
reporting on September 10 that the economic growth rate had dropped 4.5 percent
over the last year and that unemployment had increased a full percentage point,
raising concerns about a possible recession.
Bush also was criticized for being the "vacation president," as
he spent a large part of his first summer in office at his ranch outside of
more positive side, the president's Economic Growth and Tax Relief
Reconciliation Act passed both the House and Senate by a comfortable margin.
The president also had success building a bipartisan coalition behind his
proposals for educational reform. In addition, the president made significant
progress in calming tensions with
The Bush Presidency--After 9/11
The days following the September 11
attacks were chaotic as the world tried to come to terms with how this
monumental event would shape the future.
The Democrats had been planning a major political offensive for
September 12, designed to criticize the president for his tax cuts. Instead of bickering on the floor of
Congress, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and
House Speaker Dennis Hastert spent September 12 beneath the Capitol in a
reinforced bunker, which was more time than they had spent together in the
previous two years. This national crisis produced a bond that
extended beyond those directly in danger; across the country, Americans joined
together in solemn prayer and displays of patriotism. With the exception of isolated street
celebrations in a few countries, the response from the global community to the
attacks was generally supportive of the
On September 14, President Bush made
his first public appearance after the attacks by attending a prayer service at
the Washington National Cathedral. Bush instructed his aides to include leaders
of all the major faiths and denominations in the service. That same day, Bush traveled to
On September 18, White House counselor
Karen P. Hughes instructed speechwriters Michael
Gerson, Matthew Scully, and John McConnell, to begin working on what
would become Bush's speech before the Joint Session of Congress. The next two days were spent making numerous
alterations to the speech and consulting with
Defining the Enemy
rhetorical situation created by September 11 was very complex. The fear and
helplessness provoked by the images of an attack on American soil called for
reassurances about the nation's security. The events of 9/11 created fear and
shock, and President Bush, as commander-in-chief, responded to the nation's
emotional trauma. The speech opened with a direct acknowledgement of American
sacrifice and bravery: "In the normal course of events, Presidents come to
this Chamber to report on the state of the
face unique constraints when preparing to engage in conflict; unlike in monarchies
or dictatorships, popular support is typically necessary not only to sustain military
action, but also to initiate conflict. A
large part of making war palatable to the public in a democratic society involves
convincing them that they are fighting a necessary and ethically just war that
is undertaken only after all other alternatives have been exhausted. Robert Ivie outlines three binaries
frequently deployed in American presidential war rhetoric to depict the
potential enemy and to build a case for war.
The first binary is that of "force vs. Freedom," which defines
an enemy determined to promulgate their political ideologies through violent
means, as opposed to the
Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson expand on the characteristics of presidential war discourse. These rhetorical scholars outline five characteristics typical of presidential war addresses. The first involves reassurances from the president that he is not acting hastily or out of anger, but instead has carefully weighed all of the options. Such arguments help portray the president as a level-headed commander-in-chief who has carefully considered the situation while steadfastly mindful of the lives that could be lost in the process. The second is a narrative that describes the threat that the enemy poses to the nation or to civilization itself. This narrative helps simplify complex issues in a way that compels action. The third characteristic is a call for unity as the nation prepares to combat external threats. The fourth characteristic is the presentation of detailed information about the threat posed by an enemy. Omitting this specific information opens a president up to accusations of "warmongering," which could undermine his call to action. The final characteristic is "strategic misrepresentation" of the situation." Instead of attributing such deception to a particular president, Campbell and Jamieson describe misrepresentation as virtually necessary to persuade people in a democracy to grant a president the power to effectively wage war.
Bush had all these strategies available to him, but the September 11th attacks were
unlike previous American conflicts. Early
intelligence reports in the days following the attacks linked the violence to Al-Qaeda,
a loosely organized Islamic terrorist network under the leadership of Osama Bin
Laden, the 17th son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate. Al-Qaeda developed from the mujahedeen
fighters who flocked from around the world to resist the Soviet invasion of
The opposition of "good" and "evil" was
evident throughout the speech. For instance, Bush repeatedly contrasted "justice"
and "freedom" with images of the "enemy." He used strong historical allusions to make
this point, explicitly comparing terrorism to German fascism. He stated: "By
sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions--by abandoning every
value except the will to power--they [the terrorists] follow in the path of
fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism" (27). Most Americans viewed Nazism as the ultimate
in human evil. Bush lumped Al-Qaeda with
Nazism as well as totalitarianism and fascism, two other ideological enemies that
Bush further depicted the extremism of the attackers by describing their
beliefs as a "fringe form of Islamic extremism" (15). Here, Bush's
antithesis contrasted extremism with mainstream Islamic thought. Moreover, Bush
contrasted these fringe beliefs with the fundamental organizing principles of
civilized society, identifying that the war on terror as "civilization's
fight" (35). The civilized/barbarian antithesis here was blunt and
unapologetic; the terrorists were not like "us," Bush argued; rather,
they were outside the bounds of justice and civilization. Bush used the
contrast between civilization and barbarianism to explain why the
Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what they see right here in this chamber--a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms--our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. (24)
This particular argument
Bush further placed the enemy in the role of barbarian by
depicting them as warring against civilization across the globe. Bush argued: "They
want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as
continued to exploit the antithesis between "good" and "evil"
by dividing the global community into "friends" and "enemies."
He argued: "Either you are with us,
or you are with the terrorists" (30). This language divided the conflict into two
competing factions, furthering the narrative of an epic struggle. By removing all shades of gray, Bush rendered
the conflict a simple struggle between good and evil. As
Campbell and Jamieson contend, "The justification for military
intervention is embodied in a dramatic narrative from which, in turn, an
argument is extracted." One
of Bush's primary arguments for war was that
The Call to Respond
defining the enemy, Bush laid the ground work for his proposed response to the threat. Explaining the typical progression of war
discourse, Wayne Fields argues that "virtually all calls for war are
formulaic, and for every country the narration of offenses by a dishonorable
foe, no matter how credible, must precede a formal declaration of one's own
construction of evil for President Bush, helped justify the clear ultimatum that
he issued to the Taliban regime in
While preparing the speech, Bush
and his advisors reportedly concluded that it was unlikely that the Taliban
government would give in to these demands. In demanding
One of the difficulties President Bush faced was how to respond
to an attack by forces not clearly aligned with any particular nation. Victory over
The international response represented only half of President Bush's strategy for the war on terror. The other half centered on safeguarding the nation from future terrorist attacks, which foreshadowed his support for the USA Patriot Act (2001). This legislation included restrictions on civil liberties in order to promote greater security at home, much like legislation passed during World War I (e.g., the Espionage Act of 1917) or the Cold War (e.g., the Espionage and Sabotage Act of 1954). These restrictions raised a rhetorical quandary of sorts for the president, given that his speech accentuated the antithesis between terrorism and American freedom. Bush, however, reasoned that defeating terrorism and keeping the nation safe outweighed any short-term "inconveniences" (42) that might result from restrictions on civil liberties.
proposed several specific domestic measures to combat terrorism in his speech of
is natural to wonder if
Bush thus drew a distinction between long-term challenges and short-term sacrifices. Implicit in his argument was the notion that short-term restrictions on freedom were necessary for the preservation of freedom in the long run. However, Bush did not talk of restricting "freedom" per se; the address suggested that tighter security would result merely in "delays and inconveniences" (42). Bush assured his listeners that those sacrifices would only be temporary; he envisioned a time when "life will return almost to normal" (52). The sacrifices he asked his audience to make were merely short-term "inconveniences" necessary to win the war on terror.
The president thus called upon Americans to accept limits on our democratic freedoms in order to defeat an enemy motivated by an irrational "hate" for those very freedoms: "our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other" (24). Indeed, freedom and fear were "at war" (51), according to Bush, and he promised to safeguard our basic freedoms in the conduct of that war: "We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them" (39). Above all, however, the nation needed to be "secure," and that meant waging all-out war against the enemy. If "freedom" were to triumph over "fear," Bush concluded, then terrorism had to be defeated.
The Legacy of President Bush's September 20, 2001 Address
The September 11 terrorist attacks
represented one of the greatest catastrophes in American history. Clearly, they demanded a strong response from
President George W. Bush. The only
question was what form that response would take. Bush's speech before the Joint
Session of Congress laid out a new strategy for countering the terrorist
threat. Internationally, Bush called for
a war against terrorist organizations and the nations that harbored them. Domestically, Bush called for more stringent
law enforcement and intelligence gathering measures. Bolstered by soaring poll numbers and a new
sense of national unity following the attacks, the president was able to begin
implementing his new vision of national defense. Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, which
was signed into law on October 26, 2001.
The bill reduced many of the legal barriers to law enforcement's ability
to detain suspects and search for evidence.
In the U.S. Senate, the bill passed with a lone dissenting vote, cast by
Russ Feingold, a Democrat from
As President Bush continued to champion
the war on terror, he returned time and again to the same antithetical
rhetoric, frequently invoking the dichotomy between good and evil. Denise M.
Bostdorff has noted the same dichotomous world view in Bush's description of
As we write this essay, however, support
for Bush's war on terror has wavered. The
president's polling numbers have dropped to record lows,
the USA Patriot Act faced a tough renewal fight in 2006 despite a
Republican-controlled Congress, and
public support for the war in
At present, it is unclear what the
future may hold with the
As the 2008 presidential election nears,
questions about the nation's future course in the war on terror will no doubt be
at the top of the campaign agenda. Candidates from both parties disagree over domestic
security programs like the USA Patriot Act, as well as over the best course of
action in the U.S.-Iraq war. In addition,
Sarah E. Spring and Joseph C. Packer both completed
their M.A. in Communication at
 All of the passages from Bush's
 Kevin Phillips,
"His Fraudulency the Second? The Illegitimacy of George W. Bush," The American Prospect, January 29, 2001.
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