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Your faculty and staff news since 1965
December 13, 2004
Volume 40, Number 5

War and Peace:
Campus engaged in great dichotomy

Words on war
Linguistics professor examines history of presidential rhetoric

By Carolyn Gonzales

MargolinDavid Margolin, adjunct research assistant professor of linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, says that language tactics used by United States presidents during wartime have changed. “We have gone from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ to the current administration telling Americans, ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,’” Margolin said.

Margolin is teaching a course this semester on the rhetoric of war. His students are reviewing presidential speeches to identify the rhetorical strategies used in persuasive discourse.

Self-characterization by the president has changed over time, too. Presidents James Polk (1845-49) and Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) presented themselves as a “servant of the people,” Margolin said. They referred to themselves as the executive carrying out the will of the people and rarely if ever used the pronoun “I.”

In FDR’s (1933-45) speech to Congress where he requested a declaration of war during World War II, he presented the facts objectively.

“In the morality story that lies beneath all portrayals of the United States at war, the hero is the United States, its people and the country,” Margolin said. He added that FDR made the heroes out to be those who would fight on the battlefield, those who produce the materiel of war and those who remain at home.

President George W. Bush (2000-) is the first to present himself explicitly as the warrior hero, Margolin said. “Bush references himself as Commander in Chief over and over. He says, ‘I will not stand for this,’ in response to the acts on September 11. He offers a first person reaction to the events and thrusts himself into the spotlight,” he said.

Margolin said that shifting the center of attention to the person of the president is a major change. “In the past, presidents used ‘we’ much more than ‘I.’ They also used more passive voice, stating, ‘it has been decided,’ or ‘a great tragedy has befallen,’” he said.

Richard M. Nixon (1969-74) also used the first person in his speeches. “It can be viewed in part as a difference between liberals and conservatives,” Margolin said, although George H.W. Bush (1989-93) presented himself more in the tradition of the earlier presidents.

Historically, the public took for granted the moral standing of the president. “But they also took for granted such things as slavery and women being forbidden to vote,” Margolin said.

Each January, the president gives his State of the Union address. “Each address began with thanking providence for a bountiful harvest. This was the standard opening all the way through Woodrow Wilson [1913-21]. After the Depression, FDR no longer used it,” Margolin said.

During the Depression people needed help, but after the economy turned, the business class hated FDR for his social policies such as Social Security and public works programs.

“Generally, when times are good, a liberal philosophy is easy to sell. People have the perspective, ‘if I’m doing OK, then I can give to others,’” Margolin said. Following both the stock market crash of the 90s and post-9/11, “People are insecure financially. They are concerned about health care and their retirement. Those insecurities make them more apt to buy into the notion that there are ‘people out to get us,’” he said.

“Rhetorically, those are powerful tools to work with,” he said. People who are afraid tend not to be analytical. They want someone to take control, he added.

“This gives the conservatives the upper hand. It is easier rhetorically to convince people to vote for their party. The liberal perspective is more diffuse,” he said.

President Bush took advantage of that underlying fear, presenting himself as a strong warrior, a president fighting against the forces of evil, Margolin said.

Bush’s extensive use of the term “evil” is a first in presidential speech. It sets up a dichotomy people readily understand. “If the others are evil, then we are good. It’s us versus them,” he said. Margolin wonders if Bush could have used a different language when referring to the terrorists.

“By going to war against the terrorists, he created warriors out of the enemy. Had he referred to them as criminals and presented it as bringing criminals to justice, people likely would have accepted his policy. No one is opposed to policing criminals,” he said.

Margolin noted that the only other president to use such a strong term was Jefferson Davis (1861-65), president of the Confederate States of America. He referred to Union soldiers as “demons.”

“The context of good versus evil draws upon Biblical imagery instead of just rhetorical flourish,” Margolin said. It’s Old Testament “an eye for an eye” versus the New Testament “turn the other cheek,” he said.

That rhetorical metaphors are also rooted in the family structure was pointed out by linguist George Lakoff, who assisted Howard Dean with his speeches, “We have the strict father versus the nurturing parent. The father’s role as disciplinarian is traditional and still a kind of default, a status quo image for people,” Margolin said. He added that conservatives represent the strict father model while liberals are the nurturing parent in political assumptions.

Looking beyond the words to the messages that lie beneath is like breaking a code. Perhaps instead of political analysts clarifying presidential messages, we need linguists to decipher them.