Bush deems `evil' a good word to use

Repetition stresses malevolence of foes

War On Terrorism

November 28, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush leaves little doubt that the prime targets in the war on terrorism are "evil" and "evildoers," not to mention "the evil one," Osama bin Laden.

The president typically refers to terrorists or their misdeeds as "evil" a few times per public appearance, occasionally more. He hit two on the "evil" scale in his radio address Saturday, a light day.

"Our enemies are evil," he told troops last week at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he also noted, "Good triumphs over evil."

Asked recently why the threat of terrorism was keeping the White House closed to public tours during the holiday season, he said, "Evil knows no holiday" and "Evil doesn't welcome Thanksgiving or Christmas."

For those who closely follow Bush's hour-by-hour schedule, either because they have government ties or are hooked on 24/7 cable television news, evil is getting old.

"I'm tired of it," said Stephen Hess, a White House aide in the Eisenhower administration and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Hess was quick to point out, however, that Bush's decision to speak often of evil is probably the right one.

Repetition of an important theme or message, he said, is a strategy long employed by presidential speechwriters to ensure that the words are reaching all Americans. "The people it irritates are the news junkies," Hess said. "Most people are catching it from time to time."

A very unofficial poll - namely, calling a couple of bars around the country - seemed to suggest that was so.

Robert McMurrain, the owner of Dick's Place in Birmingham, Ala., said Bush was not overdoing his use of "evil."

"I've heard it maybe once or twice," said the 80-year-old Democrat.

Anyway, said McMurrain, suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden sure seems like an evildoer to him. "He is evil," the bar owner said. "I believe that."

Since Sept. 11, Bush has stressed that the enemies of the United States are terrorists, as are the regimes that support them, such as the Taliban. The campaign, the president has repeatedly said, is not targeting civilians in Afghanistan or the Islamic religion.

A senior administration official said Bush found "evil" to be a perfect word that would conjure up images of terrorists and make plain that they are the targets.

"We think it's been effective," the official said. "It describes, in a concise way, them, their intent and what they did. It really draws a circle around these people."

`Vivid definition'

Asked to define the "evil" of which Bush speaks, senior White House adviser Karen Hughes, who takes part in the drafting of many of the president's addresses, said that "it is hard to imagine a more vivid definition of evil" than those who destroyed the World Trade Center. "I think it clearly defines people who show no regard, no respect for something so basic as the rights of innocent people, who should not be targets of such evil acts," Hughes said.

One day last week, Bush registered five "evils," using the word in two speeches and in an exchange with reporters. Even that was restrained. His personal high, achieved in an Oct. 11 news conference, is 12.

He said, "We're angry at the evil that was done to us." He said Sept. 11 taught Americans a lesson that "there is evil in this world." He encouraged parents to remind their children that "there are evil people." For the first time, he called bin Laden "the evil one."

Bush added that night that the war against terrorism would be long-lasting, and he said that the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was also "an evil man."

Ken Khachigian, a veteran White House speechwriter who worked for Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, recalled how staff in the Nixon White House frequently grumbled about using the same words in every speech. Not that they changed their tactics.

"Why do you think you see television commercials 40 or 50 times?" said Khachigian. "In speechwriting, it is the same thing. If you send a message just once, you're liable not to have people focused on the term."

Khachigian said that Reagan had favorite phrases and that when the speechwriter worked for him, he would sprinkle each address with a few new ideas to suit the venue. But the important themes were usually recycled.

Reagan in many of his remarks called Democrats "budget busters." He finished nearly every speech in the fall of 1984, during his campaign for re-election, by saying, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Evil has a track record. In 1983, in a speech in Orlando, Fla., Reagan described the enemy of his day in terms the current president no doubt can relate to. The Soviet Union, Reagan said, was an "evil empire" and "the focus of evil in the modern world."

Trying to reach the public

Hess, of the Brookings Institution, said that he wrote speeches for Eisenhower and that his boss liked calling Democrats "practitioners of gloom and doom."

Hess said he remembers thinking, "If I have to write `gloom and doom' one more time, I'll throw up." He added that "evil," "the evil one" and "evildoers" similarly "must be driving Bush's speechwriters crazy."

But the speechwriters keep it up - perhaps to make sure they are reaching people such as John McClary, a patron at Betty's Bar in Columbus, Ohio. McClary, 43, said he has heard Bush use the term "evil" only a few times. Bin Laden and his followers seem pretty evil to McClary, who added that he would prefer if Bush stressed their evilness more often. "Because the worst thing a politician could do is sugarcoat a crisis," he said.

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