Words said one thing, setting said another

Bush's tone did little to ignite a nation to war

Commentary

March 18, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVSION CRITIC

A great disconnect lay at the heart of President Bush's television performance last night.

Everything about the staging and the delivery of his speech was aimed at conveying an image of rationale statesmanship, but the speech itself was loaded with words carefully crafted to trigger the kind of strong emotional response that gets a nation ready for war.

Given that imagery almost always trumps words on the small screen, the speech may well have left many viewers with a vague sense of unease as they watched the nation's leader grimly issue the ultimatum that Saddam Hussein must leave Iraq in 48 hours. In television terms, it was not a very effective performance.

The imagery of diplomacy and dialogue started with Bush choosing to deliver his speech from behind a podium outside the Red Room at the White House rather than from behind his desk in the Oval Office. The red carpet on which he stood and the flags that flanked him are the trappings of diplomacy; all were there to provide an air of statemanship.

The post outside the Red Room is also a location that seems far more open and accessible than inside the Oval Office. It is a setting in which to hold a presidential news conference or greet heads of state from other nations. Such a setting is important, of course, because one of the goals of last night's speech was to justify the United States' abandonment of the diplomatic process.

Hand in glove with the staging, was the calm, even and measured delivery of Bush's words. While the president was clearly trying to be firm, he was, above all, striving to appear rational rather than rash when delivering the ultimatum.

On television, Bush can at times seem petulant, even whiny. There was none of that last night. But there wasn't any emotional punch or resonance either.

Not that his speechwriters didn't try. The text of the speech was full of language chosen to elicit a strong emotional response from viewers. The president spoke of Hussein's using "poison gases, torture chambers and rape rooms." There were several references to "chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism."

Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany, the Nuremberg trials and the "appeasement" of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939 were all invoked with words. So, too, was September 11 and the image of "planes appearing suddenly in our skies."

These are strong words, chosen to brace us for war and get the blood pumping through our veins, but they seemed to have almost nothing to do with the man with the furrowed brow, standing behind the podium and speaking in a voice so even as to be nearly monotonous by the standards of television speech.

Such disconnects can leave viewers feeling unsettled or confused by the speaker; they rarely inspire confidence or win converts to the speaker's message.

Bush did appear determined last night, and perhaps his primary goal was to convince an audience of one as he watched last night in Iraq that he better pack up and get out of town.

But last night's speech was not likely to make many Americans feel better about the course the president has chosen or the days that lie ahead.

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