BOB GARFIELD: So the day after some papers used the word "War" the president followed suit. A common sense label for these acts we just heard David Colton say. But what about all the other words uttered by President Bush since then? Never known for his verbal skills, the president chose in the days after the event to communicate with two often-conflicting audiences. He had to on the one hand play the field general, rousing the American public to action. But to the world he had to be a diplomat.
Though chronicling "Bush-speak" has become something of a cottage industry, in the days after the attack few of the president's words were challenged in the U.S. media. One exception was Tim Noah who writes the Chatterbox column on Slate.com. Tim, welcome to On the Media.
TIM NOAH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:Your piece in Slate remarks on the use by the president and others of the word "cowardly" to describe the attacks. Why would that of all things get you to raise your eyebrows?
TIM NOAH:Well, I think that we need to maintain a, a tight focus on the moral outrage of these acts, and the convention in this country is, whenever there's a terrorist attack, to denounce the offender as a "coward." I think it substitutes testosterone for morality.
It's also inaccurate. Someone who sacrifices his own life to commit an act of terror is loathsome in many ways, but I think that we can't call him a coward.
BOB GARFIELD:All right let's talk about "Bushisms" for a moment. Thursday night in the joint session of Congress President Bush spoke to America and the world about the crisis, and it was a brilliant performance! But it was very different from the George Bush we've come to know! The one we're accustomed to isn't shall we say very facile with language.
His first statement about the attacks on the 11th called the perpetrators "folks," for instance. Have there been any other "Bushian" phrasings that have struck you so far?
TIM NOAH:There was the Crusades gaffe. Bush referred to the war on terrorism as a "crusade" and of course that's language that's going to be very offensive to Muslims who do not have happy memories of the Christian Crusades.
It's also not a particularly happy memory for Christians since the Christians lost the Crusades. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] The Christians lost. There was another one. In fact let--let's just listen to this.
REPORTER: Are you saying you want him dead or alive, sir? Can in interpret your [...?...]--
PRESIDENT BUSH:I'm, just remember I'm - all I'm doing is remembering when I was a kid. I remember that-- they used to put out there in the Old West a, a wanted poster -- it said Wanted Dead or Alive. All I want and America wants him brought to justice. That's what we want.
TIM NOAH:I know a number of people objected to that language. I did not. I think he was expressing what a lot of people feel about Osama bin Laden. If the way to get him is to get him dead, then-- they'll be happy to get him dead. Even Michael Waltzer [sp?], author of Just and Unjust Wars doesn't seem to express too much disapproval of this, of this option.
BOB GARFIELD:Does America, by becoming a gigantic posse going out to find the bad guy -- does it sacrifice some of its moral authority with which it leads the world?
TIM NOAH:I really don't think it does! I think this is a very unusual situation. A, a, a country is not at war with us. A, an organization is! And therefore it's logical to go after the key people in that organization, including the leader!
BOB GARFIELD:This is obviously a time of global crisis. Does any of this matter? I mean why are we even discussing semantics? What's the point?
TIM NOAH:Well I think it's very important that the president use language effectively in mobilizing the country, and I, I must say in, in the speech that he gave Thursday night he mobilized the country very, very well. He used very forceful, sometimes poetic language. He did everything that in earlier remarks, especially his off the cuff remarks, he hadn't done.
BOB GARFIELD:On the other hand, Mayor Giuliani, for example, has won enormous admiration for not trying to be self-consciously eloquent but by just talking. Should the president continue to work off teleprompters and note cards mouthing prepared talking points or should he try himself to be Giuliani-esque and just to speak to America.
TIM NOAH:I don't think he should try to be Giuliani-esque. He's not Giuliani. Giuliani's a very good extemporaneous speaker. George W. Bush is not. Although I should make the caveat that the Crusades remark was in prepared remarks. Conversely he did speak extam--extemporaneously very well when he visited the World Trade Center.
BOB GARFIELD: Any sense that this guy is just growing rapidly on the job?
TIM NOAH:People love to say that. I don't know whether he's growing on the job or whether just collectively the administration is getting smarter about what ought to be said. But clearly we're seeing an improvement in the message coming out of the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Tim Noah. Thank you very much.
TIM NOAH: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Tim Noah writes the Chatterbox column for Slate.com.