Passive voice and the presidency

January 13, 2007

Interesting linguistic point on the President’s speech:

"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." Note the passive voice. The President does not admit, "I made mistakes." Rather, others made mistakes, but he (graciously) takes responsibility. This is a far cry from Harry Truman’s "The Buck Stops Here." If President Bush wants to win back the trust of the American people, he has to begin by being honest with them.

I think President Bush lives in fear of repeating his father’s "read my lips" moment by giving the media and his opponents a short soundbite that they can hammer into the ground. "I made mistakes" is just such a soundbite, and it is interesting to see that Bush and his speechwriters have opted to use cumbersome language to avoid it.

I think this is the reason that President Bush has never admitted to mistakes or really directly answered reporters’ questions on the subject. Similar to a potential employer asking an applicant to describe his/her greatest weaknesses, asking a politician to list his/her biggest mistakes is unlikely to garner an honest answer.

President Bush has certainly seen this happen with things he has said, such as "bring ’em on," or even things he didn’t say, like the famous "Mission Accomplished" banner. Is the scarcity of plain talk and honesty in politics today an inevitable consequence of the 24-hour media cycle, or is there some way around it?

Side note: I have a slight suspicion that this may be the reason for Bush’s famous misquote "Fool me once shame on you, fool me…you can’t get fooled again," as Bush realized halfway through the statement that he didn’t want to say "shame on me" in front of video cameras. Of course, I don’t think that worked out too well for him in the end either.

Also wik: I want to be clear that I don’t think the fear of a bad soundbite justifies President Bush not taking responsibility in this case. His policies have not done as well in Iraq as he expected, and I think a true leader should come right out and say as much.

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One Response to “Passive voice and the presidency”


  1. Oddly enough, I agree with you. But while I think you are willing to forgive him for not exactly taking blame, I’m not as forgiving. Maybe had he done this a couple years ago it would be one thing, but it just seems like he’s only doing this now because nearly 70% of the country disagrees with his war. At this point it just feels like he’s grasping at straws, trying to do anything to get people to side with him on his escalation proposal.

    My problem is that it just seems like it’s more of the same from him. We’ve already tried the “throw more soldiers at the problem” thing before and it didn’t work. Even John McCain (whom I disagree with as well) thinks that you need many, many more soldiers, not just 20K.

    Another problem is that so far everything he has said has been proven wrong. Everything he talked about going into the war was wrong, everything after, everything. We can go through the list, though I’m sure you’ve heard them all before. We weren’t greeted as liberators. They didn’t have WMD. The mission wasn’t accomplished. The oil revenue didn’t pay for the war. They are not in the last throes. And so on so forth. So at this point it’s hard for a lot of us to believe him.

    For the last two years he has tried to paint a happy face on all of the bad things that have been going on in Iraq. While the public sees death, injuries and total chaos (a civil war, even), he seems to suggest that everything is okay. He even goes as far as to say that it’s the media’s fault for not showing the good things. So it makes sense to me why so many people are looking at him and thinking that maybe he’s a bit out of touch. Perhaps he isn’t seeing the same thing as we are, and maybe that’s not a good thing.

    These are the things that happen when you don’t have a plan. I’m sure there are things he’s good at, but waging an unnecessary war on Iraq is not one of them. Even if he did get up and say “it’s all my fault, blame me, there have been mistakes and I’m at fault” I don’t think it would change anybody’s mind. 70% of this country already thinks he lied us into war, and that other 30% doesn’t seem to want to look at all of the facts. At this point people have already made up their minds.

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