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.