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what do you call that act?

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t done any rhetorical analysis in ages, in part because, well, I can’t really listen to Our Only President and The Aristocrats with any objectivity at all. And what with one thing and another, I haven’t put much energy into listening to any Democrats, either. I have sympathy for ’em, but it’s a bit painful. Anyway, I know analysis of speechifyin’ is one of the few things Gentle Readers might actually be looking for at this Tohu Bohu, and there hasn’t been much.

When the Times this morning opined that “George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday,” YHB thought this I gotta see! Enh. It was certainly a bad speech, or rather, not much of a speech at all. The only bit that is remotely memorable is his insistence that “This recovery will take years.” Surprise! Other than that, the speech was given over to a very dry recitation of what federal assistance has been provided since the hurricane, and a vague promise of more federal assistance to come. The only actual news, I think, is that natural disaster relief has been put under the Homeland Security umbrella, which seems odd to me, but may well make logistical sense. Also, there’s something I totally fail to understand about “fuel blends” which I assume will mean crappier dirtier gas for a while, but may mean no shortages.

YHB is not, overall, particularly sensitive. This may be because I don’t watch much television. We disconnected the TV just before the hurricane hit, so I couldn’t succumb to the images of the drowned and drowning. As a result, I have a sort of detached intellectual understanding that an American city has been hit with something like the 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, and that (a) it will be incredibly expensive and laborious to rebuild it, and (2) it won’t be the same city it was before. Oh, and that thousands of people died, and tens of thousands will be homeless, and that even those with good insurance, transportation and support networks will have lost a lot. But I am not devastated by it, and I don’t feel in need of leadership, or inspiration, or anything along those lines. As such, a so-so speech detailing the federal efforts seems, you know, less than ideal, but not particularly worth talking about. But I do understand that most people are more humane, and that one of the jobs of the President of the United States is to fill that need. I couldn’t help feeling that Our Only President feels much the same way about this hurricane as I do, only of course more frustrated because some of the added labor will be his.

I watched the video from the White House web site, shaky and grainy as it was, and I noticed a few things that I found surprising. First, The Aristocrats’ usual eye for a good camera picture completely failed them. The speaker was surrounded by the Cabinet, who all looked vaguely uncomfortable, a trifle bored, and, on the whole, itching to go back and do their damn’ jobs. As the list of tasks was being read, I couldn’t help thinking aren’t those Secretaries busy? couldn't you have let them go?. In particular, Secretary Chertoff, hollow-eyed, held his hands tightly together in an attempt not to fidget. In this he was not altogether successful. He looked, in YHB’s opinion, like a man with a lot of work on his desk, half-listening to the boss while thinking about how much more work is being put on his desk every minute the man blathers on.

The second thing was the extent to which Our Only President’s inability to stand still while delivering a speech was evident. It has always been there; camera shots from behind the podium have often shown him with one foot up on a little shelf, or twisted around behind the other. He has clearly worked hard to restrain it, hiding his shifts of balance as rhythmic emphases to his words, or leaning forward on the podium to steady himself. Yesterday, though, he was swaying right, left, right, left, right, like he had a pinched nerve in his back or something. With the grainy video, he looked a bit like he was on a boat. I don’t know. It was terribly distracting. I assume it was either exhaustion or boredom, but of course he may have been drunk. No, no, it didn’t look like that at all. Much.

Another thing he did that I have seen before is the obvious interruption of the prepared speech to explain himself in simpler terms. This can give the impression that he hasn’t read the text before, although I think it’s a reaction to the audience. To me, it sounds like I do when I’m reading something from a newspaper to my Perfect Non-Reader; a few sentences of multi-syllabic cliché, followed by a change of tone and timbre as well as a shift to simpler sentences with shorter words, and then a return to the text. One I remember comes in this bit: “HHS and CDC are working with local officials to identify operating hospital facilities—so we can help them, help the nurses and doctors provide necessary medical care.” A moment or two later, he says “The Department of Energy is approving loans from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to limit disruptions in crude supplies for refineries,” and then shifts to explain that “A lot of crude production has been shut down because of the storm.”

In fact (and I didn’t want to go into the content, here, because I would just rant about how he doesn’t mention anything the federal government did before the damage was done, because they didn’t do anything before the damage was done), the thing that struck me as most unfortunate about the speech was the transition from the fairly detailed plan to deal with the oil and gas problem to the extremely vague assessment that “displaced citizens” (and perhaps, by implication, resident aliens) would need “housing and education and health care and other essential needs.” Now, nobody who likes and trusts this president will read that as prioritizing the needs of the oil industry over the needs of the poor. Nor would anybody who dislikes and distrusts the man be persuaded by a speech expressing great compassion for the poor, and dismissing the needs of the oil companies with a few sentences indicating that these were logistical matters that could be dealt with. But shouldn’t somebody have noticed how bad that transition was?

OK, last thing. This was a very dry speech. The only thing that I would really call a metaphor is the reference to “armies of compassion” (with Armored Vehicles of Generosity), which is a reference to an earlier policy. I can’t include phrases like difficult road, or dark days, or even the city getting back on its feet, all of which are, by the way, in the last paragraph. Up until then, even such limited color is scarce. There is no reference the Divine, or to Scripture, at least not that I caught. There is no new expression of pain, or of hope, or even of resolve, to bring us to a new understanding of our situation, or to make it easier to talk about. There was no new context, or new way of looking at it. Now, I didn’t need any of those things, as it happened. But if, in fact, the country is in distress and in need of “words of consolation and wisdom”, as the New York Times editorially states, then this speech failed to provide them.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,