Presidency: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is … Scary Monsters”

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Mr. Heinz is Associate Professor of History at the University of San Francisco and the Director of the Swig Judaic Studies Program.

Am I crazy or did George Bush just miss a great chance to enter the annals of American political oratory?

I’m pretty certain that the impressive speech he delivered to the joint session of Congress in the aftermath of September 11 will make its way into documentary histories of American politics, to be studied next to other presidential moments of crisis-driven speechmaking.

But I can’t say the same for his first State of the Union message. Sure, historians of foreign policy will cite it for its explicit commentary on North Korea, Iran and Iraq, but that is small potatoes compared to what might have been if George W. and his speechwriters hadn’t missed their golden opportunity to rename the era in which we are now living.

That opportunity coincided with one oratorical moment, just after the President suggested that we have left the era defined by the Sixties and are entering a new one in the wake of national catastrophe. He said that we have been living in a self-indulgent period characterized by the infamous slogan “if it feels good, do it,” but now we’re poised for a new age, one defined by a new phrase. When I heard the introductory clause of this sentence, I sat up with interest, readying my ears for what might come. It was a perfect rhetorical entry: the dichotomy of narcissistic pleasure versus altruistic commitment was ready-made to support a dramatic declarative conclusion. What I heard was something that aimed for terse but fell ludicrously short. The phrase to define our new epoch, I learned, is “Let’s Roll.”

It’s hard to imagine a less substantive, less specific idea. Stalin must have uttered the Russian version of this more than a few times, as Hitler did when looking toward Stalingrad. The active verb here is catchy but it implies no objective, and certainly no moral objective. Maybe the people of Sodom said “Let’s roll” when trying to bang down the door of Lot’s house.

Of course, the first time that the President cited these words he meant to honor the heroic passenger who used them as a charge to take back an airline from hijackers. That citation, which came in the informal context of a press conference, was appropriate.

But in the context of the State of the Union address, as a catchphrase for a generation or an era, the phrase is unfortunately a rhetorical lead balloon. It would be the same as Franklin Roosevelt saying, “We have nothing to fear but … really scary things like monsters, or fiscal conservatives…” Or Lincoln referring to “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that … we’re damn good, especially compared to those Limeys.” Or King: “I have a dream that one day … will be the first day of the rest of my life.”

Let’s roll … over what? Those silly little Enron stockholders? You can see the problems of the verb with no object.

Sometimes being short of words is an asset, and sometimes a virtue. But it may also be a sign of incomprehension or worse. If the executives at Enron are any example, President Bush was simply incorrect when he said that we have left behind the era of “if it feels good, do it.” Maybe yesterday’s White House addiction was sex and today’s is money, but it’s a guilty pleasure just the same, and it means we should expect neither a new era nor a new oratory.

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patrick hogge - 9/22/2003

personaly i actualy licked poo and it actualy jumped up and bit jesus it was mad and had no nose so please i am one hunky guy so im going to love ya and keave ya

Mark Marshall - 2/9/2002

"Let's roll ... and let's be careful out there!"

Edward Bender - 2/7/2002

I am a novice to the game of politics, in fact I only began to take interest following the assention of the Bush monarchy to the throne of the US. I'm sorry, I just harbor a small pit of digust for the man, certain parts of his horde, and most of his attitudes. The State of the Union address only confirmed my greatest fears. (Not that fierce prezels and blatent disregard for the environment for the sake of big business hadn't already raised a 'slight' chance of doubt in my mind.) I'm not saying that he didn't handle the events of 9-11 well, all I'm saying is that I love how quickly returning the nation to a state of peace requires seizure of basic American liberties, and an all out call for war upon any who dare to oppose the "mighty US." I do not know how the rest of America feels, but as for this twenty something American, I am counting the days, and seconds, till the next presidential election, because not matter who is chosen to run, he, or she, has to be better than what we have right now. (Hey there's another pop-rock song phrase that could be used by President, and I'm not even a presidential speech writer.)

Deep GREWAL - 2/7/2002

Thank you,
that was good but I must say the cathphrase fits in very nicely with my kind of virulent anti-americanism (being the locus of anti-nationism).
It emblamizes[?] what has thus far merely been a caricature of america's stance, as exemplified by a review by someone who, after his viewing of Black Hawk Down at a cinema, heard about 10 people expressing their desire to enlist (he himself did not know whether this was a good or a bad thing).
What could be more suitable for Bush? If I may bring Arendt's comment on the banality of evil to the fore without subscribing to it, Bush is interesting for invoking such visceral hatred whilst being so ostensibly bereft of intelligence - and this was so well before White-Tuesday [my terminology].
My position is at risk of being classed with Bush's right wing americanism because it accords with itspresented dichotomy of with-us-or-against-us;
it is for this reason that the let's roll catchphrase may be set to work: from where I am [Europe, with no experience of your continent], though Americans cannot be counted on correct the USA, they may - along with the rest of ther world - wish to use it to cleave off for themselves the aspiration of a different kind of polity than the one that has been and continues to be in play.

Thank you, Deep Grewal.