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05/29/2006: "Bush at West Point"

I finally had the opportunity to see the President in person, in the one venue representing the intersection between our worlds. These worlds physically intersect only on the rarest of occasions. His is dominated by “friendly audiences” – fat cat contributors at fundraisers and the most rightward components of the Republican Base, like the Christian Right. The one place our worlds do intersect is at West Point, where Bush speaks at graduation every four years. While the last West Point graduation I attended was my own, I had a special reason to be at this one – the graduation of my niece, mentioned from time to time in this journal. As you will recall, the last time Bush spoke at West Point it was to define the Bush Doctrine of Preemptive War, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. While the speech this weekend did not have that level of significance, it was of interest for several reasons. For example, it was interesting that Bush’s speechwriters apparently did considerable research on West Point idioms, apparently to underscore his reputation for folksiness. Most interestingly, though, he completely dropped the idiom most anticipated by the cadets to whom he was directing his remarks. This is particularly surprising because, four years ago, he got it right. The idiom is question is the West Point colloquialism “amnesty,” the tradition by which a head of state can declare forgiveness for all outstanding cadet infractions. In place of the term, Bush used a convoluted verbal construction that had a number of my fellow graduates wondering whether he had in fact declared amnesty. Could it be that, this time, he didn’t want to be on tape uttering that particular word? (The preceding is an example of a rhetorical question). Something else I found interesting was the true extent of his Texas twang when heard in person. The most interesting aspect of the speech, though, was his linkage of the Truman Administration to his own. He took great relish in pointing out that the Marshall Plan cost $100 Billion in today’s dollars (but not mentioning that those dollars were sourced from the taxpayers of the day rather than Japanese, Chinese, and Saudi bondholders). He spent a good deal of time linking his newly renamed War on Islamic Radicalism to the Cold War. Considering that the Iraq War is not particularly cold, he invoked the Korean War as the hot war equivalent. The overall message was clear, even if you can’t find these precise words in the text. It was: “it took decades for Truman’s wisdom to be recognized via total victory in the Cold War, and his poll numbers in the middle of his second term were even worse than mine, so get off my case!” The problem with tortured historical comparisons, though, is that they make it all the easier to see the more direct historical precedent to our current optional war. Despite spending quite a bit of time on the history from 1946 through 1991, Bush somehow missed mentioning our last optional war: the one in Vietnam.

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