An Analysis of Post 9/11 Presidential Rhetoric - Lead-up to the Iraq War

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

28 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Relevance of Presidential Rhetoric

3. The Rhetoric of the Bush Administration and the Circumstances
3.1 The September 11,2001, Connection
3.2 The President’s Discourse

4. Corpus-based Analysis of Post 9/11 Presidential Speeches
4.1 Speech Selection
4.2 Analysis of Terminology Occurrence
4.3 Concordance Analysis

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

On the morning of May 1st, 2003 President George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, California, announcing from its deck that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” (George W. Bush, May 1st, 2003). On the prominent banner behind him, it said: “Mission Accomplished”. The war had only begun one and a half months prior to this event and currently (October, 2009) American troops are still deployed and involved in combat in Iraq. The mission of the Iraq war was certainly not accomplished on May 1, 2003. What the Bush Administration had accomplished, was something else, however: they convinced the majority of the American people of the necessity of this war, which was reflected in polls, at that time. According to the Gallup Poll, 75% of all Americans approved of sending American troops to Iraq in March, 2003 (Gallup, 2009).

President Bush was, however, not deemed to be a particularly eloquent president. Several websites were created and books emerged with collections of so-called Bushisms[1] - statements made by President Bush which are erroneous and/or amusing, mostly in terms of semantics (e.g. “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace” - George W. Bush, June 18, 2002).

Americans were told that the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and, therefore, was a threat to the United States. However, to date, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, although their alleged existence was one of the main reasons for going to war. The Bush Administration managed to make the vast majority of Americans believe this false assumption. The goal of this paper is to explore how a U.S. president, who was not considered a good speaker, nevertheless succeeded in convincing the American citizens that going to war was the ‘right thing to do’.

In this paper, it will, first, be briefly outlined what role presidential rhetoric plays, then the post-9/11 rhetoric of the Bush Administration and its circumstances will be examined. An attempt will be made to prove that the rhetoric of the Bush Administration was the key to the high level of support, from the U.S. population, for the invasion of Iraq. An analysis will be provided of speeches given by George W. Bush where it will be explored how exactly language and rhetoric was used to shape public opinion and therefore pave for this invasion and, subsequently, the war. This analysis is conducted, using a corpus that was created containing all presidential speeches given between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the beginning of the Iraq war in March, 2003. A conclusion will be drawn from this in the last section, explaining how the presidential rhetoric shaped public opinion.

It has to be mentioned, that it is not the objective of this paper to analyze or criticize the policies of the Bush Administration.

2. The Relevance of Presidential Rhetoric

Richard E. Neustadt (1960:10; cited in Goetsch, 1993:18) states that “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” In this section it will be explained why this is obviously the case.

The U.S. president is the highest representative of the American people because he is elected through the majority of electoral votes in what can be seen as a democracy. During the election campaign he has already had to convince the population of his beliefs and plans in order to gain their votes (Goetsch, 1993:20).

The powers that his position holds are manifold and yet they are not clearly defined. It can only be interpreted from what the U.S. Constitution implies in Article 1 and Article 2. Rossiter (1960:28; cited in Goetsch 1994:8) argues that the Constitution allows the President to be “chief of state, chief executive, commander-in-chief, chief diplomat, ... chief legislator, chief of party, voice of the people, protector of peace, manager of prosperity, and world leader to the President’s duties.”

As the legislative branch, it is, however, the function of the U.S. Congress, and not of the U.S. president, to pass laws. As the ‘moral leader of the nation’, however, who stands above the parties, it is expected from the President that he influences Congress, in its lawmaking function, by recommending his own policies (Goetsch, 1993:13 and Kelley, 2007:33).

Article 2, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient” (taken from The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 2009). This is the foundation of the State of the Union Address, a major speech, delivered by the president once a year (most of the time) to the U.S. Congress.

In the past, the function of this address was to inform Congress about the condition of the nation and to propose bills to Congress that the President and the presidential administration would like to see enacted (Gester 1993:54). Depending on different power balances in Congress, because the President’s own party might not have the majority, this process can require great effort and its success is not guaranteed. With the mass media gaining importance and influence, however, the State of the Union address is not any longer only directed at the U.S. Congress, but also at the American public. They are the ones who have the power to re-elect the president for a second term. Using major speeches to reach large sections of the public is, therefore, an important means of gaining the American citizens’ support. The audience is clearly far more diverse than before. Gershkoff and Kushner (2005:526) claim that “Americans tend to remain uninformed about politics”. The implication here is that the rhetoric used in this speech has to appeal to both the informed and the less informed people - politicians and laypeople.

There are, therefore, certain requirements that the State of the Union address, or any other speech given by the president, have to fulfill: the talking time has to be monitored, that is, it should not be too long and the given information should not be too specialized; it has to be understandable for and relevant to the majority of the listeners (Gester 1993:67-68). Lim (2008:19) criticizes the semantic and syntactic linguistic simplifications of presidential rhetoric because it “will fail to convey the minimum amount of information required as the basis for competent civic judgments.” Lim (2008:34) reinforces his claim by showing that, for example, the average sentence length of State of the Union addresses gradually decreased from over 50 words in 1810, to around 19 words in 2006.

Kelley (2007:33) states that the rhetorical power of the U.S. President

becomes ... unprecedented because the office of the president affords an enormous advantage over others in getting ideas to the people. In a twenty- first century democracy, this advantage is provided, in great part, by presidential access to mass media.

The mass media serves as a link between the president and the American public. According to Kelley (2007:33), the media “make public opinion known” to the president and, on the other hand, the media can be used by the president “to control and manipulate the masses” (Ito, Y. 2004; cited in Kelley, 2007:33). At any given time the president can appear on television to address the American public “on issues [the president] believe[s] warrant the electorate’s opinion” (Kelley 2007:33).

The media plays a significant role when political messages are delivered political to the public. The president and/or his administration do not necessarily have to give a speech in order to inform public about what is happening in the White House. Goetsch (1994:10) distinguishes three levels of communication directed at the public:

Primary Communication

Presidential activity carried on for the purpose of communicating with the public either directly (public speeches, etc.) or through news media (TV addresses, press conferences).

Secondary Communication

Presidential activity reported by news media but not undertaken for the purpose of public communication.

Tertiary Communication

Speculation, comment, interpreta]tion, [and so forth,] by news media, or reported in media, attributing opinions, motives, intentions, feelings, [and so on,] to the President.

It becomes clear that not only presidential speeches reach the public but, more particularly, media coverage of presidential events. One might argue that the President or the administration do not have the ability to influence media because media are supposed to be independent. Windt (1987; cited in Kelley 2007:33) states that, on the contrary, “the President of the United States has the greatest opportunity not only to influence but frequently to set the political language of our country and thus direct the thinking of our citizens.” This implies that media adopt the language the President uses and, subsequently, the public too.

That this is the case is proven by the fact that, throughout history, U.S. Presidents have been neologists. They have coined terms or words that are in current common use. Metcalf (2004:112) provides a review of neologisms made popular by Presidents. For example, George Washington coined (or, at least brought to the public’s attention) words such as indoors, average and administration; John Adams the word caucus and Thomas Jefferson the term public relations.

The list of presidential neologisms is long and, in more recent times, Presidents have continued to invent or promote the use of certain words. George W. Bush, for example, accidentally used the word misunderestimate and albeit it might still sound erroneous, he received a great deal of media attention on account of this word. Another term that was coined by President George W. Bush and his administration was the term axis of evil (George W. Bush, January 29, 2002). This term was picked up by the media and it demonstrates how presidential rhetoric influences the language used by these media. Moreover, the term connotes a negative stance toward the countries referred to by this term, and strongly influences public opinion. The language used by President George W. Bush will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections.


[1] See for example:

Excerpt out of 28 pages


An Analysis of Post 9/11 Presidential Rhetoric - Lead-up to the Iraq War
University of Hildesheim  (English Department)
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George W. Bush, rhetoric, discourse analysis, Iraq War, speech, speeches, Bush Administration, oratory, eloquence, weapons of mass destruction, WMD, Saddam Hussein, Hussain, presidential rhetoric, role, power, language, corpus, corpus-based analysis, analysis, concordance, linguistics, 9/11, victims, evil-doers, 2001, attacks, invasion, persuasion, troops, president, America, U.S. president, commander in chief, United Nations, presidential speeches, Iraq, invasion of Iraq, threat, terror, al qaeda, Saddam, war, peace, terrorists, terrorist network
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Marc Weinrich (Author), 2009, An Analysis of Post 9/11 Presidential Rhetoric - Lead-up to the Iraq War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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