Monday, January 28, 2008

The Presidency in the Age of Oprah.

I don't know how many of you watched the State of the Union address all the way through—admittedly, it's a lot to expect from anyone, for any reason. But if you did, and you paid attention at all, and you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably know already what I'm going to say. By my count, President Bush used the word empower fully 10 times in the first half hour of his speech. It got silly after a while, to the point where I could almost see it coming: Every time he started talking about how America needed to get behind a certain initiative or segment of society, he'd say we needed to empower the affected individuals to do such-and-such. This can't just be coincidence. Clearly someone in the Bush White House sees what's going on in society-at-large and "gets" the cultural significance of that most sacred of all self-help buzzwords; clearly someone gets the power of empowerment, if you will. It is now understood at the highest levels of American culture* that for a certain, sizable demographic (like, people who watch Oprah and/or buy The Secret), the use of That Term has a subliminal, elevating impact that infuses far greater meaning in the literal message of the words that surround it. Though you and I might find the word cloying, to that target demographic, it's akin to a religious incantation.

Just as interesting to me, however, was that President Bush used the term in discussing the nation's domestic issues only. Once he moved on to the second half of his speech—about Iraq, the war on terror and so forth—he dropped empowerment like a pair of Bill Clinton's old undershorts recently discovered in some White House closet. I found that odd and yet also revealing, because if there's any setting where one would expect people to be empowered, it's where you're bringing one's power to bear in confronting and defeating a deadly foe. But no. In outlining his military agenda, Bush fell back on the more muscular, quasi-biblical rhetoric we're accustomed to hearing from him. He spoke of our determination to "deliver justice" unto our enemies. And tellingly, when he referred to power at all in this context, it was in its root word form, stripped of the jargony em at the front.

Say what you will about the President's conduct of the war itself, empowerment as a concept appears to have no place in a discussion of the actual power required to do something forcefully.

UPDATE, Tuesday morning
: I'm now looking at the full text of the President's speech. I was wrong. He used the word 11 times.

* Yes, even by a man who still can't wean himself off saying nu-cu-lar after seven years in the Oval Office.


Cal said...

I'll admit I didn't watch any of it. I can't stand the canned applause. But I planned to read the text in my local paper today.

It's funny because Monday's paper showed Bush huddling with his speechwriters. And the writers talked about he constantly made edits and changes to their prose so that the speech eventually became mostly his. But I know from your description that the first part is still mainly the writers, while the second is the George W. Bush I know. The one who said we were going to "smoke the enemy out of their holes" and "get the evildoers". Empowerment doesn't seem like a phrase he normally uses in private conversation, or a big word used by Texans.

But it's also amazing to me that this State of Union will be talked about for about 24 hours (at most) before it hits the trash heap. By Wednesday, it'll be only the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday being discussed.

The Crack Emcee said...

Yea, I watched the whole thing - and caught the reference: how could I miss it? How can I miss any of 'em? Georgie's gonna empower everybody, and Obama's gonna be transformational, and Hillary's gonna bring "change" by transcending the politics of the past, while I think I'm gonna barf.

And you're right, I'm sure: While I'm sitting at home, wondering if anyone else is catching this, everyone else hears the secret New Age code and thinks,...what? I have no idea. None of it actually means anything - and (of course) I'm not part of The Cult Of Empty Words - so I have no idea what they're getting from it.

I figure, like believers in church or a cult, they just stare ahead blankly, pretending the magic invisible makes sense. But it doesn't to me, except as further proof people are 1) easily fooled 2) hypnotized, or 3) have gone totally insane.

I'm leaning toward #3.

And how much of this contributes to our partisan divide? You know, people looking for substance vs. people pretending substance is there? It has to matter.

On a related note: I'm watching Charlie Rose and a pundit mentioned "the people" want the Iraq War to be over while the politicians don't dare to bring the soldiers home. What does that mean? I sense thinking people just don't talk to pollsters or pundits. What do you think?

Carl said...

Yeah I noticed that too, it was like a running joke after awhile. I said to the wife at one point "if he says empower one more time I'm going to scream"! I knew you'd pick up on that Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Crack, media stars make those sorts of inadvertent--but telling--remarks all the time. They presume to speak "for the people" in so many subtle but unmistakable ways. I'm reminded of what Bernie Goldberg wrote in Bias about how it's not that the media intentionally distort the's just that they can't imagine how a "thinking person" could possibly see life any differently from the way they see it. To the media, wrote Goldberg, their political agenda isn't "liberal" or even "democratic." It's just "the way a sophisticated person views life."

mikecane2008 said...

Steve! I never expected you to be one of the Short Memory Crowd!

Empower America!

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, you are, like, the 193rd person to chide me about this since I put up the post. Your point is taken, but (a) I was aware of Empower America, and (b) I still think the manner in which Bush used the word last night was not only cloying, but really, really over-the-top. He was trying to make a point, or "connect" with people in, I think, a subliminal, almost hypnotic way, with that repetition line after line. (Or, more likely, one of his speech writers got a bright idea.) But in any case, as always, thanks for keeping me on my toes.

mikecane2008 said...

Steve, I didn't watch the speech (I do not believe in waterboarding myself like that!), but I think this cartoon is probably a great illustration of what it was probably like.

The Crack Emcee said...


Checked out the cartoon and, if things look that bad to the cartoonist, then the man needs glasses:

The Wall Street Journal just ran an article, yesterday, saying "The Economy Is Fine (Really)".

The Surge in Iraq has 75% of the country under control and the Iraqis working for their own independence and freedom.

Since we don't control this dangerous world, our efforts on behalf of Human Rights can only go so far, but we do what we can.

I'm not going to argue with you but I, for one, think Bush Derangement Syndrome is more harmful to our country - and individual mental health - than anything the man has actually done. I did listen to his speech and (while I hated the empowerment trip of the writers) the president didn't lie - the state of our union IS good - but the state of mind of some of it's people, like that cartoonist, seems to be locked in a very dark place. He's insisting on it, no matter what. Really: No matter what.

Personally, I'm grateful to Bush for making that much apparent.