'The Nation I Know,' by George W. Bush

What we learned today from a consciously "written" address.

This is a real-time update, strictly about rhetoric. It follows these two previous posts on presidential speechmaking: “Eloquence is Overrated” and “2 Programs, 1 Speech, and 1 Question.” Both of them were about the plainspoken, Trumanesque style of rhetoric that Joe Biden has embraced.

George W. Bush’s speech this morning, at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is an important contrast to those Biden speeches, in two ways.

-First, it is clearly a “written” speech. Dozens of lines in it are meant to be in noticeable, formal, “eloquent” language. These are not things anyone would say off the cuff. In that way, they’re also different from almost anything Joe Biden has said in office.

One approach—plain, or formal—is not necessarily “better” or “worse” than the other. For different speakers, on different occasions, with different messages, different styles and tones make sense. But it’s a stark and instructive comparison.

-Second, apart from the many consciously chosen phrases, Bush’s speech illustrated another form of “eloquent” rhetoric, which to my mind was the real power in his presentation. That form is the deliberate, thematic repetition of a set phrase, to build expectation and a call-and-response style awareness from listeners, while also linking arguments toward a climax.

Everyone is familiar with this technique. The most famous modern instance is probably Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, from 1963. (“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Etc)

Every politician has used this technique, since every politician has given an “I see an America….” address. A very powerful recent illustration was by Barack Obama, in his commemoration at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of the Black worshippers gunned down there. As I wrote at the time, the call-and-response theme that Obama wove into the arguments and emphases of the speech was “grace.” It led to the unexpected climax of his singing, solo and a capella, “Amazing Grace.”

For Bush, the repeated phrase was “the America I know.” This was in obvious-but-not-explicit contrast to the nightmare version of “the America I see.” It was intentional, and effective.

Before anyone rushes to point it out: I bow to no one in my criticism of the mistakes, failures, and excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration while in office. You can read about it in one book and these Atlantic cover stories from the era: “Bush’s Lost Year,” “Blind Into Baghdad,” “The 51st State,” and “Countdown to a Meltdown.” That is on the record, and I stand by those views.

But I am writing in real time about what George W. Bush, as the president who was in office 20 years ago, chose to say today. In style (which is what I’m mainly talking about) and in emphasis, it was an important, valuable, well-crafted, and honorable address for him to give.

What follows is the transcript of Bush’s speech, as released today by the Bush Presidential Center, in Dallas. I’m including the whole thing, with these annotations:

  •  I’ve used italics, like this, for the consciously “eloquent” parts of the speech. These are phrases someone had to think up, and that are chosen to be noticeable or writerly. I’ve added bracketed comments on some of them, [like this].

  • I’ve used asterisks-plus-italics, *like this*, where I mean to direct attention not to the language itself but to the message of a certain phrase or passage.

  • I’ve used bold face, like this, for the call-and-response thematic emphases of the speech.


Here is the address:

Twenty years ago, we all found – in different ways, in different places, but all at the same moment – that our lives would be changed forever. The world was loud with carnage and sirens, and then quiet with missing voices that would never be heard again. [“loud with” / “quiet with”]

These lives remain precious to our country, and infinitely precious to many of you. Today we remember your loss, we share your sorrow, and we honor the men and women you have loved so long and so well.  

For those too young to recall that clear September day, it is hard to describe the mix of feelings we experienced. There was horror at the scale of destruction, and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it. There was shock at the audacity of evil, and gratitude for the heroism and decency that opposed it. In the sacrifice of the first responders, in the mutual aid of strangers, in the solidarity of grief and grace, the actions of an enemy revealed the spirit of a people. And we were proud of our wounded nation. [“grief and grace” / “proud and wounded”]

In these memories, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 must always have an honored place. Here the intended targets became the instruments of rescue. And many who are now alive owe a vast, unconscious debt to the defiance displayed in the skies above this field. [“unconscious debt” / “defiance displayed”]

It would be a *mistake to idealize* the experience of those terrible events. [“Mistake to idealize” is not “writerly” but is an important point, bluntly made.] All that many people could initially see was the brute randomness of death. All that many could feel was unearned suffering. All that many could hear was God’s terrible silence. There are many who still struggle with a lonely pain that cuts deep within. [I will slow down on annotating these passages one-by-one, but you will recognize further italicized phrases as being in the register of “formal” speech.]

In those fateful hours, we learned other lessons as well. We saw that Americans *were vulnerable, but not fragile* [a rhetorical phrase, but an important point] – that they possess a core of strength that survives the worst that life can bring. We learned that bravery is more common than we imagined, emerging with sudden splendor in the face of death. We vividly felt how every hour with our loved ones is a temporary and holy gift. And we found that even the longest days end.

Many of us have tried to make spiritual sense of these events. There is no simple explanation for the mix of Providence and human will that sets the direction of our lives. But comfort can come from a different sort of knowledge. After wandering long and lost in the dark, many have found they were actually walking, step by step, toward grace. 

As a nation, our adjustments have been profound. Many Americans struggled to understand why an enemy would hate us with such zeal. The security measures incorporated into our lives are both sources of comfort and reminders of our vulnerability. And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from *violence that gathers within*. [First foreshadowing of what will become a larger theme in the speech.]

There is *little cultural overlap* [another important point, clearly stated] between *violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home.* But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. [Again, very important point. Compare “foul” with “deplorable.”] And it is our continuing duty to confront them.

After 9/11, millions of brave Americans stepped forward and volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces. The military measures taken over the last 20 years to pursue dangers at their source have *led to debate.* [He is talking, inter alia, about the Iraq war.] But one thing is certain:  We owe an assurance to all who have fought our nation’s most recent battles.

Let me speak directly to veterans and people in uniform: The cause you pursued at the call of duty is the noblest America has to offer. You have shielded your fellow citizens from danger. You have defended the beliefs of your country and advanced the rights of the downtrodden. You have been the face of hope and mercy in dark places. You have been a force for good in the world. Nothing that has followed – *nothing* – can tarnish your honor or diminish your accomplishments. [I’ve put “nothing” in bold because it is in the Biden/Truman plain-style register, and is the pivot of this speech. Bush has been talking about the past. He is preparing to talk about the present.] To you, and to the honored dead, our country is forever grateful. (Applause.)           

In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, I was proud to lead an amazing, resilient, united people. When it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own. A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a *naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment*. [Not “eloquent,” but pointed.] That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together. 

I come without explanations or solutions. *I can only tell you what I have seen.* [Especially from a former president, this is a striking note.]

On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know. (Applause.) [Significantly, “That” is italicized in the original, from the Bush Center.]

At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know. (Applause.)

At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome of immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know. (Applause.)

At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know. (Applause.)

This is not mere nostalgia; it is *the truest version of ourselves.* [These five words are the argument of the speech.] It is what we have been – and what we can be again. 

Twenty years ago, terrorists chose a random group of Americans, on a routine flight, to be collateral damage in a spectacular act of terror. The 33 passengers and 7 crew of Flight 93 could have been any group of citizens selected by fate. In that sense, they stood in for us all. 

The terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, braced each other for action, and defeated the designs of evil.  

These Americans were brave, strong, and united in ways that shocked the terrorists – but should not surprise any of us. This is the nation we know. (Applause.) And whenever we need hope and inspiration, we can look to the skies and remember. 

God bless.