Friday, 18 September 2009

George Bush Funnies, Sept. 18 Edition

A former George Bush speechwriter, Matt Latimer, is attracting some attention on the pages of GQ with an unusually revealing look at his former boss. While writing about how clueless Bush was about Hank Paulson's helter-skelter efforts to save the financial industry from melting down last fall, he happens to reveal:
At one point, during another of our marathon speechwriting sessions, Steve Hadley and Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, let us know that the president needed an FDR line—like “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The president had his own suggestion for such a line, however: “Anxiety can feed anxiety.” So we produced a speech with no real information and our FDR knockoff line.
Okay, so no one ever claimed George Bush was a great orator. "Anxiety can feed anxiety" ... not the kind of writing that stirs the soul.

Look at FDR's great line. The words have a rhythm, a cadence, as they roll off the tongue. They are simple words (six of the eight are monosyllabic); combined they are like a genius arrangement of common musical notes that creates an impression that lingers in the mind. Then there is the message itself: FDR starts with "we have nothing to fear" -- the construction boldly embraces all Americans in a time of worry and trouble; the phrasing isn't diluted by auxiliary verbs that hem and haw. FDR doesn't say, "we shouldn't have anything to fear" or "we might have nothing to fear ... we'll see, once the unemployment numbers come in next month." And then the powerful backend of the sentence "... but fear itself." This is where the line soars to its zenith, sharply pivoting on the word "but," slamming us with that strong word "fear" again -- and then the final poetic touch, the "itself" serving as intensifier that provides a soft padding at the sentence's end, emphatically crowns the point, and arouses in us the courage that we had forgotten we possessed.

Then of course we have George Bush's, "anxiety can feed anxiety." "Fear" is something powerful, the stuff of great literature. "Anxiety" isn't; it's Woody Allen mumbling to himself and worrying over a hangnail while hustling off to see his analyst on Fifth Avenue. It's one of those ugly four-syllable words that belongs in the linguistic territory of psychotherapy. And then how does this sentence's imagery work exactly? There is the word "feed" -- it's a concrete word, suggesting something being eaten, consumed. But then is anxiety number one feeding something else to anxiety number two? Is anxiety simply feeding "on" its own anxiety? The picture that comes to mind is somewhat muddled -- in fact, what some Bush critics would argue is a fair depiction of the former president's brain.

"Anxiety can feed anxiety." I'm going to pass a non-poetic judgment on this, as a sentence meant to call forth echoes of FDR's famous line. Here it is: yuch. If you put a finite number of monkeys before a finite number of typewriters (I'm thinking 100 monkeys and 100 typewriters), chances are excellent that within five hours they could bang out something that would beat this.

Marginally better, though more prosaic-sounding, is "Anxiety can feed on itself." Of course, if Bush had used that line, he would have had to credit that great rhetorical work, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers":
So an aroused amygdala activates the sympathetic nervous system and, as we saw in the previous paragraph, an aroused sympathetic nervous system increases the odds of the amygdala activating. Anxiety can feed on itself.