Thursday, July 01, 2004

All for Show

William Saletan has a great article in Slate about the abuse of the language being perpetrated by both parties - to wit, the phrase "show leadership".

"9/11: A leader showed strength and compassion," begins the narrator of this ad. "President Bush. He held us together." Indeed he did. As evidence, the screen displays image after image of Bush hugging people. First he's hugging a firefighter. Then he's gazing compassionately into the eyes of a man in a red, white, and blue cap. Then he's hugging another firefighter. Then he's sitting next to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld while someone, somewhere, is hunting down terrorist killers. "But what if Bush wasn't there?" the narrator asks. "Could John Kerry have shown this leadership?"

Show, show, show. This is what passes for leadership in the age of television. Leadership used to be the noun form of a verb. A leader was someone who led. Now a leader is someone who "shows leadership." Politicians don't lead. They show.


This ad is a shining example. Cut through the hugs and gazes, and what's left of Bush's leadership? The ad's only substantial claim is that Bush "began to hunt down terrorist killers." Indeed he did, if you give him credit for everything done by U.S. troops and agents during his administration. And what's the upshot? A week ago, the State Department was forced to concede that, contrary to its initial assertions, terrorism increased sharply last year, producing the highest number of fatal terrorist shootings and bombings since 1998 and the highest number of significant terrorist incidents in at least 20 years. What does the ad say about this? Nothing. "President Bush will win this war on terror," it insists. As evidence, it shows Bush pointing his hand with decisive confidence.

Saletan goes on to quote Kerry also abusing the verb 'show'.

Still, I'd like to point out minor differences; Kerry seems to be using the verb as a synonym for 'demonstrate' as in 'demonstrate leadership' - why this construct is preferred over the active verb 'lead' I couldn't tell you.

Bush, on the other hand, seems to mean 'play-act' as in 'put on a show of leadership', rather like his campaign's website, where 'compassion' seems to mean 'appearing for photo-ops with many ethnic people'.

I should point out that one is only a leader if one has followers who actually, well, you know - follow one's example. Can Bush point to an upsurge in the number of firemen receiving larger numbers of hugs? Are more rich white people having their photos taken with poor black people? If not, it's safe to say that Bush is really only play-acting leadership, rather than demonstrating it.


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