Image Repair Discourse by George W. Bush, Laura Bush, and Condoleezza Rice
George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, served two terms in the Oval Office from 2001 to 2009. Controversies arise in every presidency, but President Bush seemed particularly dogged by criticism (much like President Bill Clinton), including on such issues as concerns about the war in Iraq (and the search for weapons of mass destruction), the shift in military emphasis away from Afghanistan, and the government's reaction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Scholarship has investigated President Bush's rhetoric on Hurricane Katrina (e.g., Benoit & Henson, 2009; Liu, 2007) and on terrorism and the war in Iraq (e.g., Bostdorff, 2003; Ivie, 2007; Spielvogel, 2005). Previous research has analyzed other image repair efforts from President George W. Bush during his presidency. For example, President Bush appeared on Meet the Press in February 2004 discussing such topics as Iraq and the economy (Benoit, 2006b). The president tended to rely on transcendence, denial, and defeasibility. He also held a press conference in April 2004 addressing the war against terrorism (Benoit, 2006a), using bolstering, denial, and transcendence. However, near the end of his second term as president, his secretary of state, his wife, and Bush himself developed image repair messages that can be seen as addressing his legacy. This essay will apply the theory of image repair discourse to critically analyze these three image repair discourses: one message of self-defense and two third party defenses.
As noted earlier, near the end of President Bush's second term in office, three image repair efforts appeared: one by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on CBS, one by First Lady Laura Bush on FOX (both on December 28, 2008), and one by President Bush about two weeks later in his January 12, 2009, press conference. Bush's approval rating had dropped to 29% (67% disapproval) in mid-December 2008, according to the Gallup poll (PollingReport.com, 2009). This was quite a drop from his high point after the tragedy of 9/11: 90% approval (6% disapproval). This case study will compare the third party image repair presented by Rice and Laura Bush with the president's image repair discourse. These messages will be analyzed in the order in which they appeared (Secretary of State Rice's interview, First Lady Bush's interview, and President Bush's press conference). These three messages did not cover exactly the same territory, in part because the questions asked of the three rhetors varied considerably. To help understand the context, an NBC/Wall Street Journal (2008) poll in the first week of December 2008 asked which event would be “remembered as being George W. Bush's biggest failure as president.” Respondents identified the top five failings as the war in Iraq (35%), not preventing the recession (21%), creating the largest federal deficit (21%), inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina (9%), and helping the wealthy more than the middle class (8%). It is also worth mentioning that other topics arose that are not discussed here (e.g., Condoleezza Rice talked about how she played piano for the Queen of England; Laura Bush talked about cooking).
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Discourse
The secretary of state appeared on CBS's Sunday Morning on December 28, 2008, interviewed by senior correspondent Rita Braver (all quotations from Braver and Rice can be found in Rice, 2008). Four accusations were raised during the program; each one will be discussed separately here.
United States Disliked Abroad
Braver asked about America's reputation abroad: “Why do former diplomats say things to me like . . . we are just hated in so many places now, we're not liked, we're not respected, and we're not even feared. We're just disliked.” Rice replied first with a straightforward denial: “Oh, it's just not true.” She then went on to bolster America's image:
I know that the United States is respected for the quadrupling of development assistance in Africa, for the doubling in Latin America, for the tripling worldwide after assistance that was flat. I know that the fact that the United States has spoken out for Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or for the people of Zimbabwe or for the people of Sudan, or ended the conflict in Liberia and put Charles Taylor in jail, or ended the conflict between Southern Sudan and Northern Sudan that killed millions of people over decades.
Citing accomplishments (such as developmental assistance) is an indirect way of countering the accusation that the United States is not liked, suggesting that if we have done these things they must like us. Rice argues that the way to answer the question of whether we have respect is to “look at the record.”
Bush Was Unpopular at Home
Braver segues from attitudes toward the United States to attitudes toward Bush in the United States. In the 2008 elections, Democrat Barack Obama was elected president, the Democrats held the House of Representatives, and several Senate seats changed from Republican to Democrat (CNN, 2008). In this context, Braver asked, “Do you think . . . that this last presidential election was kind of a referendum on this President's foreign policies?” The Secretary of State used transcendence here, shifting the point of view from election results to the fact that “this President had two terms. That's all he gets. That's all he gets is two terms. And he had two terms. He was reelected.” Braver alluded to public opinion polls that showed that President Bush's popularity was low. Rice stuck to her use of transcendence, saying “I'm not going to talk about popularity polls. The President was reelected in 2004. That's all he got to do.” The secretary of state used transcendence to respond to concerns about President Bush's low levels of popularity.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Next, Braver turned to the justification for the war in Iraq: “The whole premise, of course, for invading Iraq was that there were weapons of mass destruction, and it turned out, of course, that there weren't.” Rice used simple denial when she noted that Saddam Hussein had “used them [WMDs] before.” She also used transcendence to justify Bush's decision to invade Iraq:
Go back and you look at what the President said in Cincinnati and what he said again at a speech in February shortly before we liberated Iraq, he talked about the broad problem of Iraq . . . it's not just weapons of mass destruction. It was Saddam Hussein's ambitions, his aggression in the region, and the fact that he was a threat to us and to his neighbors.
The argument is, regardless of whether Iraq had WMDs (or in addition to that fact), Hussein was a threat to the United States and other countries. This danger justified the military action.
The final accusation raised in the program was that some “people say he's one of the worst presidents in recent memory.” The secretary declared that “it's ridiculous,” using simple denial. This strategy was reinforced with bolstering. She noted that President Bush was the one
who secured this country after the worst attack on its soil ever, who showed a way to deal with those threats in ways that really forced us and challenged us to think completely differently about how we organize domestically, how we organize abroad, and how we made a union between the two. When you look at what this President took on in terms of AIDS relief and foreign assistance to the world, when you look at the number of countries that this President and the number of people that this President has actually liberated.
Rice stated that future “generations pretty soon are going to start to thank this President for what he's done. This generation will.” Then she listed additional accomplishments of the president, continuing to bolster his reputation:
We have really made foreign assistance not just an issue of giving humanitarian aid or giving money to poor people, but really insisting on good governance and fighting corruption; and that there are African states now where that really is the mantra, where we've made big investments in countries like Ghana and Tanzania, and they are going about with good governance. I think the fact that this President has laid the groundwork for a Palestinian state, being the first President, as a matter of policy, to say that there should be one, and now, I think, laying the foundation that's going to lead to that Palestinian state—I can go on and on.
Providing a list of accomplishments, from responding to terrorist attacks and liberating countries to AIDS relief and working toward a Palestinian state, is a way to enhance the president's image.
First Lady Laura Bush's Discourse
First Lady Laura Bush responded to five accusations during the course of her interview. Each of these accusations will be discussed in turn in this section.
Chris Wallace, the host of FOX News Sunday, conducted the interview with the First Lady. It also aired the morning of December 28, 2008 (all quotations from Wallace and Laura Bush are taken from Bush, 2008). Wallace asked Bush, “How do you respond to some people . . . who are going to view this as a failed presidency?” The First Lady replied, “I know it's not,” directly denying this accusation. Then Bush bolstered her husband's reputation:
But my husband responded in a way that kept our country safe after September 11th, and I think that's very, very important. He's liberated, because of our policies, the policies of the United States and our military, 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq from—from oppressive governments and tyranny. He's saved, because of our policies, the United States policies and taxpayers'—over 2 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are on antiretrovirals because of his policy of trying to save people from disease as well as from tyranny. And I think that the—his inner core and his belief in freedom—and that means not just freedom from tyranny, but freedom from disease and freedom from illiteracy—is what really is the basic of American values, and that's what I think he's shown the whole time he's been president.
She not only listed accomplishments (keeping our country safe, liberating people, saving people from disease) but also lauded his character, values, and beliefs.
Focus on Iraq Rather Than Afghanistan
Wallace noted that “some critics say that we gave the Taliban a second chance, and one of the reasons they are on the march in Afghanistan is because we switched our focus to Iraq.” The First Lady begins with denial: “I don't think that's true at all.” However, she then says that although we've stayed “very, very invested in Afghanistan,” we may not have been “as invested militarily.” She then bolsters with discussion of how people have helped “women there be educated” and how “women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan” have been mentored.
Wallace also asked about the troop surge in Iraq. “Everybody says, 'get the troops out.'” The president “stands up to everybody in Washington and says, 'No, we're going to send more troops in. Where did that come from?'” Notice that he is not actually asking her to justify the surge but to explain where this idea originated. Bush explained that “that came from his really tough inner core,” an example of bolstering. She also employed transcendence, arguing, “He didn't want to think that the people who had died, the Americans who had died, our troops who had died, would just die in vain because we left. And he's right.” This justifies the surge on the basis of past casualties in Iraq.
Fallen/Injured Soldiers and Families
The interview next turned to the question, “What do you say to a soldier who's lost a leg or to a family who's lost a son or a husband?” The First Lady bolstered by stressing our soldiers' sacrifices: “These are people who volunteered to put their life on the line for the United States.” She also praised their families: “They're so strong and they're so terrific, and they know that their loved one in most cases was doing what they wanted to do.” So she bolstered here by showing compassion.
Wallace also brought up criticism about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina: “A lot of people blame your husband, not for the hurricane but for the response.” Bush responded to this charge with bolstering: “The rescue of so many people by the U.S. Coast Guard off their roofs or in boats is unprecedented, and I don't think the Coast Guard gets the credit that they should for that.” She also offered another defense, attacking her husband's accusers, in particular some reporting on the tragedy:
It was really not true reporting. There was a—the reporting was—ended up being not really factual, but many, many people heard the first reporting, and that's what they think happened, that 10,000 people died or, you know, whatever the things were that were not true.
Her discourse bolstered the government's response and attempted to undermine the criticism.
President George W. Bush's Discourse
President George W. Bush held a press conference on January 12, 2009, at the end of his second term in the Oval Office (Barack Obama took office just a week later, on January 20, 2009). His discourse responded to six concerns that will be addressed in this section (he also briefly mentioned other topics, such as the Abu Ghraib prison and Social Security).
United States Disliked Abroad
When asked about “restoring America's moral standing in the world,” President Bush used denial: “I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged . . . Most people around the world, they respect America.” Clearly the president rejects this criticism as unfounded. Bush also employed transcendence to deal with this accusation. He acknowledged that there were some people “in certain quarters in Europe” where American was not popular. He observed that “you can try to be popular,” but “in terms of the decisions that I had to make to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity.” Homeland security is more important than popularity. So he argued that most people around the world respect the United States and that it was worth alienating a few in order to protect America.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Bush addressed the question of WMDs in Iraq. However, he does not use a clear image repair strategy here: “Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment . . . Things didn't go according to plan.” This utterance might sound like mortification, but he resisted the possibility of admitting to a mistake here: “I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not but they were—things didn't go according to plan.” He tries to walk a fine line here, conceding that things went awry but not offering any excuses nor mortification.
The president was invited to “look back over the long arc of your presidency” and then he was asked, “Do you think, in retrospect, that you have made any mistakes?” Bush bolstered by mentioning accomplishments (the surge, the economy starting to turn around) and used denial: “I thank you for giving me a chance to defend a record that I am going to continue to defend, because it's a good, strong record.” Bush also employed the strategy of defeasibility to defend his legacy. He argued that “hard things don't happen overnight” and suggests that initial assessments of his legacy are premature: “I don't think you can possibility get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed.” So he bolstered, used denial, and cited defeasibility (difficult challenges take time and we need to wait for time to pass to assess his legacy).
Bush addressed the troop surge in Iraq, employing transcendence: “Because of the violence in Iraq, I decided to do something about it—and sent 30,000 troops in.” This utterance attempts to justify the surge on the basis of violence occurring at the time in Iraq.
Two criticisms that had been raised about the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina were addressed in this press conference. One concern was that the governmental response to this disaster was unreasonably slow. Although admitting that the reconstruction was not perfect, Bush was asked whether things “happened fairly quickly” and his answer was, “Absolutely.” He also said, “Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was [sic] 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed.” These utterances work to deny that the governmental response was slow. He also employed bolstering to respond to this criticism, declaring that “the systems are in place to continue the reconstruction of New Orleans.” Another criticism that had been raised about this disaster was that President Bush had flown over the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in Air Force One as he traveled from Crawford, Texas, to Washington, D.C.—without landing to see the problem firsthand. He reflected on the aftermath of the hurricane, saying he had thought about those events: “Could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge? The problem with that . . . is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission.” This statement employs defeasibility, arguing that factors beyond his control preventing him from landing.
The president employed two strategies when addressing the economy. First, he shifted the blame: first to the previous administration—“This problem stated before my presidency”—and then to the business sector—“Wall Street got drunk and we got the hangover.” Bush also employed bolstering on this topic: “Credit spreads are beginning to shrink; lending is just beginning to pick up. The actions we have taken, I believe, have helped thaw the credit markets, which is the first step toward recovery.” So he argued that others had caused the problem but that he had started to solve it.
On May 1, 2003, the president flew as a passenger in an S-3 Viking reconnaissance jet, landing on an aircraft carrier (the USS Abraham Lincoln). A banner with “Mission Accomplished” was prominently displayed in the background. Although this event may have signaled the end of conventional warfare in Iraq, it soon became clear that our mission had not been accomplished. This became a point of contention for some critics. In his press conference, Bush employed mortification, explaining that “putting a 'Mission Accomplished' sign on an aircraft carrier was a mistake.” However, he then immediately shifted to differentiation, saying that “we were tr ying to say something differently, but nevertheless it conveyed a different message.” His use of mortification in this image repair discourse was minimal.
Of course, one's predispositions will influence how one reacts to any persuasive message. People with different beliefs and values about these topics would react differently to these messages. For example, an ABC/Washington Post (2008) poll in the first part of December 2008 found that 34% said that the war in Iraq was “worth fighting,” while 64% said it was not. Similarly, in September 2008, 33% thought the federal government had “already done enough” to help the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, whereas 57% thought the federal government “should do more” (Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, 2008). Image repair efforts on controversial topics such as these will face audiences that vary in receptiveness to defensive arguments.
Surely these three rhetors thought about what they might say about these issues (and probably not for the first time) before these interviews; their responses should not be considered spontaneous replies to questions. The defenses had some overlap (see Table 7.1 for an overview of these image repair efforts), but each defense had unique features. This is surely in part because these rhetors are different; however, the discourse they produced was also influenced by the questions they were asked. It appeared as if Wallace in particular was “throwing softballs” to the First Lady, asking questions designed to be easily answered so as to help defend the president's image. Each interview will be evaluated separately in this section.
Table 7.1. Image Repair from Secretary of State Rice, First Lady Bush, and President Bush
The response to the accusation that other countries do not respect the United States denied that the United States was disliked and listed several instances of American foreign aid. This is an indirect response at best; it assumes that sending aid will cause other countries to like the United States (alternatively, they could resent us). Furthermore, the countries discussed in the examples of foreign aid (Burma, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sudan) are not major U.S. allies. These cannot be considered a powerful argument that the United States is liked and respected around the world.
In response to the accusation that President Bush was unpopular at home, Rice employed transcendence (explicitly refusing to discuss public opinion polls), arguing that he won two terms as president. There can be no doubt that doing so is quite difficult and thus a praiseworthy accomplishment. However, saying that he won elections in 2000 and 2004 was not a very strong response to the charge that the president was unpopular in 2008. It was impossible to deny that the president was doing very poorly in public opinion polls.
On the question of WMDs, Rice used denial. It was well established that Saddam Hussein did have WMDs; apparently he secretly destroyed them. So we knew he had them at one point and we had reason to suspect that he still possessed WMDs at the time of the invasion. This is a generally effective response. She also used transcendence, arguing that Hussein was a threat to us (and others). It is not as obvious that Iraq threatened the United States; some in Rice's audience would accept this, but others probably would not.
Rice denies the accusation that Bush was the worst president, characterizing this charge as “ridiculous.” A direct answer to this criticism would require a comparison with other presidents, but that could appear to be no more than a series of gratuitous attacks. Listing the accomplishments of the president is a reasonable approach. However, some of the examples provided here are not very persuasive (Ghana, Tanzania). Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Furthermore, given the context (many people did not agree that we should have invaded Iraq; others thought the president had led us into a recession), it would be difficult for such a list of accomplishments to overcome such attitudes.
First Lady Laura Bush
As with the secretary of state, the First Lady reacted to the accusation that Bush was the worst president with denial and a listing of accomplishments. She elaborates an idea mentioned by Rice, arguing that the president has “liberated . . . 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq.” However, she also talks of topics that are not likely to be impressive to many in the audience (in this case, antiretrovirals). Bolstering his character, talking about “his inner core and his belief in freedom,” was a good addition to the defense.
The First Lady discussed the accusation that the United States shifted its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. Although she initially denies this accusation, her use of bolstering essentially concedes that focus has shifted to from military to economic aid.
This message also considered the troop surge in Iraq. Bolstering was a good idea; who knows better about the president's “tough inner core” than his spouse? Some would find the justification that our troops should not die in vain persuasive. However, others would say it is like (but worse than) “throwing good money after bad.” If there is no real solution to Iraq, the surge could mean that more would “die in vain.” Laura Bush also was asked about the tragedy of fallen and injured soldiers and their families. Of course, there is no easy way to comfort those who have suffered such losses. Her use of bolstering was clearly appropriate on this point.
The First Lady also responded to a question about the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. She bolstered by noting that the Coast Guard rescued many victims and deserves praise for doing so. However, serious objections were raised to other aspects of the government's response, and the argument that some aspects of the government's response (Coast Guard rescue missions) were effective is not a persuasive response to other criticism. Attacking her husband's accusers in the media might have been justified, but it was unlikely to dispel other accusations.
President George W. Bush
The president used denial to respond to the criticism that America was disliked around the world. Simply denying this concern was not likely to be persuasive to many in his audience. His attempt at transcendence (better to make America secure than popular abroad) assumed his audience would agree that the United States was more secure from terrorism. In fact, Americans were split on the question of whether they approved of how President Bush had handled the war on terrorism: 47% approved, 48% disapproved (CBS/New York Times, 2009). So this argument would probably appeal to some, but not all, of his audience. President Bush's response to the criticisms about our failure to find WMDs in Iraq was particularly weak. He cannot deny this justification for war was incorrect, but he was unwilling to admit any mistakes. He could have argued that based on what we knew at the time, the decision to go into Iraq was appropriate (not a mistake) at the time. Only in hindsight do we know there were no WMDs, so the decision to go after WMDs was the right choice at the time. The argument advanced by his secretary of state on this criticism was noticeably stronger.
When the president was invited to reflect on his presidency (to think about whether he made any mistakes), he bolstered with examples (the surge, the economy). The surge was a success on some fronts (but defending the surge ignores the question of whether we should have been there in the first place). Reactions to Bush's attempt to bolster his image based on the economy were likely to be less favorable (the U.S. economy is huge and cannot be turned around overnight, but it is not clear how much his policies helped). When the president does admit a mistake (“Mission Accomplished”), he immediately uses differentiation (we were trying to say something different). The president's response to questions about his legacy was mixed at best.
Bush also discussed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. As suggested in the evaluation of First Lady Laura Bush's response about the Coast Guard, the fact that one part of the response (rescuing people from rooftops) happened quickly simply does not establish that the response in general was fast. It is not clear that most people thought he should have ordered Air Force One down so he could see the effects of the disaster firsthand. This question (landing Air Force One) may have been more salient to the president than to most in his audience.
President Bush also discussed the economy. He attempted to shift blame both to the Clinton administration and to the business sector. Many people would rather hear how a problem will be fixed instead of who should be blamed. It is not clear that most of his audience would be persuaded by his claims that the economy was starting to recover. Even 2 months later, in March 2009, about two-thirds of Americans thought the “worst is yet to come” in the economy (27% said the worst was over, 66% said the worst is yet to come; Fox News, 2009).
Given the context (in particular, public attitudes toward President Bush), these three image repair efforts faced a very difficult challenge. The evaluation indicates that a few strategies should have been helpful but most of the defense was weak and cannot be expected to have much impact on public opinion. The severity of the accusations simply was not matched by the persuasiveness of the response. Nor should these three messages be considered equally persuasive (Laura Bush's messages was probably the most effective). Consistent with this overall evaluation, a CNN poll conducted January 12–15 (the third message, from President Bush, was from January 12) found that the president's approval rating was 31% (68% disapproval), virtually unchanged from mid-December (29%/67%; PollingReport.com, 2009). It is possible that attitudes toward President Bush improved later, but no comparable data are available (pollsters stop asking about presidential approval after the president leaves office).
Third party image repair has some advantages that more traditional image repair does not possess—and note that in this case, both the accused (Bush) and two third parties provided defenses. First, messages from others could appear more independent (less self-serving) than image repair messages from the accused. In this case, the president's spouse and handpicked secretary of state could not be considered entirely objective. Still, there is the possibility that some audience members might be more amenable to persuasive messages from these other defenders.
Second, in this case we have three messages from three different sources. Social science research has established that persuasive messages from multiple sources can be more persuasive than one message from one source (e.g., Harkins & Petty, 1981). In the image repair literature, Nelson (1984) discussed how the media and other tennis stars helped to defend Billie Jean King. Together, George Bush, Laura Bush, and Condoleezza Rice provided multiple defenses for the president in these interviews.
Third, some arguments can be more appropriate or persuasive coming for a source other than the accused. Wen, Yu, and Benoit (2009) argue that Taiwanese newspapers could blame teammates when Taiwanese pitcher Chien-ming Wang lost a major league baseball game, a defense Wang should not employ himself. Here, Laura Bush could talk about the kind of person her husband is (“his inner core and his belief in freedom”) more readily than either the president or his secretary of state. On the other hand, it is possible that some image repair strategies might be less appropriate from a third party source. For instance, as noted in the evaluation, President Bush made two responses to the criticism that the United States is disliked abroad: simple denial and transcendence. However, transcendence implicitly concedes some wrongdoing (there is no need to justify an action by appealing to higher values if the accusation is untrue). In essence, President Bush's argument went, “I don't think the United States is disliked, but, if so, it was worth it to keep America safe.” It would arguably be inappropriate for either the First Lady or the secretary of state to make that kind of concession. That is, they did not say, and probably shouldn't have said, something like “Even if President Bush has caused people in other countries to dislike the United States, it was worth it to protect our national security.” As a general rule, one who supports another who is accused of wrongdoing should probably not concede wrongdoing by the accused.
Fourth, it is possible that some members of the audience would be prone to watch one of these messages (or one source) rather than others. People had already had the chance to hear President Bush's defenses over the years; there might be particular interest in a defense from a different source (i.e., First Lady Bush or Secretary of State Rice). This could mean that some people were exposed to Bush's “side” of the story even if they didn't watch his press conference.
Third party image repair has the same basic options as traditional image repair. However, persuasive messages in this context are distinctive. Apologies from the perpetrator are surely more satisfying from apologies from others. However, a third party may have more credibility than the offender, particularly if the third party is a victim. Some defenses available to third parties may not be advisable for the offender. Multiple sources can be more persuasive than single sources.
Third party image repair can occur in two different forms: historic and contemporary. This chapter offers new case studies in both of these contexts: Prime Minister Cameron's apology for “Bloody Sunday” and contemporary image repair from President George Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. More work needs to be conducted in this area of image repair.