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Do you want love or you want blame? Bush and Cheney play the epideictic game

November 17, 2010

What’s a former president to do with 60 million pages of records, 4 million photographs, and 200 million emails? Establish a presidential library, of course! Southern Methodist University has the honors of hosting George W. Bush’s presidential library on its campus in Dallas and expects to open its doors in 2013. Tuesday was the library’s official groundbreaking as Bush, his wife Laura, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and others posed with shovels at SMU.

Even though “former” now precedes the titles of those on the stage—president, first lady, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of commerce, secretary of energy—this was in no way a lame-duck groundbreaking. It was an occasion brimming with epideictic speech, a category in Aristotle’s Rhetoric that describes speeches that praise and blame. Praising may seem all warm and fuzzy, but it can be strategic in shaping the legacy of a former president… and the approval ratings of the current president.

Several speakers preceded George W. Bush to the podium, from SMU’s student body president Jake Torres to Dick Cheney. And don’t you know, they were all delighted to be there on such a historic occasion! Most of the speakers before Bush kept their remarks similarly perfunctory and pro-Texan. So it was Cheney who made the first offering of blame in praise’s clothing:

Of course, the George W. Bush Presidential Center isn’t much to look at just yet. But the workers are ready. Construction will move fast after today’s groundbreaking. This may be the only shovel-ready project in America.

The video clip of Cheney’s delivery has already made its online rounds, equally for Cheney’s rare public appearance and the dig at the Democrats’ economic stimulus policies. But in fact, the new presidential center and library is a striking analogy for Bush’s legacy. Bush just released Decision Points, his first post-presidency book that The New York Times review called “part spin, part mea culpa, part family scrapbook, part self-conscious effort to (re)shape his political legacy.” Breaking ground for a library that will preserve the (more or less) physical artifacts of his presidency will pale in comparison if Bush is able to break ground with the American people’s memories and vindicate his decisions while president.

Cheney insisted in his remarks that “history is beginning to come around” on Bush’s legacy now that two years have elapsed since Bush left office. Indeed, as soon as Bush took over the podium, he followed Cheney’s suit and praised an oft-criticized aspect of his own legacy:

Dick Cheney was the right pick in the year 2000, and as I stand here there is no doubt in my mind he was the right pick then, he was a great vice president of the United States, and I’m proud to call him friend.

Bush congratulated himself—and his allies, the American people—on other jobs well done, too. Like the choice (and actions) of Cheney as vice president, other decisions that Bush attempted to redeem included his particular way of helping “struggling societies to develop, and storm victims to rebuild.” It’s because of these disparaged decisions that Cheney referred to 9/11 several times instead of invoking even a hint of the I-word and the K-word (psst, Iraq and Katrina).

We usually think bragging is unbecoming, but what else could Bush and his number two do? The occasion called for the epideictic game of praise and blame, and a presidential legacy is at stake. Stay tuned for Bush’s continuing “absence makes the heart grow fonder” campaign.

If you want to know more:

  • You can read (and search!) Aristotle’s Rhetoric online here. Chapter 9 focuses on epideictic rhetoric.
  • Read more about the tradition of presidential libraries, thanks to the National Archives.
  • You can watch the 74-minute groundbreaking ceremony on C-SPAN here.
  • You can visit the official web site for the George W. Bush Presidential Library here, not here.
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