The challenge is one of achieving the proper oratorical tone. How does a leader like President Bush address a crisis in such a way that he inspires and unites his people while sowing fear in his enemy?
Whatever one thinks of his Iraq policy, even the president's supporters concede that he has been less than Churchillian in employing his speeches effectively to marshal national and international opinion against Saddam Hussein. In fact, the more he talks, the more support around the world appears to slip away. Why?
"Every president has his own oratorical style," says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar and professor of government at Georgetown University. "Bush's is concrete and conversational, much the way he talks. It suits him . . . but it lacks the idealistic language of a Kennedy . . . the sort that seizes the imagination."
Bush's oratory has "improved since he's been in office," says James C. Humes, a professor of language and leadership at the University of Southern Colorado and a former speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford. "But he's not happy with artifice" and "tends to avoid the sort of imagery that made Churchill's speeches so memorable."
Bush has sent our armed forces to root out al Qaeda and the menace of terrorism, and he has told us it will be a long fight. But he's spent more time telling us what we have to fear than he has summoning us to what John F. Kennedy called the "long twilight struggle" against "those who would make themselves our adversaries."
Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, by contrast, cultivated an attitude of confident and lofty disdain for their enemies, whether those enemies were economic, like the Great Depression, or military, like Adolf Hitler.
As Kennedy said of Churchill, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."
Churchill didn't just exhort the British people ("We shall fight on the beaches . . .") and denounce Hitler (". . . every stain of his infected and corroding fingers will be . . . blasted from the surface of the earth"). He also marshaled humor into defiance ("They thought they would wring our neck like a chicken. Some chicken! Some neck!") and even made a point of pronouncing the word "Nazi" with a drawn-out nasal "a" and a soft, slushy "z" that made it sound like something disgusting discovered beneath a toilet seat.
When FDR said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he made the economic meltdown of the 1930s appear suddenly inconsequential -- almost dismissible. Everyone knew it was still there -- a quarter of the work force was unemployed -- but it suddenly appeared tiny next to the courage and resolution the new president affirmed in the American people.
Ours is not an age given to the cultivation of great oratory or its devices, and presidents as disparate as Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman have struggled with the same problem as George W. Bush.
But even today some leaders have shown themselves profoundly gifted in using words and demeanor to marshal the collective spirit with both strength and reassurance. Think of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the darkest moments of 9/11. Not noted previously as a great orator, and denounced throughout his mayoralty as a divisive figure in New York, he nonetheless held the nation together almost single-handedly with his words and bearing immediately after the terrorist attacks, even as the World Trade Center was falling around him.
How did he do so? He spoke with quiet confidence of "we" New Yorkers and "we" Americans and the continuity of the city and the nation. He denounced the terrorists as criminals, but he spent more time praising the courage of the police and firefighters doing their heroic but dangerous and horrifying work. There was a stoical quality to his oratory. He summoned us to be more than victims. And so we were.
The president seems not to grasp how much might be accomplished by comporting himself as a man of stature who views Hussein as a lower form. Instead he harries the Iraqi dictator with accusations much the way a terrier shakes a rag toy: After a while the continued existence of the toy becomes more noteworthy than the ferocity of the terrier. Hussein grows in stature by consequence.
To make these observations is not to demean the president, whose powers of focus and persuasion in private have been attested by far too many people to ignore. But one puzzle of his oratory is that he invokes religion so often in his speeches but rarely employs the language, cadence and metaphors of the King James Bible, which even less spiritual leaders have used to such powerful effect.
For example, Humes says, in writing perhaps the most famous presidential speech in American history -- the Gettysburg Address -- Abraham Lincoln "sought language that would be both stately and familiar to his audience. When he said, 'Four score and seven years ago,' he was echoing the 'three score and 10' that the Old Testament portrays as man's allotted span of life. When he said, 'Our fathers brought forth on this continent,' he was echoing the language used in both Matthew and Luke to describe the birth of Jesus, and thus suggesting something holy in the founding of the United States."
Such language worked on both the imagination and the emotions of his listeners, Humes says, "because even the unlettered in his audience in those days went to church and heard the Bible read. Their ears were conditioned to those phrases and those rhythms."
Although few of our leaders are Churchills or Lincolns, Humes says, many of their rhetorical techniques can be learned and adapted by those who recognize the extraordinary power the well-spoken word continues to convey. But he and other presidential scholars concede that many politicians have become skeptical of that power in the television age and impatient with the dedication necessary to hone their oral presentation skills, as well as their visual ones.
Historian Edmund Morris, biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, says George W. Bush is actually a better speaker than his father. The elder Bush, Morris says, "is a strong, intelligent and attractive man" when encountered in person or in small groups. But when speaking to large groups, especially on television, "he appeared somehow insubstantial" and his presidency suffered because of it.
In his book "Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln," published last year, Humes suggests a reason taken from two decades ago: "Once when I was drafting remarks for him, President Bush told me, 'All speeches are [bull]!' He didn't understand the appeal of Reagan, who had mastered the art."
Ronald Reagan was no Churchill, but the 40th president was a great communicator, Humes says, partly because as an actor he understood that the power of spoken phrases derives not just from what they mean but also from how they sound. "He worked his speeches over and over and often wrote better than his speechwriters," Humes says. "His oratory was highly individualistic."
Reagan was attacked and stereotyped as a war hawk every bit as savagely as George W. Bush is today, Morris says. "Time has romanticized the reception of his speeches quite a bit because phrases like 'the evil empire' turned out to be true, and he turned out to be right about the way to defeat communism.
"But he was caricatured as a reckless cowboy, particularly in Europe, exactly the way Bush is now. The difference is he had that magnificent look to him. He really was a gentle man, and the gentleness of his demeanor contrasted with the harshness of his rhetoric in a way that caused people to take what he said very seriously. And he had a whole arsenal of gestures, like that way of cocking his head, that underlined what he was saying."
With war in the air today, however, it is the speeches of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt that want comparison with George W. Bush's. Both men used the spoken word to coax divided, isolationist nations toward military confrontations that they recognized as vital but from which their electorates shrank.
The times were different, certainly, and the power of their words was emphasized by the medium of radio, which in those pre-TV days imbued them with a formality and seriousness free of visual distractions.
Both men were patricians, with a lofty sense of history and destiny and a keen sense that the civilized world was often riding on their decisions and their words. Both had a flair for the dramatic that might be suspect in our more cynical age.
But Humes, whose five books on Churchill include three just on Churchillian oratory and phrasing, points out that as speakers, FDR and Churchill were confident enough and skilled enough to employ humor in subversive ways to both raise their rhetorical stature and devastate their opponents.
Roosevelt once managed the neat trick of diminishing his most bitter Republican opponents merely by archly cataloguing them under the names of three GOP leaders: Martin, Barton and Fish.
Would it be possible now for President Bush to describe the predatory nature of Saddam Hussein by adapting Churchill's famous parable of the duplicitous peace-mouthing Nazis?
It seems, the prime minister would say, that the zoo in Berlin featured a cage where a lion and a lamb lived together in peace and harmony. It was a great drawing card for visitors.
One visitor asked the zookeeper, "How did you find such a lion?"
"The lion isn't the hard thing," replied the zookeeper. "It's the lamb. Every morning we need a new lamb."
Often Churchill could make his point with a single line. In the darkest days of 1940, with the victorious German army poised just across the English Channel, he announced: "We are waiting for the invasion. So are the fishes."
Humes quotes Churchill as saying that the "scaffolding" of a great speech is built with contrast, rhyme, echo, alliteration and metaphor. The use of those tools is evident in two of the images Churchill made popular in the English language -- "Iron Curtain" and "summit conference," as well as his assertion that the British victory at El Alamein "is not the end . . . not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." But just as important, Humes says, was the studied employment of an unusual word for dramatic effect.
Roosevelt's description of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor as "a date which will live in infamy" was highly deliberate, Humes says. "Infamy" is a word easily understood but rarely employed. FDR's use of it has linked it forever with Pearl Harbor.
President Bush's use of the phrase "axis of evil," however, has been widely criticized as both melodramatic and counterproductive -- an overblown attempt to compare the regimes in Iraq, Iran and North Korea to the Germany, Japan and Italy "axis" of World War II.
There's no question, says Georgetown's Wayne, that Bush's oratory "lacks the eloquence of a Churchill, the idealism of a JFK, the Americanism of a Reagan or the emotional empathy of a Clinton."
But, he says, the larger challenge of a leader is to have his oratory "capture the needs and mood of his country." Two of President Bush's speeches have risen to that challenge, Wayne says: his first speech from Ground Zero of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and his speech to Congress nine days later. For better or worse, he says, presidents have to deal with their own stereotypes, and he thinks many Churchillian flourishes in Bush's speeches would strike people as false.
Were he to advise the president about speechifying, Wayne says, he would suggest that Bush make his more important speeches less conversational with injections of "tight but elegant" language to inspire the American people. "But it may be that the time for that is after a war starts. Right now the president is still making his argument for going to war. And he obviously feels more comfortable making that argument with a minimum of rhetorical devices."