George W. Bush — a former president whose verbal gaffes have, for many, been more memorable than his presidential addresses — delivered a speech Thursday that's unlikely to be forgotten. The remarks, given at a New York forum Thursday, will almost certainly be most remembered for how unusual the speech and the circumstances surrounding it were: A former president, one who has remained largely silent since his departure, offering a speech implicitly rebuking a sitting president from his own party and coming the same week as both former president Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain also made remarks explicitly reminding Americans publicly of their country's ideals and leadership role on the world stage.
“Our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood,” Bush said in the remarks. “Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. We become the heirs of Thomas Jefferson by accepting the ideal of human dignity found in the Declaration of Independence.”
Yet presidential rhetoric scholars each pointed to one passage in particular that may be most remembered from Bush's speech. After lamenting how support for democracy showed signs of ebbing, he says: “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions — forgetting the image of God we should see in each other."
That “casual cruelty” line, experts on political rhetoric said, may be most remembered. “We’ve been struggling, as people who comment on public discourse, to find the language to digest it,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who called it “a beautifully crafted speech.”
“It becomes a synopsizing statement that is alliterative and hence, memorable. Everyone knows what that means,” she said. While people have been calling out how coarse political discussion has become and the higher level of name calling in the past couple of years, “we haven't explained it. Casual cruelty is an explanation that captures it in two words.”
Though he does not call him out President Trump name, Bush uses the word cruelty once more in the speech. Trump, who tweets insults regularly and with apparent whim, could well be Bush's target when he says: “And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”
Bush, Jamieson said, appears to be “worried about the casualness but also that the cruelty is becoming so offhanded. Having them together increases the likelihood we’ll remember it.”
Elvin Lim, a professor at the National University of Singapore and the author of “The Anti-Intellectual Presidency,” said the line was interesting because it points to, perhaps, a new low in American political discourse. While leaders have long used simplistic phrasing and Everyman explanations in a media and campaign environment that demands sound bites, he said, “casual cruelty” suggests “not only are we going to be indifferent to policy and complexity, we're also going to be arrogant and flippant about it.”
While Lim thought the “casual cruelty” phrase was particularly interesting, he said the best line came later in the same paragraph, about judging “other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” “That is a perfect line — the duality of it, the balance, the accuracy,” Lim said. “It's a very Christian idea,” he said, calling it “a very inward-looking speech: 'Let’s look at ourselves. Let’s look at what we’re doing before we point the fingers.' "
Martin Medhurst, a professor at Baylor University, also said the same paragraph was his favorite, pointing to its use of rhetorical tactics like alliteration and antithesis: “pulling us apart” vs. “binding us together,” “argument” and “animosity.” (He and others said the remarks were clearly professionally crafted and had the hallmarks of Bush speeches written by Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former Bush aide and speechwriter, including the use of Christian themes.)
Yet the entire speech, he said, was also “a well thought-out position that includes a critique of Trump, but it's more than that. It's where George W. Bush thinks the Republican Party should be, and where America should be.”
Still, however memorable the speech may be — particularly given the context — Medhurst doesn't think we'll hear many more like them from the 43rd president. “Do I expect more speeches like this from Bush? The answer would be no. The more you speak, the more you dilute what you say,” he said. “As far as a big national speech, I don't think you'll see another one for a while.”