The Better Rhetor

Wednesday, April 16, 2003
"What You Need to Know"
(And Why You’d Better Know It)

So now we see that President Bush has warned Syria that it needs to go along with U.S plans for the region. His exact words were "Syria just needs to cooperate with us."

This is a variation of a familiar Bush refrain: What people "just need to do," or "what they need to know," or "what you need to understand." You hear this often with Bush, almost as a recurring theme, as in these comments made last year in reponse to a question about whether the U.S. was prepared to use military means beyond Afghanistan:

What people need to know is… we are going to do our job in Afghanistan first. Then we can find other areas… of opportunity to rout out terrorism.

That's the answer to your question, and that's what you got to know.

Or this, when asked during the presidential campaign about his past drug use:

"The game of trying to force me to prove a negative and to chase down unsubstantiated, ugly rumors has got to end," Bush replied, adding: "What people need to know about meis that when I swear in, I will swear in to not only uphold the laws of the land, I will swear to uphold the dignity in the office, of the office to which I had been elected, so help me God.

Or this, when talking about his plans to restructure social security:

I can say definitively every Social Security recipient is going to get their check.And that's what the American people need to understand.

Liberals have had a lot of fun mocking President Bush’s frequent verbal gaffes. And they are funny, a lot of them, with what pies being higher, and our nation held hostile, and the human being and the fish coexisting peacefully, and all the rest of that strange lingo that defines the verbal landscape of George Bush. Listen to him long enough, and Bush can make Reagan sound like Cicero.

And maybe Bush's repeated use of "what you need to know" could be seen as just a verbal tic, a way of filling out and amplifying a statement. (Next time Dick Cheney comes out of his undisclosed location to give an interview, count how many times he uses the phrase "if you will" when answering a question.)

But I think there’s more to it than that. Like Mark Crispin Miller, I think these performances reveal more than a comical disregard for the language or a second-rate intelligence. I think they reveal something innate about George Bush, something intrinsic to his personality and view of the world.

In the Bush lingo, "What you need to know" functions a way to cut off questions, end discussion, and discourage thought. It is a profoundly authoritarian phrase, one that speaks to Bush’s patrician background and privileged upbringing. He knows what we need to know, and he will make no bones about telling us. More, the use of this phrase is deeply anti-democratic, a command that the people follow and not question. It is the speaker’s way of letting you know who’s in charge, who has power, who has the right to speak. It absolves listeners of responsibility and encourages them to place all troublesome thoughts in the hands of the Dear Leader, the Grand Inquisitor, the God-king, or whatever title the dictator-of-the-day has bestowed upon himself. (And It’s almost always a "He," isn’t it?)

Bush is no dictator, not legally, but he is an authoritarian, one who seems to resent intensely the questions or criticisms of others, no matter how mild. From the start, his presidency has been spectacularly anti-democratic, whether in its quest to expand executive powers, its obsessive pursuit of secrecy, its contempt for the U.N., its incessant propagandizing, or, at the most basic level, its theft of the democratic process in Florida. "What you need to know" captures the authoritarian nature of the Bush regime, letting all of us know that we are no longer required to question, to think, to act. Bush will do these for us. That's what we need to know.

For some, this can be a tremendous relief, a lifting of burdens. You don't need to trouble your head: Bush will do your thinking for you. That's what you need to understand. Such thoughts, for some, may be comforting. It may be easier at last to love Big Brother.

For the rest of us, though, what Bush says we need to know and what we really need to know are very different things. What will we do about it?