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In the first two debates, President Bush delivered at
least five versions of the following argument about the
Iraq War:
BUSH: I don’t see how you can lead this country to
succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong
place. What message does that send our troops? What
message does that send to our allies? What message does
that send the Iraqis?
Post-debate spin made much of Bush’s clumsy repetition
of the phrase, “wrong war, wrong time, wrong
place.” But I am interested in a different feature of this
argument. I submit that this argument illustrates in perfect
microcosm Bush’s political philosophy, one that
treats criticism as the primary threat to success.
We may classify this argument as an e n t h y m e m e,
defined by Aristotle as an argument with a missing
premise to be filled in by the audience with its own
knowledge or beliefs. For example, if I said, “Susan is a
great teacher; her classes always fill up
first,” the audience would fill in the
missing premise that “the classes of
great teachers tend to fill first.” For A r i stotle,
the enthymeme was the most powerful
form of persuasion because it is
grounded in the beliefs of the audience.
H o w e v e r, it is also a risky form of persuasion
because the speaker is always gambling that the
audience will “fill in the blank” with the “right answer. ”
Let’s see how the enthymeme works in a composite
version of Bush’s arguments about Kerry’s criticism of
the war:
PREMISE 1: John Kerry has criticized decision-making
about the war.
BYAUDIENCE): People who criticize decision-making
about war can’t be successful at conducting war.
CONCLUSION: John Kerry can’t lead us to success
in Iraq.
This argument is only successful for Bush if audience
members share Bush’s belief that criticism is a pervasive
threat to the higher values of “consistency,” “certainty,”
and “success.” But such a belief is not necessarily selfevident
in an American political system that was in fact
founded on the opposite view: criticism is vital to a
healthy democracy.
The fear of criticism has been a central focus of the
administration’s re-election campaign, as illustrated by
the risky enthymeme Bush sets forth (The Onion
acknowledged this when it recently announced on its
front page that the Bush administration had declared a
“War on Criticism”). For Bush, criticism creates uncert
a i n t y, uncertainty creates weakness, and weakness
wreaks havoc. Here are Bush’s own words from his closing
remarks at the Sept. 30 debate: “If America shows
uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will
drift toward tragedy. That’s not going to happen, so long
as I’m your president.”

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