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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 June 2006, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Washington diary: Bush's word addiction
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

The Rose Garden of the White House is particularly alluring in late spring. The flowers are in bloom and the air is sweetly scented.

It is, you might say, an ideal venue from which to defend the institution of marriage and welcome a group of spiritual leaders who pride themselves on sniffing out the difference between incense and sulphur.

President Bush speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Not the fragrance of the Rose Garden...

So, everyone who had flocked to hear the president propose a constitutional amendment on banning same-sex marriage was a little disappointed to discover that the venue had been changed to a rather nondescript briefing room on the fourth floor of the drab Executive Office Building next to the White House.

Trusting souls pointed to dark clouds billowing on the horizon. But others immediately jumped to conspiracy theories.

The White House had read the weekend papers. They were alarmed by editorials suggesting that the Constitutional ban was being dusted off and warmed up as a cynical ploy to "re-energise" the most feverish ranks of the Republican Party, as if social conservatives are like motorised bunnies with new sets of batteries, pointed in the direction of the mid term polls.

Moreover the White House had briefed reporters that the president would not work the phones to senators and congressmen in an effort to persuade them to support the amendment and thus forge the necessary two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate.

Why do people see gay marriage as such a threat?
Wendy, Sydney

The founding fathers had set the bar to re-writing the hallowed Constitution suitably high. The president's amendment is once again destined to fail.

None of this seemed to depress the rabbis, monks, priests and evangelical bigwigs who had gathered in room 450 of the Executive Office Building.

They interrupted the president's short speech with enthusiastic applause and like teenagers at a pop concert many brandished sleek mobile phones to snap grainy mementoes of their hero.

Raised expectations

Even the affable Dr James Dobson, the leader of Focus on the Family, an organisation that is to Christian family values what Toyota is to family cars, was surprisingly hopeful.

George Bush's principal problem is not that he can't articulate what's on his mind, it's that he sometimes says it all too well
"We won't succeed," he told me, "but we are getting closer every time and I will continue this fight (to ban same-sex marriage) until the last breath has left my body!"

Dr Dobson and the other guests were all sporting saucer-sized badges declaring "Marriage= one man + one woman", as if there were still any lingering doubts about their nuptial arithmetic.

"Aren't you disappointed that the president won't be following up his rhetoric with phone calls to Capitol Hill?" I asked.

"Look, let's be realistic," he said. "Even my wife doesn't do everything I want her to do!"

Other evangelical leaders I spoke to were less tolerant of the president's attention-deficit disorder.

One of God's most powerful lobbyists in the Beltway told me that the president's speech could make him look at best weak and at worst cynical. It would raise expectations that are doomed to fail.

Audience member wears a badge supporting a ban on gay marriages
The message from opponents of same-sex marriages is clear

The polls still indicate that the majority of legislators and voters don't want to see the Constitution amended even if they do not favour the notion of Adam marrying Hank and Eve marrying Jean.

Some evangelical voters in swing rural counties of swing states like Ohio may have been "energised" by the President's last call for a constitutional ban in 2004 to go out and vote. But the scientific evidence suggests that the link between such an announcement and voting patterns is extremely tenuous.

George Bush has much bigger problems within the evangelical community than leading the march against same-sex marriage.

Loyal supporters

Opinion polls suggest that he has fallen from the grace of a 78% approval rating last year amongst America's born-again Christians to a mere 52%. The reason for this haemorrhage is depressingly familiar: the Iraq War.

George Bush had lost the support of the gay community a long time ago. The pressure group Log Cabin Republicans felt betrayed when he launched his first constitutional offensive against gay marriage.

Kathy Burke, left, and Tonja Alois of Rotterdam, N.Y, wait outside New York State's highest court
The issue of gay marriages is being debated in the courts

It was also one of the very few issues on which he parted company with his vice-president, whose daughter Mary is openly lesbian, and with his wife, Laura, who told Fox News bluntly that same-sex marriage should not be used as a campaign tool.

This time George Bush also risks upsetting his most loyal supporters on the Christian right, who hate nothing more than a cynical ploy in the service of what they see as a noble cause.

In January 2005, he told the Washington Post that the Defence of Marriage Act was already an effective bar to the spread of gay marital union. There is no point in fighting for a constitutional change! So, what's new?

Addicted to words

As I listened to him I suddenly had my own revelation.

George Bush's principal problem is not that he can't articulate what's on his mind. It's that he sometimes says it all too well. (I can only remember one line from that world-class word schmoozer Bill Clinton and it was a disclaimer about Miss Lewinsky which the former president probably wished no one had remembered!)

President Bush leaves after delivering remarks on the Marriage Protection Act in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building
President Bush: Man of words as much as action
But vintage Bush lines like "axis of evil", "our mission is to end tyranny in our world", "America is addicted to oil", and "We are in a conflict between good and evil and America will call evil by its name!" do stick in my mind.

They are pithy phrases written for a transformational president, who underpins his policies with his faith.

They are crafted by a brilliant team of speech-writers, inspired by the Bible and meticulously approved by the man who has to deliver them. And because they can be remembered they hold up all too well to scrutiny or derision.

The "axis of evil" has been turned by the Economist into the "axis of feeble".

If America calls evil by its name, what does it call Abu Ghraib or Haditha? If it is addicted to oil what is the addict-in-chief doing to give his voters the cold turkey of recovery?

If it is committed to ending tyranny, why is America making friends with Colonel Gaddafi or allowing Egypt to get away with oppression?

And if President Bush is committed to defending "marriage as the most important institution in the history of mankind", what is he doing to lower the divorce rate or, for that matter, to bring about a constitutional amendment?

In his second term, the Decider (as he recently referred to himself) looks as if he's addicted to words. Not the kind of thing you'd expect from a swashbuckling Texan!


Matt Frei Troubled times
Rollercoaster ride as America wakes up to economic crisis

Jan - Jun 2008
Jul - Dec 2007
Jan - Jun 2007
2006 entries

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