George bush's struggle with the "vision thing"

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From his 1988 campaign until he left the White House, George Bush was heavily criticized for lacking a "vision." Tom Collins of Newsday declared in August 1988 "the campaign lacks a soul, an ideal, or what George Bush unpoetically calls 'the vision thing.'"1 When evaluating Bush's leadership style in December 1989, David Broder proclaimed that Bush lacked four out of six leadership qualities, the first of which was long-range planning. "This is the vision thing Bush has so often derided, and its lack threatens to limit his presidency," Broder predicted.2 Similarly, in January 1991 an editorial in the New York Times stated that "the Bush Presidency continues to confound anyone seeking tidy definitions, let alone a convincing agenda."3 And on Bush's reelection defeat, Robert Hawkins of the San Francisco Chronicle remarked, "In the end, the 'vision thing' was Bush's Achilles heel. Rather than be a visionary, the president chose to be a steward-a major difference. A visionary stakes the future on a plan for action. A steward takes a more passive and reactive approach to leadership."4 These examples are only a small representation of the commentary on Bush's problem with "the vision thing"; the president experienced frequent public criticism.5 "The 'vision thing,' as he called it, bothered President Bush a lot," according to Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.6 "The press had labeled him as too practical or pragmatic a politician to have vision," Fitzwater noted. "A big part of that analysis was due to the fact that he was always compared to Ronald Reagan, whose vision was more visible, rooted in romanticism and dreams of 'morning in America.'"7 Unfortunately for Bush, his presidency followed that of one of the most skilled public orators in modern times. Paul Burka maintains, "It was Bush's bad timing that his shortcomings-a lack of ideological vision, the inability to articulate his ideas, the difficulty of getting across to the public who he really was-were the flip side of Reagan's strengths."8 While Reagan emerged warm and comforting, Bush appeared cold and unfeeling. "The irony," Gail Sheehy argues, "is that Bush really lives the eternal values so dear to conservatives' hearts, while Reagan mouths them and winks."9 Put simply, it was Reagan's ability to conceptualize and articulate a rhetorical vision that enabled him to be successful as chief executive, a skill Bush did not have. Bush's difficulty in developing, articulating, and promoting a rhetorical vision meant the public did not know who George Bush was or for what he stood. His rhetorical ineptitude and trouble with the "vision thing" caused him to fall short of the demands of the modern rhetorical presidency whose "expectations do not suit very favorably a president who is cautious and believes, like Bush, that a good president is a strong steward abroad who does no harm at home."10 And as Bush biographer Herbert S. Parmet accurately recognizes, "Those remembered for eloquence did not gain fame by asking for the status quo-they sent up flares for change, in each case, perceived by the newly empowered as sorely needed and eagerly awaited by much of the public."11 Bush's belief that change should be slow and incremental prevented him from recognizing the need to create a coherent rhetorical vision until late in his presidency. But by that time he was already classified as a visionless status-quo leader and pejoratively dubbed a wimp. That Bush mentioned the term vision 277 times in his presidential addresses over the span of four years complicates the notion that he himself had no vision.12 Examination of all Bush's addresses in which he used the term vision shows that in 1989 he referred to vision 56 times; in 1990, 80times; in 1991, 66times; and in 1992 75 times. In other words, Bush used the term the least during his first year, but then substantially increased its use over his last three years in office. This leaves us with the quandary of how someone who mentioned the term so often could be accused of not possessing a vision, especially if, as Murray Edelman notes, "political language is political reality."13 Yet if we judge Bush's political reality by his allusions to vision, we must conclude that the vision Bush had was not his own; of the 277 times in which Bush utilized the term, 143 references pertained toothers. In other words, more than half the times when Bush mentioned a "vision," he was referring to some other person, organization, business, or movement: George Washington, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Republican Party, the Cuban government, business entrepreneurs, the American space program, small-town educators, athletes. Laying aside Bush's dependence upon others' visions, his second most discussed "vision" resided unsurprisingly in a global arena. For example, he asserted on February 2, 1989, "The scope of America's vision is global, and we will continue to shoulder the obligations that belong to a global power."14 He discussed vision within the context of foreign policy 78 times, almost onethird of the total, covering such subjects as the United Nations and the flowering of democracy in the East. Bush also stressed a "New World Order" in which the United Nations would play an integral role in promoting freedom and democracy around the globe.15 Yet global rhetorical visions began to lack resonance with the American people almost as soon as Bush took office. In the post-Cold War era Americans wanted attention focused inward on domestic problems, yet the president had an international vision. This left Bush to mention vision under the auspices of domestic policy less than one-fifth of the time, focusing mainly on economics, education, drugs, and crime.16 Overwhelmingly, the public called home while Bush dialed foreign dignitaries. Why did Bush's vision discourse, attenuated though it was, fail to capture public awareness? In two addresses, one on August 6, 1991 and the other on June 23 1992 Bush poetically stated, "A vision without a task is but a dream; a task without a vision is drudgery; but a vision with a task is the hope of the world."17 While this statement might lead one to believe George Bush understood the importance of and actually possessed a vision, I argue that he missed the "vision thing" because he did not create a public narrative that was simple, repetitive, familiar, and artistic. Effective rhetorical visions serve as public messages that increase community cohesion, encourage public action, and provide a common, shared narrative. According to Ernest Bormann, "the fantasy dramas of a successful persuasive campaign chain out in public audiences to form a rhetorical vision."18 Rhetorical visions include heroes, villains, validating forces, settings, meanings, and calls to action, all transmitted in a stylish fashion. Using a dramatistic form, rhetors perpetuate visions by constructing messages that are simple, repetitive, familiar, and artistic. While all public servants are expected to offer a "vision" to their constituents in the era of the "rhetorical presidency," the chief executive's espousal of a "vision" appears to be an unofficial requirement of the office. To help gain an understanding of George Bush's inability to construct a vision-at least as perceived by the American public-I briefly offer Reagan's rhetoric as an exemplar of an effective rhetorical vision. In his examination of Reagan's use of the narrative form, William F. Lewis concludes that "his story gave a clear, powerful, reassuring, and self-justifying meaning to America's public life."19 Reagan managed this by crafting a com- plete drama in which the American people could engage. Lewis explains: "Reagan portrays American history as a continuing struggle for progress against great obstacles imposed by economic adversity, barbaric enemies, or Big Government. It is a story with great heroes-Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt-with great villains-the monarchs of pre-Revolutionary Europe, the Depression, the communists, the Democrats-and with a great theme- The rise of freedom and economic progress. It is a story that is sanctified by God and validated by the American experience."20 Lewis tells us that Reagan's messages consistently reinforced the same themes.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Rhetorical Presidency of George H. W. Bush
PublisherTexas A&M University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)1585444715, 9781585444717
StatePublished - 2006


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