Good is up…

This is the telling line for me from President Bush’s speech last night:

The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.

While this line may not be remembered as one of the finest delivered by a President, it is nonetheless an example competent rhetoric. Final evaluation, of course, must wait for history because the final measure of rhetoric is its utility: Did it work? (I will do a formal analysis of this speech for PCR2004 by the end of the week.)

Structurally, the statement relies on the scheme of antithesis–the juxtaposing of two contrasting words, ideas, or concepts. This scheme is standard fare in Bush addresses for a number of reasons. First, antithesis reduces choices to simple dichotomies (often based on a narrow range of moral choices). Second, sustained use of this scheme sets up pleasing, rocking-horse rhythms (and makes it easier to read the Tele-Prompt-R).

The antithesis plays on the deep structural metaphor of “good is up.” Further, it deploys two active verbs often associated with this metaphor–live and rise. In our culture, to live up to one’s responsibilities is a noble component of the Protestant work ethic. To rise up to one’s responsibilities is demonstrate the willingness to live up to the ethic as well as to demonstrate one’s ability to understand and accept the moral choices involved.

But this antithesis does more than simply contrast the difference between failing to live up to something and rising up to something. It equates American interests and moral standards with UN interests and standards and finds the UN, specifically the Security Council, wanting. The antithesis effectively hides any notion that, perhaps, the Security Council is rising up to is responsibilities while the U.S. may not be living up to its responsibilities. The dichotomy disallows any such question.

Bush did not have to deliver a 15-minute speech last night. He could have spoken this single sentence and the message would have been largely the same. Is it good rhetoric? History will decide. Is it good policy? Ditto. Notice how the two–rhetoric and policy–are difficult to separate.

UPDATE (8:05 a.m.): William Saletan offers a broader look at the rhetoric of the address in terms of intent. He says the purposes of the speech were to psych out Iraq and psych up the U.S. I think that’s an accurate assessment of the overall purposes of the address. The statement I analyze above plays into these intentions by putting moral distance between U.S. and UN actions, i.e. If the world won’t do the right thing then we must. This is a powerful psych up for Americans.