Just the Facts

Nothing is more beautiful, more elevating, more important in a speech than fact and logic. People think passionate and moving oratory is the big thing, but it isn’t. The hard true presentation of facts followed by a declaration of how we must deal with those facts is the key. Without a recitation of hard data, high rhetoric seems insubstantial, vaguely disingenuous, merely dramatic. Without a logical case to support rhetoric has nothing to do. It’s like icing without cake.

Once the facts and the declaration are put forward it’s fine to use eloquence if you can muster it, and ringing oratory too if it will help people to see things as you do, and help them lean toward taking the course of action you recommend.

So to sum up: Moving oratory is what you use to underscore a point. It is not in itself the point.

George W. Bush is being told by some pundits and others that ringing oratory is what he most needs in his State of the Union address tomorrow night. That is exactly wrong.

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I’m going to limit myself to war with Iraq, because whatever else is on the table, and there’s a lot, nothing is more important than war. One expects Mr. Bush will give a last warning to Saddam Hussein and the world that either a regime change will come to Iraq or war will. I suspect we’ll hear the don’t-make-me-come-up-there sound bite over and over in the coming week. Fine by me, but more is needed.
Last year’s State of the Union is remembered for dramatic declarations and rhetorical flourishes—”axis of evil,” etc. That seemed right for the times. America had been brutally attacked months before, Americans needed to know of their president’s determination to define and deal with our enemies.

But now, in January 2003, a year rich with rhetoric has passed. Mr. Bush’s passion is well-established. Too much so, actually. Last summer, when Mr. Bush told Bob Woodward’s tape recorder that he personally loathes Kim Jung Il, when he spoke of his disdain in startlingly personal tones—and when the world heard it on television, for Mr. Woodward apparently provided the tape to publicists when he was selling his Bush book—well, that was not a great moment in the history of diplomacy. Mr. Bush’s father was often accused of allowing himself to express too little. George W. Bush may be remembered in part for allowing himself to express too much. Anyway this has become one passionate presidency.

The times are passionate. Last year in the State of the Union, Mr. Bush essentially argued for war. Now we are on the brink of it. Tensions are high. If the U.S. invades Iraq and succeeds, many Americans will tell pollsters they always backed the president and supported the war. If we invade and fail, just as many Americans will tell pollsters they’d always opposed war and that Mr. Bush is a hothead.

Lately Mr. Bush’s comments to reporters on Iraq have taken a more heated tone—he’s fed up with Saddam; he’s seen this movie before. Mr. Bush is upping the rhetorical ante. Even Colin Powell last week took on a new toughness when speaking of his doubts regarding weapons inspections, and Condi Rice has declared that Saddam has to know that time is about run out.

It is not farfetched to assume that all of this is part of a deliberate plan to break stasis and force movement. The president and his advisers are telling Iraq’s generals: We mean it, we’re coming, if you want to die with Saddam, go ahead, but if you want to live, then take him out now. They’re talking to Saddam too. They’re saying: This is the last chance you’ll get to take your billions and retire to Africa, much of which is already Dodge City and inclined therefore to give a hearty welcome to a new psychopath at the neighborhood bar.

In the meantime Mr. Bush is sending carriers, ships and matériel to the Gulf, getting everything in place for invasion.

In a surprising way, by the way, the personal Bush-to-Saddam invective may tend to prove to Saddam what his intelligence services are no doubt telling him: this is all personal with Mr. Bush, he thinks you tried to kill his dad, he’s mad for war—and a Christian fanatic who thinks God wants him to invade. Mr. Bush’s comments and actions may, who knows, get Saddam to blink.

As a strategy, forcing the moment to its crisis with hot talk and troop movements carries dangers, as all strategies do. But it could reap the great reward: war averted and victory won.

But one of the problems with the strategy, if it is a strategy—and one certainly hopes it is for if it’s not there’s a lot of messy swaggering going on at the White House—is this: It leaves the world and the American people wondering if Mr. Bush isn’t a little too hot, too quick on the draw, too personal in his handling of international challenges.

In an odd way Mr. Bush’s passion about Iraq is getting in the way of his message on Iraq. It’s not carrying the message forth forcefully, which is what passion is supposed to do. At this point his passion seems to be distracting from the message.

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Which gets us to tomorrow night’s address. What we need this time is something bracing—such as facts, new facts, hard data.
Most of the public believes—even many antiwar protestors say they believe—that Saddam is a bad and dangerous man, and that the world will be less safe if he develops nuclear weapons, if he doesn’t already have them. Saddam doesn’t have a lot of fans. Mr. Bush doesn’t have to make a case against him; he needs to make the final case, the irrefutable one.

And for this, what’s needed is the slow and steady buildup of fact upon fact, like brick upon brick. Mr. Bush has to build a final forceful case in a way the world can’t miss.

Mr. Bush, as president, knows things we don’t know. Presidents always do. It would be helpful here if the president would speak of things he has not revealed before. This would include some hard intelligence that has not been divulged to the public.

He needs more than “bleeding Belgium” rhetoric: “Saddam gassed his own people.” He needs uncommon unknown data.

An example. I’m going to refer to a private conversation about another conversation, I hope in a good cause. Four months ago a friend who had recently met with the president on other business reported to me that in conversation the president had said that he has been having some trouble sleeping, and that when he awakes in the morning the first thing he often thinks is: I wonder if this is the day Saddam will do it.

“Do what exactly?” I asked my friend. He told me he understood the president to be saying that he wonders if this will be the day Saddam launches a terror attack here, on American soil.

I was surprised. We know of the arguments that Saddam is a supporter and encourager of America’s terrorist enemies. We know the information that has been made available. But the president has not to my knowledge said in public that he fears Saddam himself will hit us hard on the ground in America, and soon.

Maybe my friend misheard, maybe something was misunderstood. But my friend is a careful man, and I suspect he heard exactly right. Which begs the question, what does Mr. Bush know that he hasn’t said about Saddam’s intentions and ability to strike America?

One hopes more information will come to the public. Presidents are always bound by the need not to compromise sources or operations, and rightly so. But at this moment, on the brink of war, an immediate and situational new flexibility would seem to be helpful. If you lose a source or an operation and gain more of the understanding of the people of the world and the people of your country—well, that would seem to be a reasonable deal.

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I wonder if this famously tight-lipped administration has become institutionally and reflexively inclined to withhold more information than is warranted. It is tight-lipped about helpful and unhelpful facts alike.
Tomorrow night the world will be watching the last big speech before what looks like the next big war. It’s the perfect forum for a strong unveiling and reiteration of hard facts that speak of why, for the good of the world, Saddam must leave or be forcibly removed.