Life and Times of a Bush Catchphrase
March 22, 2002
By Lisa and Snellius
It's no secret that George W. Bush uses a lot of repetition
in his speeches. So do a lot of other people who address the
public on a regular basis -- in fact, the consistent use of
a theme, or particular set of phrases, helps emphasize the
speaker's arguments much more effectively. Even the most casual
observers can now recite at least one Bush classic phrase:
"make no mistake"; "smoke them out"; or "you're with us or
against us". Some of these quotes, like "axis of evil", are
invented by his speechwriters. Others, such as "wanted dead
or alive", or "we're going to get 'em", are blurted out by
George W. himself in a moment of enthusiasm.
Recently, "Snellius", a longtime member of Democratic Underground,
pointed out something I hadn't realized -- the parallels between
Bush's oft-repeated "they thought we were soft" speech, and
a quote from Bill Clinton.
The Clinton speech was given at Yale University, on October
6, 2001 -- less than a month after the attacks. In it, the
former President noted:
"Mr. Bin Laden and his allies misjudge America. They think
we are fundamentally a weak, greedy, selfish, materialistic
people. They think we are weakened by our lack of a national
religion and imposed social order. But they are wrong."
Snellius urged me to read the Clinton speech, and look at
the ways in which it probably influenced Bush's subsequent
remarks. "Bush also uses 'materialistic' but the difference
in the sophistication of their arguments is obviously quite
Indeed, even though Bush did refer to the terrorists being
"wrong" in his September speeches, his wording is much more
convoluted. In fact, the impression he gives is downright
touchy-feely, as he talks about the hijackers trying to "diminish
our soul". After Clinton's Yale speech, Bush's statements
become noticeably more clear and direct. Both Bush and Clinton
are known for switching back and forth between "plain-spoken"/vernacular
language, and more formal English, but particularly for this
example, it's evident that Clinton's use of slang is much
less forced -- he also manages to avoid lapsing into a caricature
and sounding flippant. (Reportedly, even Mrs. Bush was upset
by the "gonna git 'em" tone used by her husband in front of
reporters and diplomats.)
From the White House websites and other transcript sources,
I've collected various examples of the "they thought we were
soft" speech, which show the ways in which it's changed since
the fall of 2001.
1) September 24, 2001
The Rose Garden
"See, these terrorists thought they could affect the United
States. They thought they could diminish our soul. They just
strengthened our country. And while the numbers aren't going
to look too good in the short-run, we'll be a stronger nation
as a result of this. And they've miscalculated. They made
a terrible mistake. They thought somehow they could affect
the psyche of our country. They're wrong."
*At this stage, while Bush states that the attackers made
"a terrible mistake", the emphasis is on the diminishment
of the nation's soul.
2) September 25, 2001
"And there's going to be one other thing that's required to
defeat the enemy, and that's the will and determination of
the American people. I believe the evildoers miscalculated
when they struck America. They thought we would shy away.
They thought their threats could hold this nation hostage.
They must have felt like they could diminish our soul. But
quite the opposite has taken place. They've strengthened the
spirit of America. They have united their country."
*A bit of ambiguity over "they" in the last sentence....
3) September 26, 2001
CIA Headquarters Langley, Virginia
"The folks who conducted to act on our country on September
11th made a big mistake. They underestimated America. They
underestimated our resolve, our determination, our love for
freedom. They misunderestimated the fact that we love a neighbor
in need. They misunderestimated the compassion of our country.
I think they misunderestimated the will and determination
of the Commander-in-Chief, too."
*Bush's invention from the campaign, "misunderestimate",
resurfaces here -- probably on purpose. But he hasn't used
it since, in association with this expression.
On October 6, Bill Clinton made his Yale speech. The full
text is available here
While Clinton also referred to the terrorists having been
in error about their views of America, he used a series of
words ("weak, greedy, selfish, materialistic"), some of which
were subsequently adopted by Bush. (Synonyms also began to
creep in, which led some other Democratic Underground members
to speculate on which type of thesaurus was favored by the
4) October 12, 2001
Hispanic Heritage Month Event
The East Room
"You know, obviously this is a time of great national unity.
The evil ones struck, but they forgot who they were striking,
evidently. They thought they were going to weaken us, but
they didn't. We're strong and united."
5) October 24, 2001
Dixie Printing Company
Glen Burnie, Maryland
"When the terrorists struck our homeland, they thought we
would fold. They thought our economy would crater. That's
what they wanted. But they don't understand America. They
don't understand the entrepreneurial spirit of our country.
They don't understand the spirit of the working men and women
of America. They don't understand that small business owners
all across our country are saying, we're not going to allow
you to terrorize us. The terrorists wanted our economy to
stop. It hasn't. They wanted to diminish the spirit of America.
It didn't. They thought the government wouldn't be able to
react. The government is going to react with an economic stimulus
package that is good for workers."
*Bush ties the expression into his administration's economic
6) October 31, 2001
National Association of Manufacturers
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building
"But I'm optimistic for another reason. I'm optimistic because
the spirit of this country is incredibly strong. This is a
fabulous nation. The evil ones thought they could affect the
spirit of America, but it's had an opposite effect.
*A throwback to the "soul" references of earlier?
7) November 9, 2001
Proclamation Signing Ceremony for National Employer Support
of the Guard and Reserve Week
The East Room
"The terrorists thought they could break the spirit of this
country. They really didn't understand America. Their attacks
have had the opposite effect, for we are strong."
8) November 20, 2001
So Others Might Eat
"But the evildoers never really -- they must have not known
who they were attacking. (Laughter.) They must have thought
we were soft and hateful. In fact,the attacks have united
our country, have rallied a nation, and out of evil will come
*This marks the first time when Bush's modification ("they
must have not known who they were attacking") gets a different
kind of reaction from the sombre, reflective tone up until
then. From now on, Bush reworks the line to make it sound
more defiant -- even playing it for laughs.
9) December 19, 2001
The South Lawn
"One of the things I like to remind the enemy is, you thought
you were going to change America when you hit us. You thought
by your actions and by your attacks that somehow this nation
was so soft that we didn't know how to respond. And they're
paying a terrible price for their miscalculation."
*As for other parts of his speeches, Bush starts addressing
the enemy personally, adopting a taunting, scolding tone.
10) January 8, 2002
Lundholm Gym, University of New Hampshire
Durham, New Hampshire
"You know, the enemy made a big mistake. They didn't understand
America. They thought because of our richness, that we were
soft, that we didn't believe in anything, that we weren't
willing to stand up for what we think is right. And they're
paying a dear price for messing with America."
*Shades of "Don't Mess With Texas" -- which in any case
was popularized long before he became governor, as part of
an anti-littering campaign.
11) January 10, 2002
"Our enemies rely upon surprise and deception. They used to
reply [sic] upon the fact that they thought we were soft.
I don't think they think that way anymore."
12) January 11, 2002
Millennium Corporate Center
"Those folks didn't understand our country. They thought because
we were prosperous and free, we would be soft and complacent.
They made a grave mistake."
13) January 14, 2002
John Deere Harvester Works
East Moline, Illinois
"The enemy made a mistake. They thought this nation was soft.
They thought because we're a wealthy nation that we wouldn't
rise to the occasion. Oh, my, are they wrong."
*Bush finishes remolding the original Clinton quote into
a "so there!" taunt.
14) January 14, 2002
Springfield-Branson Regional Airport
"One of the things that the evil ones didn't figure out was
how strong we are. (Applause.) Oh, they knew we had a nice
military, but they didn't think we'd use it. They made a bad
15) January 14, 2002
MFA Feed Mill
"You know, when the enemy hit us, I was amazed to read that
they really thought we were soft. They kind of didn't understand
America very well. They might have been watching too much
TV or something, I don't know what it was. But they thought,
well, we'll hit them, and then America will fold their tent.
We may launch a Cruise Missile or two, but that will be it.
Man, did they make a big mistake."
*This is the first appearance of the "television" reference,
which showed up unexpectedly here. In addition, he appears
to be referring to an earlier swipe he took at Clinton's cruise
missile attack on the terrorists, saying that he wouldn't
fire an expensive weapon and "hit a camel in the butt". Bush
also slides into a presumption of familiarity with the attackers'
inmost thoughts (which he implies quite often).
16) January 15, 2002
The Port of New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana
"The enemy didn't understand our country. You know, they thought
we were so materialistic that we were soft. They thought we
cared more about ourselves than we cared about something greater
than ourselves. But they were wrong. They didn't understand
the character of America. They don't know how tough we can
be -- they didn't realize how tough we could be if we decided
to be tough. They thought we would be impatient, and they're
wrong. They thought we'd get tired early. They don't understand
*first appearance of the word "materialistic", which as
Snellius points out, seems to come directly from the Clinton
17) January 22, 2002
Charleston Regional Airport
Charleston, West Virginia
"You know, the enemy when they hit us on 9/11, really didn't
understand America. They thought we were soft. I guess they
were watching too much TV. (Laughter.) They didn't understand
our character or our resolve."
18) January 22, 2002
Cecil I. Walker Machinery Company
Charleston, West Virginia
"You know, I was floored to think about the attitudes of the
enemy when they thought we were soft. I couldn't figure out
which TV show they had been watching. (Laughter.) I mean,
can you imagine somebody saying the great United States won't
respond, or the great United States really doesn't care, won't
commit the resources necessary to rid the world of evil? But,
my, oh, my, did they make a huge mistake."
19) January 24, 2002
Event with U.S. Mayors and County Officials
The East Room
"I bring up matters of the spirit because the enemy doesn't
understand who they hit. They first thought they were hitting
somebody, a nation which was soft, a nation which wouldn't
-- oh, we might respond but we wouldn't mean it. You know,
it would be kind of a slap-on-the-wrist response."
*This appears to be another swipe at Clinton, whom Bush
and his aides had accused of allowing the terrorists to flourish
20) January 30, 2002
Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
"This country is taking an assessment right now of what's
important. The evil ones thought that we were weak. They didn't
understand us. As I say, they were probably watching too much
*Bush tempers his criticism to focus on daytime television
(soaps and talk shows, apparently).
21) January 31, 2002
Booker T. Washington High School
"You know, I like to put it this way. The enemy must have
been watching too much daytime TV. They thought we were weak.
They thought we would roll over by one single attack. My,
my, were they mistaken. The enemy thought that we were too
materialistic, too self-absorbed, that we would tire and weary."
22) January 31, 2002
Atlanta Mariott Marquis
"You know, I like to tell people that the enemy must have
been watching too much daytime TV. (Laughter.) They thought
we were soft. They thought we would weaken. They thought we
were so materialistic that we'd be unable to put something
greater than ourselves as a priority. But my, oh, my, did
they make a huge mistake. (Applause.)
23) February 4, 2002
Eglin Air Force Base
Fort Walton Beach, Florida
"The terrorists are beginning to realize they picked the wrong
enemy. (Applause.) As I like to put it, they must have been
watching too much daytime TV. (Laughter.) They thought we
were soft. They thought we would roll over. My, oh, my, they
haven't got us figured out."
24) February 6, 2002
Friends of Governor Pataki Reception
New York, New York
"The enemy, in attacking New York City, made a terrible mistake.
They must not understand what America's character is like.
I like to say they must have been watching too much daytime
TV. (Laughter.) They -- they miscalculated. They thought we
were soft. They thought we were so materialistic and selfish
that we couldn't think beyond ourselves, that we couldn't
think in terms of a grand idea, that we wouldn't cherish freedom
to the point where we would fight for it. And that miscalculation
has been most notable with the Taliban government in Afghanistan."
*Another of the words used by Clinton, "selfish", turns
up. If we define "soft" as synonymous with "weak", we've hit
the trifecta (in a manner of speaking).
25) February 6, 2002
NYPD Command and Control Center
New York, New York
"You know, I don't know what went through the enemy's mind
when they attacked us. I think they thought we were soft.
I like to needle them by saying they must have been watching
too much daytime TV. (Laughter.) They probably thought that,
oh, we'll attack and we'll just kind of roll over, gnash our
teeth a little bit, wring our hands, mourn for the dead, and
forget. Boy, they really miscalculated."
*Surrounded by policemen, Bush appears confident enough
to "needle" the enemy he later characterized as "trained killers".
26) February 8, 2002
Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show
"You know, when the enemy hit us on September the 11th, they
must have not figured out what we were all about. See, they
thought we weren't determined, they thought we were soft.
They obviously had never been to a National Cattlemen's Convention
*Bush works in an endorsement for his campaign sponsors.
27) February 15, 2002
Peace Corps Event
Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building
"When America was attacked on September the 11th, they thought
our country would splinter into fear and selfishness. They
thought we'd fall apart. They thought we didn't have any fiber
28) February 16, 2002
"It's hard for me to figure out what was going through the
minds of those who planned and attacked America. They must
have thought we were soft --
MEMBER IN THE AUDIENCE: They were wrong!
"Yes, they were. They thought we were so materialistic that
we didn't understand sacrifice and honor and duty. They must
have been watching some lousy movies."
*By now, even the audience knows what's coming next, as
shown by the person who yelled out the next line. But Bush
counters by dismissing cinema instead of daytime television.
29) February 21, 2002
Osan Air Base
Seoul, Republic of Korea
"Those who attacked us, and those who still want to try to
hurt us, are beginning to realize they picked the wrong enemy.
(Applause.) They thought we were soft. They thought we were
so materialistic that we would not be willing to sacrifice.
They didn't realize that we're a patient nation, that we're
a deliberate nation."
30) February 27, 2002
Robin Hayes for Congress and Elizabeth Dole for Senate
North Carolina Republican Party Luncheon
Charlotte, North Carolina
"The enemy hit us. They thought we were weak and soft. Instead,
they found a nation that is strong and determined."
31) February 27, 2002
Chamber of Commerce
Charlotte, North Carolina
"You know, the enemy attacked a nation that they thought was
weak. And, man, did they make a mistake. They thought the
United States was so materialistic, so caught up in a false
Hollywood vision of America, that we would accept their attack
as part of the normalcy in America, that we would do nothing
*So now it's Hollywood's fault, for making America a ripe
target for attack.
32) March 1, 2002
The Printer, Inc.
Des Moines, Iowa
"When they attacked our country, they really didn't understand
America. They thought we were soft. They thought we had a
culture that was so materialistic that nobody in this land
would be willing to sacrifice for something greater than ourselves.
And they made a huge mistake."
33) March 4, 2002
Minnesota Republican Party Victory 2002 and Coleman for Senate
"The enemy really misunderstood America. When they attacked
us, they must have thought we were soft, that we were so materialistic
that we wouldn't understand sacrifice and duty and honor.
They thought we would blink, and they made a huge mistake."
34) March 4, 2002
Eden Prairie High School
Eden Prairie, Minnesota
"And when they attacked us, they thought we were soft and
materialistic. They thought our nation had no fiber and no
courage. They fell prey to images of a selfish American, a
selfish America. And, my, did they make a huge mistake."
35) March 8, 2002
Republican Party of Florida Reception
St. Pete Beach, Florida
"We got attacked by some murderers, people -- and I like to
remind people, they must have not known who they were attacking.
They thought we were soft, they thought we were self-absorbed.
They thought we were so materialistic that we would maybe
try to sue them. (Laughter.) That we wouldn't deal with them.
But they made a big mistake."
*Possibly with his eye on more tort reform legislation,
Bush retools his speech to slam lawyers.
36) March 8, 2002
America II Electronics
St. Petersburg, Florida
"We were attacked by a ruthless enemy, who must not have understood
America. They must have thought we were soft and so incredibly
materialistic and self-absorbed that we would not find the
will to fight and sacrifice for that which we hold dear. And
they have made a huge miscalculation."
37) March 12, 2002
Event with NCAA Sports Champions
The East Room
"You know, the enemy, when they hit America, didn't understand
us. They didn't think we were a nation that could conceivably
sacrifice for something greater than ourself, that we were
soft, that we were so self-absorbed and so materialistic that
we wouldn't defend anything we believed in. My, were they
wrong. They missed -- they just were reading the wrong magazine,
or watching the wrong Springer show."
*Bush broadens the scope of media encouraging terrorist
attacks to include paper periodicals. But he evidently still
thinks daytime TV is a significant influence, for he singles
out Jerry Springer in particular.
38) March 15, 2002
Cumberland County Complex
Fayetteville, North Carolina
"And you know what? The terrorists have now figured out they
picked on the wrong people. (Applause.) They must have thought
we were soft. They must have thought we were so materialistic
that we wouldn't fight for values that we loved. They must
have thought that we were so self-absorbed, that the word
sacrifice had left the American vocabulary. And, my, were
39) March 18, 2002
"It wasn't all that long ago that the enemy miscalculated
and attacked America, thinking that maybe we were such a materialistic
society, we wouldn't defend that which we hold dear to our
40) March 19, 2002
Women Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century Summit
"Not only watching how New Yorkers responded, but seeing how
our nation responded, leads me to conclude that the enemy
didn't understand who they were dealing with. (Applause.)
You see, they thought we were so materialistic and so self-absorbed
that the only thing I was going to do was sue 'em. (Laughter.)
They were wrong, they were wrong."
So that's where the phrase stands, as of March 20th. Nobody
here felt confident in placing bets that the White House would
retire it from use anytime soon. Snellius, in a recent note
to me, observed:
"Bush's speech writers have lifted from Clinton's idea almost
completely -- softness, selfishness, materialism. The only
quality missing, interestingly enough, is greed."