Democratic Underground  

The 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 striking."

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
FBI Headquarters

"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 or 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 White House.)

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 stimulus package.

6) October 31, 2001
National Association of Manufacturers
Presidential Hall
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
Washington, D.C.

"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 good."

*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
The Pentagon
Arlington, Virginia

"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
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania

"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
Springfield, Missouri

"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 mistake."

15) January 14, 2002
MFA Feed Mill
Aurora, Missouri

"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 us."

*first appearance of the word "materialistic", which as Snellius points out, seems to come directly from the Clinton quote.

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 unchecked.

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 daytime TV."

*Bush tempers his criticism to focus on daytime television (soaps and talk shows, apparently).

21) January 31, 2002
Booker T. Washington High School
Atlanta, Georgia

"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
Atlanta, Georgia

"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
Denver, Colorado

"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 before."

*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 or character."

28) February 16, 2002
Anchorage, Alaska

"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 about it."

*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 Dinner
Minneapolis, Minnesota

"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 they wrong."

39) March 18, 2002
Albers Manufacturing
O'Fallon, Missouri

"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 heart."

40) March 19, 2002
Women Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century Summit
Washington, D.C.

"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."

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage