Analyzing Evil Speeches

The man who gave the world “the axis of evil” left the White House, presumably never to return. Though his words captured people’s attention around the world, chief speech writer, Michael Gerson’s identity was relatively unknown.

That famous three-word power phrase emerged from word games inside the White House four-person speech writing team – people with weighty compound titles such as “Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Speech Writing”, and “Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Presidential Speech writing”. By contrast, 80 years ago the very first of their kind settled for the modest designation of “literary clerk”.

Whatever the bureaucracy weighing on their creativity, the presidential speech team of “literary clerks” did manage to produce the “axis term” to link certain countries to terrorists in the public mind. The phrase developed when one of the team coined “axis of hatred”. Then evangelical Christian heavyweight Gerson stepped in and spun it into a more theological “axis of evil”.

Evil, of course, is not new to the White House. Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. And more obliquely, Franklin Roosevelt called the war against Germany a battle between the cross and the swastika.

History has conveniently, if somewhat cruelly, provided snapshots in time of two different speeches created in remarkably similar tragedies. Look at the Pearl Harbor and the September 11 attacks, and at the responses of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George Walker Bush .

In both cases, a nation was suddenly shocked by large numbers of deaths ( 2,403 at Pearl Harbor; at least 2,973 on September 11), and serious material destruction ( 18 ships, including five battleships at Pearl Harbor; seven buildings on September 11). And in both cases, the President responded within a day with an address to the American people.

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FDR’s speech – it’s said – was composed in his head. He then reportedly dictated calmly to his secretary what appeared to be a request to Congress for a declaration of war, but which was more a rallying cry to the American people.

The development of GWB’s speech is less clear, but it’s reasonable to suppose the core writing team was involved. In any case the texts of the speeches speak for themselves.

Some people would compare the speeches subjectively. Such comparisons will always be debatable. But interesting differences can be found by more scientific analysis. For instance consider the frequency of repeated words and phrases. The longest phrase repeated by FDR is “last night Japanese forces attacked”, which he says three times. GWB’s is “will be open for business”, which he repeats twice.

Among non-trivial or uncommon single words FDR repeats “Japanese” the most, ten times. For GWB the leading word is “I”, repeated eight times, followed by “America” (six times), “world” (five times), and “evil” (four times).

FDR’s next most repeated words or phrases are “United States”, “American”, “forces”, and “I”, all six times each.

As to the raw mileage for each speech, FDR covers his distance in 518 words, while GWB takes 596. How big are the words? GWB uses an average of 16 syllables every ten words and 16 words per sentence, while FDR weighs in at 17 average syllables and close to 19 words per sentence.

We hear smaller words, shorter sentences, and a longer speech from GWB in 2001 than from FDR in 1941. And remember, FDR’s was heard through radio; GWB’s was seen on television.

One last word count shows a major difference in verbal responses to these two attacks. FDR spent a bit under 300 words describing the facts of what had happened, and about 60 words describing the actions he and his government were taking. For GWB the figures are reversed: 300 words cover his actions and the government’s, while about 60 cover the facts of the attack.

What do these differences in these speech texts reveal? A difference in the times? Or in the natures of attacks and enemies? In the media that delivered them? In the audiences at whom they were targeted? In the bureaucracies that generated them? Or in the men who delivered them?

More from Joseph JK . . .