“Progress is a message that we send
One step closer to the future
One inch closer to the end”
How, under immense pressure, did the world’s most powerful leader chose to rely on a single word to defend himself and a highly unpopular war? Punk music, the world’s second largest company, former presidents and homicide detectives provide the answer.
Could the world’s most active, most powerful image-makers be taking advice from a punk music group (Bad Religion)? Passing the four year mark in his undeclared war, the U.S. president and his team, all but declared the word “progress” to be his mantra.
Responding to complaints by critics, he has said:
“Since I announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, we have made progress”
“We’re making great progress”
“We’ve made good progress”
“We are making steadfast progress”
What weird power comes with this word, that makes the world’s most powerful leader cite it so often?
Look to the president’s audiences of citizens and politicos, and you’ll find that “progress” pulses in their very fiber. For example, you only have to go as far as Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution to find a “Progress Clause”.
In this country the theme of progress emerges continually. Another president, Woodrow Wilson, offered this x-ray of the American psyche, “Progress is the word that charms their ears and stirs their hearts.”
When television came to the nation, clever companies quickly used progress to sell their products. Every week for almost a decade the future president, actor Ronald Reagan, made his fame and fortune hosting one of the most popular shows to millions. In it he presented commercials about “Turbosupercharger Progress”, “Atomic Safety Devices” and “the Kitchen of the Future”.
These earned the greatest audience-recall ratings of their era. The show was the General Electric Theater. Pollsters called it “the leading institutional campaign on television for selling ideas to the public”. The company slogan? “Progress is our most important product”.
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Fifty years later amid car bombings and suicide attacks, the U.S. vice-president finds himself visiting the most protected zone in the Iraq war to advance what? Troop morale? Support from allies? No, he’s working on the message of progress. Even a window-shaking explosion nearby didn’t sway him from delivering this message.
After summoning reporters from their basement shelter, the vice-president emphasized that Iraqi leaders “believe we are making progress”.
At home the president started to re-define progress by saying “sectarian murders are down”. A neat rhetorical trick that, like the mayor of a crime-ridden city saying “Thursday murders are down”.
One can’t really avoid the dictionary definition of progress, though. It’s simply movement toward a goal or a higher stage. However by using a restricting phrase like “sectarian murders” or “Thursday murders”, anyone can narrow the view enough to make progress seem real.
To block the sword thrusts of doubters, the president raised the verbal shield of his mantra, over and over.
“There is encouraging progress in Iraq”
“This is real progress”
“Initial signs of progress are encouraging”
“I see progress”
But by calling on this same word again and again, he raised more doubts. Even his supporters began to question the White House’s meaning of the word. One capitol politico said and others agreed, “No one knows how to define progress in such a mixed-up situation”.
Instead, they wanted to measure it.
There’s more to this story coming, with Manhattan murder detectives, a stock market style average, General Electric’s dumping of the word, and Humpty Dumpty’s special word power.