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More John Wayne rhetoric infuses politics

Bush's 'bring 'em on' line is indicative of a growing machismo in public discourse.

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American culture may be awash in action heroes from the Hulk to the Terminator, but increasingly, it seems the summer's biggest display of testosterone is coming not from Hollywood - but from Washington.

"Bring 'em on," President Bush declared, when asked about guerrilla attacks on US troops in Iraq.

"A bunch of bull," former press secretary Ari Fleischer said this week, in dismissing charges of hyped intelligence before the war.

Even Democrats - the so-called "Mommy Party" - are spouting locker-room language: At a house party in New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry reportedly told the crowd: "We're going to have to get up off our [rear ends] and work" to win the White House.

Tough talk and displays of machismo are nothing new in politics, of course. Presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson were known for blunt, even coarse utterances - though they rarely made them in public.

But in a post-9/11, post-Iraq war era, Washington officials seem to be starring in the ultimate Bad Boys remake, projecting a new "America with attitude," as Gen. Tommy Franks recently put it in his retirement speech.

It's as if LBJ's "political power talk" has evolved into "clich├ęs that seem to jump out of B movies," says Wayne Fields, a political rhetoric expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

The star of this movie is clearly the president himself, whose "bring 'em on" comment was simply the latest in a string of cinematic one-liners. In the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists, Bush famously vowed to "smoke 'em out," and bring them in "dead or alive," evoking comparisons to tough-guy icons from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood - though more recently, the presidential imagery seemed to shift to Tom Cruise, after his highly visible "Top Gun" landing on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

But while Democrats have on various occasions attacked the president's "phony, macho rhetoric," as Rep. Dick Gephardt labeled it, they're not immune to the trend, either. Washington's fondness for the phrase "Bring it on" may well have originated with Sen. John Edwards, who uses it routinely in his stump speech when defending against GOP attacks on his trial-lawyer background. And the rise of former Gov. Howard Dean is often attributed in large part to his blunt, aggressive tone on the trail.


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