Bush Was Transformed Into a Charismatic Leader After 9/11, UB Study of His Speeches, Resulting Media Coverage Shows

Release Date: September 6, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new study by a University at Buffalo professor may explain the gut feelings of Americans who think President Bush became a much more charismatic leader after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Using a computerized dictionary of charismatic themes and language, James R. Meindl -- a renowned researcher on the attributes of charisma and leadership -- analyzed text from all of Bush's major speeches and radio addresses before and since 9/11, as well as news media coverage of the speeches. He found that Bush's rhetoric and word usage became much more charismatic after 9/11, as did language used by media to describe and depict Bush's leadership after the terrorist attacks.

The findings underscore the importance of charismatic leadership during a crisis and help explain why Bush's approval ratings spiked after 9/11, says Meindl, Carmichael Professor of Organization and Human Resources in the UB School of Management.

"Bush seemed to be responding to the fact that the nation needed a charismatic leader during the crisis," explains Meindl. "It's not that he was suddenly a different person; his actions and speech became different, and this was picked up on by the media."

According to Meindl, Bush's skillful use of charismatic rhetoric enabled him to appear decisive; build a common, positive vision of the future, and emotionally connect with Americans -- all of which helped to ease people's fears and gain their support for the war on terrorism.

"Crisis situations can either make or break a leader," Meindl explains. "A leader must respond appropriately to the changing psychology of his or her followers. Bush clearly rose to the challenge."

In the study, Meindl and co-researchers Michelle C. Bligh and Jeffrey C. Kohles -- former doctoral students in the UB School of Management -- analyzed the content of 74 Bush speeches and radio addresses, as well as 442 articles and transcripts from 35 national media that covered Bush's speeches, before and after 9/11.

They found that Bush's post-9/11 speeches contained more words indicating action (words such as prevent, overcome, leadership), adversity (cruel, grief, injustices), collectivity (humanity, country, world), values and morality (God-fearing, hope, liberty) and the worth and similarity of Americans (courage, patriotism, ourselves).

Conversely, the analysis showed that Bush's speeches after 9/11 contained fewer references to self (I, me, my), passivity (allow, refrain, submit) and ambivalence (perhaps, might, almost).

Likewise, Meindl's analysis of media transcripts showed many of these charismatic words and themes being used by the media to critique the effectiveness of Bush's speeches and characterize his leadership.

"Prior to 9/11, Bush's speeches and leadership were not frequently characterized that way in the media," Meindl says. "There was a sense of illegitimacy to his presidency and he was not seen as someone people would place their faith in during a crisis of external threat."

"Seemingly overnight, that changed, however. Americans embraced the president and his leadership."

Next, Meindl plans to use his charismatic dictionary to analyze the speeches and charisma of all former U.S. presidents.

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