9/11 Anniversary Speeches: What Text Analysis Tells Us

9/11 Anniversary Speeches: What Text Analysis Tells Us

By David Byler - September 10, 2014

With the 13th anniversary of 9/11 nearly at hand, President Obama is set to speak Wednesday about the growing threat posed by ISIS, followed Thursday by remarks at a Pentagon ceremony commemorating the attack there in 2001. The current situation abroad will likely cause this year’s address to differ from past anniversary speeches, but how much and in what ways?

Those questions cannot be answered until the president speaks, but applying text-mining tools to prior 9/11 anniversary speeches can provide a baseline of comparison.

Qualitative “tools” for understanding political speeches -- paying close attention for subtleties, discerning policy implications, applying a historical context -- are well-known, but the quantitative ones are less widely understood. Two basic text-mining techniques -- the “word cloud” visualization and correlations in the document-term matrix -- provide insights into what George W. Bush and Barack Obama have said on 9/11 over the years.

The word cloud above displays the 100 most common words from presidential anniversary speeches, along with other remarks and radio addresses about the attacks from 2002 to 2013. The size of the words is proportional to the frequency with which they occur in the text, but the position and orientation of the words is arbitrary.

Five words -- “will” “day,” “America,” “nation,” and “people” -- occur more frequently than any others in 9/11 anniversary speeches (aside from conjunctions, prepositions, etc., which are automatically filtered out), but Bush and Obama used them differently. While both presidents looked towards the future, Bush’s appeals were always rooted in the current violence and the difficult -- but what he regarded as historically critical -- struggle against terrorism. In light of that, Bush used the verb “will” to forecast an eventual end to the war and a victory for freedom. Obama has opted instead to speak primarily about remembrance and the triumph of unity and shared values over tragedy. He uses “will” to talk about rebuilding and the flourishing of national virtues and principles.

The two leaders used the words “nation” and “America” differently as well. Obama tended to emphasize how the nation held together as a community and became a more unified country despite what he characterized as attacks on our ideals. The War on Terror permeated Bush’s  anniversary speeches, so “nation” and “American” often represented a political and  military entity that symbolized the values Americans were defending domestically and supporting internationally.

These differences between the two presidents become more apparent when we separate their speeches and create different word clouds for each of them. The red cloud below represents Bush’s speeches but omits the words “nation” “day” and “will.” He and Obama both used those three words frequently, so we removed them in order to draw out the differences in their rhetoric. Obama’s speeches (reflecting those same omissions) are shown in the subsequent blue cloud.

Bush’s cloud yields a straightforward interpretation. He repeats “terrorists,” “remember,” “war,” “freedom” and “attacks” to drive home the concept of America’s ongoing conflict with Islamic extremists and despotic states in the Middle East. He uses the word “people” frequently -- not only while referring to the American people but also Iraqis and others. Additionally, Bush often held up America as the symbol of freedom that overcomes tyranny.

Both the structure and content of Obama’s word cloud differs somewhat. His contains more enlarged words than does Bush’s, and the ones he has chosen reflect less of a focus on concepts like “terrorists” or “freedom.” Instead, Obama’s most frequently used words demonstrate his attention on unity, shared values and memorializing the lost. He consistently uses words such “families,” “lives” and “lost” while remembering the departed.

It is also instructive to see which words were “correlated” with others in these speeches. In text mining, words are correlated if they occur frequently in the same documents. In other words, if Obama uses the word “freedom” and “forever” extensively in the same speeches, then these words will be highly correlated. On the other hand, if Bush were to use the words “terrorist” and “peace” often but never in the same speech, these words would have a negative correlation. If there was no relationship between two words (one was neither particularly present nor absent in speeches containing the other word) then the correlation would be zero. Correlation can then be seen as a quantitative measure of how often words do and or do not occur together in Bush’s and Obama’s 9/11 speeches.

The tables below display the five most common words each president used and the five words that are most highly correlated with them. For instance, Bush used the words “back,” “comes,” “they’re” and “training” in the same speeches in which he also uses the word “people.” Bush often talked not only about the American people and their ability to recover from tragedy (“comes” and “back”) but also the Iraqi people who were preparing for their own self-defense (“they’re” and “training”).

Bush’s Most Frequently Used Words and Five Words Most Correlated With Each

Obama’s Most Frequently Used Words and Five Words Most Correlated With Each

Other notable patterns emerge from these tables. For instance, Obama uses “act,” “grief,” “forever,” “country,” and “remembrance” together with the word “day.” This exemplifies his emphasis on remembering the fallen. Bush on the other hand associates “armed,” “came,” “man,” “century” and “met” with “day.” Although both presidents took ample time to pay their respects to the fallen, Bush tended to place deaths associated with terrorism into the larger narrative of America’s constant pursuit of freedom and security, while Obama used these speeches to advocate for unity, community and other values that were especially important to him. 

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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