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Mangler-in-Chief | The Nation

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Mangler-in-Chief

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Last month, the Boston Globe broke the amazing news that President George W. Bush is rapidly becoming the Pericles of modern politics. Under the headline, "As a Speaker, Bush Is Gaining Command," Anne Kornblut reported that the President's "delivery of prepared speeches has grown steadier, interrupted by far fewer of the tongue-twisters that once defined his campaign."

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Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC–based investigative reporter.

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Within the next few weeks, the mangler-in-chief committed a fresh flurry of rhetorical blunders. In Washington, Bush told the press that he was looking forward to meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair and to a "private dinner with he and Mrs. Blair." In Tennessee, Bush informed an audience at an elementary school that "you teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test." Days later, the President told a crowd in Council Bluffs that "of all states that understands local control of schools, Iowa is such a state."

Bush's frequent verbal lapses sometimes turn up in news stories, but a surprising number go unreported, unless they're picked up by a columnist or used in a summary piece about his misstatements. For example, not a single news account recounted Bush's dream, announced earlier this year in Washington, of creating an educational system that would produce "a more literate country and a hopefuller country." Jacob Weisberg of Slate, who has compiled a long and wonderful list of Bush's verbal screw-ups, says that during the campaign he received a lot of "Bushisms" from reporters who didn't put them in their own stories. "They didn't want to seem like they were beating up on the guy, so they'd only use them if they were especially egregious," he says.

In other cases, the press has doctored Bush's words outright, made creative use of snippets and paraphrased his rhetorical errors. Hence, when Bush, during his address to Congress on February 27, boldly declared, "My pan plays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt," a New York Times story by Adam Clymer stated that the President had "insisted that his plan 'pays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt.'" The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a partial transcript of the speech in which the sentence in question had been entirely cleaned up.

"I have said that the sanction regime [against Iraq] is like Swiss cheese--that meant that they weren't very effective," Bush stated at a White House press conference on February 22. In the Washington Post, a story by Dana Milbank and Steven Mufson paraphrased the remark, with Bush signaling "his willingness to remove ineffectual sanctions against Iraq, which he again called 'Swiss cheese.'" The same tactic was employed by the News & Observer of Raleigh, which in a story by Muriel Dobbin reported that the President had compared "the current sanctions system to 'Swiss cheese.'"

In January, when Bush announced his nomination of Linda Chavez as Secretary of Labor, he said she "is a member of a labor union at one point." An Albuquerque Tribune story changed "is" to "was" in its news account the following day. The previous month Bush had declared, in describing a phone call to Senator John Breaux in which a possible job with the Administration was discussed, that "I knew it might put him in an awkward position that we had a discussion before finality has finally happened in this presidential race." In helping out the President, the Florida Times-Union opted for a Bush-like construction of its own, reporting that Bush "recognized that 'it might put him in an awkward position' to be directly discussing a role for Breaux." Going back to the campaign, Bush solemnly declared in Greensboro, North Carolina, last October that "our priorities is our faith," which came out in the local newspaper, the News & Record, as the then-candidate having "said his priorities are faith and family."

As Weisberg points out, the press can't be expected to report every "Bushism," since the President "says something that makes reporters chuckle almost every day." And in the case of the stories cited above, their authors all had sound explanations for how their accounts made the President out to be more verbally agile than the record shows. According to Adam Clymer, a Times editor inserted into his story the quote about "paying down" the national debt. Frank Zoretich at the Albuquerque Tribune pulled the Bush quote about Chavez from a transcript that the Associated Press put out on its wire. Muriel Dobbin said that she didn't use Bush's own words because they "didn't make great sense in English." In general, Dobbin said, if the President completely mangles a sentence it should be noted in the story, but "if he's simply muffing the syntax it seems OK to correct it so as not to torture the reader."

Still, for those of us who like to get the straight Bush, it's imperative to read a full transcript of his remarks. If you rely on press accounts, you never know what you might be missing.

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