Elayne Tobin is at work on a book called Fearing for Our Lives:
Biography and Middlebrow Culture in Late Twentieth-Century America.
She is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Temple
For readers of this magazine and millions of other Americans, the
initial horror of September 11 was compounded by the sobering
realization that George W. Bush would be at the helm for the aftermath.
With a cabal of fundamentalists, crackpots and fascists whispering in
his ear, Dubya became the world's most dangerous weapon. Perhaps, we hoped, the rather low esteem in which he was held by the American people, the news media and much of Congress might save us.
No such luck. Congress and the mainstream media lined up behind him in
lockstep. Instances of his much-vaunted ignorance wound up on the
cutting-room floor. One cable network ran daily promos of Bush spurring
on World Trade Center rescue workers, declaring that he had "found his
voice" amid the rubble. Pundit Peggy Noonan declared Bush's post-9/11
speech to Congress no less than "God-touched"; he had "metamorphosed
into a gentleman of cool command...[with] a new weight, a new gravity."
Yet, despite the rise in his approval ratings, many harbored lingering
doubts about the extent to which a "new" Bush existed.
Among the many critical viewpoints drowned out in the wake of the
attacks was Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, the first
systematic critical examination of the President's mistakes,
misstatements and malapropisms. Fortunately, this clever volume has been
reissued with updated material on Bush's sayings and doings since that
Bush's propensity for mangling the English language is no secret to
anyone. No doubt we all have our favorites, which we've gleefully shared
with friends, family, co-workers and comrades. Miller, a professor of
media ecology at New York University, has compiled what is clearly the
largest collection of Dubya-isms to date, among them these treats:
§ On his qualifications to be President: "I don't feel I've got all
that much too important to say on the kind of big national issues"
(September 2000); and "Nobody needs to tell me what I believe. But I do
need somebody to tell me where Kosovo is" (September 1999).
§ On coping with terrorism and other threats: "[We'll] use our
technology to enhance uncertainties abroad" (March 2000); and "We'll let
our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America
will be the pacemakers" (September 2000).
§ On Russia: "And so one of the areas where I think the average
Russian will realize that the stereotypes of America have changed is
that it's a spirit of cooperation, not one-upmanship; that we now
understand one plus one can equal three, as opposed to us, and Russia we
hope to be zero" (November 2001).
Miller vividly illustrates the depth of ignorance--as opposed to
stupidity--that leads this President away from direct contact with
journalists whenever possible. Miller also demonstrates that Bush's
"problem" with language is not easily separated from his "problem" with
policy and politics. If we focus exclusively on his stormy relationship
with proper grammar and logical sentence structure, Miller argues, we
risk underestimating what his presidency means for the United States and
the world. "Our president is not an imbecile but an operator just as
canny as he is hard-hearted.... To smirk at his alleged stupidity is,
therefore, not just to miss the point, but to do this unelected
president a giant favor."
Loosely organized by subject matter-- "That Old Time Religion," "It's
the Economy, Your Excellency"--the book's chapters chronicle several
intertwined aspects of the chief executive: the politics of style that
characterize his behavior and demeanor; the media's role in crafting him
as a valid presidential candidate and, post-9/11, a changed man; the
Bush family's political legacy and troubled public image; and, finally,
the real meaning behind Dubya's flubs and gaffes.
Miller documents in detail how major news outlets have from the
beginning provided a heavily edited public transcript of Bush's
statements and have helped steer viewers away from his lack of policy
knowledge. Even more disturbing are the ways the media have simply
reported Bush's "ideas" without comment. Commenting on a Kansas
school-board vote to end evolution's exclusivity in the state science
curriculum (later overturned), for example, Bush declared, "I personally
believe God created the earth" (September 1999); later, he opined,
"After all, religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism"
The abundant evidence Miller provides of Dubya getting pass after pass
in the media seems particularly alarming. In addition to general
"cover," Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson and other famed "journalists" and
newspeople consistently let Bushisms fly with little or no comment. Note
this flub on the fate of Elián González's potential
citizenship during an airing of ABC's This Week:
Well, I think--I--It--listen, I don't understand the full ramifications
of what they're going to do. But I--I--I--think it'd be a--a--a
wonderful gesture. I guess the man c--the boy could still go back to
Cuba as a citizen of the United States.... I hadn't really thought about
the citizenship issue. It's an interesting idea, but if I were in the
Senate, I'd vote aye.
Roberts gave no response to the nonsensical Bush, nor did Chris Matthews
in this bizarre MSNBC Hardball episode in May 2000:
Matthews: When you hear Al Gore say "reckless, irresponsible," what do
you hear from him, really?...
Bush: I hear a guy who's not confident in his own vision, and,
therefore, wants to take time tearing me down. Actually, I--I--this may
sound a little West Texan to you, but I like it when I'm talking about
what I'm--what I--
Bush:--when I'm talking about myself, and when he's talking about
myself, all of us are talking about me.
Of course, these snippets pale in comparison to the alacrity with which
the media papered over the fact that our current President was not
elected by a majority of the populace.
This is quite a contrast from the dis-ease with which the fourth estate
treated Bush's predecessors. Miller traces the phenomenon back to
Richard Nixon, whom he calls the "godfather" of Bush-era politics. Like
Bush, Nixon was not a man well liked by the television cameras; nor, as
the White House tapes reveal, was he an especially enlightened man, with
his pedestrian literary interpretations, paranoid hatred of Jews,
virulent racism, sexism and homophobia. "You know what happened to the
Greeks!?" Nixon bellowed to Haldeman and Ehrlichman: "Homosexuality
destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo." Nixon's angry and, as
Miller describes it, "low-born" personality manifested itself throughout
his televisual life, particularly during the scandal that brought down
Inheriting this image problem was Dubya's patriarch, George Bush senior,
who not only worked for Nixon politically but also shared in his
televisually and verbally handicapped style. Whereas Nixon came off as a
classless bully, Bush suffered from sissiness, the infamous Wimp Factor:
"Bush's posh class background was his major TV problem, the cameras
mercilessly outing the big pantywaist within.... In fact, the Bush clan,
although fabulously wealthy, is not aristocratic enough to do well on
TV, if by that modifier we mean elegant and polished. First of all, the
Bushes often have let fly in the most boorish way--as when Barbara Bush
hinted coyly that Geraldine Ferraro was a 'bitch.'"
In an effort to analyze Bush Sr.'s wanna-be aristocratic demeanor,
Miller proceeds to call him a "Yalie faggot" and argues that the Bush
family's privilege put the elder Bush in the toughest of spots relative
to his macho Republican predecessors. On losing a straw poll in Ames,
Iowa, for example, Bush noted, "A lot of people who support me were at
an air show, they were off at their daughter's coming-out party, they
were teeing up at the golf course." Miller makes it abundantly clear how
frequently Bush Sr. not only missed, but miscalculated, the mark.
The point is that on television, class is not an economic issue but a
style issue. Given what Miller terms the Kennedy "savoir-faire," the
Bush family is at a distinct image disadvantage. Unfortunately, Miller
frequently analogizes Bush's moneyed privilege with a certain kind of
homosexuality--offensive behavior in a critic himself trying to "out"
Nixon's ignorance and homophobia. And he contrives that Barbara's
complaining of another woman's bitchiness is somehow anathema to
At root, these strangely aristocratic cheap shots smack of a kind of
backhanded liberal Kennedy worship. It is impossible to miss the
implication that America's royal family is the standard-bearer of
sufficiently presidential (read: aristocratic and classy) demeanor.
Given that JFK was an ethically challenged, commie-hunting political
lightweight, Miller's willingness to engage in macho class snobbery
points to the disturbing presence in the book of a crass partisanship
better suited to a Democratic media flack than a scholar of the left.
Symptomatic of this is the fact that for much of the book Miller seems
to forget the high degree of political convergence between Bush and
neoliberal New Democrats like Al Gore. One cannot help wondering if
Miller thinks a Gore Administration would not have responded to
September 11 with military action, and with legislation that expanded
the already egregious powers given the government in the
Clinton-sponsored Counter Terrorism Initiative of 1995. This see-no-evil
quality of the book is all the more telling because it represents the
very type of amnesia that Miller says afflicts us all after years of
corporate-led media idiocy. When he harps on Clinton's downfall at the
hands of the right without sufficiently stressing Bill's own
never-ending rightward shift throughout his eight years in office, one
wonders if Miller's own political memory lapsed from 1992 to 2000. It is
not until near the end of the book that he turns tail and concedes Al
Gore's rather striking resemblances to a war-happy Republican candidate,
as Gore "spoke more expertly, but just as deferentially, straining to
out-hawk the jut-jawed W, arguing that he would raise the military
budget even higher and retrospectively saluting the preposterous
invasions of Grenada and Panama."
Finally, Miller's critique of the "politics of style" turns in upon
itself. Miller obtains the lion's share of Bushisms from precisely those
style-obsessed media outlets he accuses of bringing down Clinton and
building up Bush: the New York Times, Talk,
Glamour, 20/20 and Larry King Live appear all over
Miller's source citations, and he is just as dependent on, and dedicated
to, the politics of style as they are. At the end of the book, one
cannot help suspecting that Miller's beef with the politics of style is
that it took down his guy while it has yet to take down the other guy.
This hedging makes crucial parts of the book read like sour grapes and
detracts from the moments of sharp observation that Miller offers
elsewhere. He clearly grasps the very real danger of the Bush
Administration--his most intriguing observation is that Bush is not
always a rhetorical bumbler. As Miller conducts his repeated dissections
of various Bushisms, it becomes clear that this man is in fact possessed
of considerable guile. In an interview with Charlie Rose, in August
2000, Bush speaks about Saddam Hussein:
Rose: OK. What if you thought Saddam Hussein, using the absence of
inspectors, was close to acquiring a nuclear weapon?
Bush: He'd pay a price.
Rose: What's the price?
Bush: The price is force, the full force and fury of a reaction.
Rose: Bombs away?
Bush: You can just figure that out after it happens.
Here we see Dubya apparently willing and even eager to bomb a country
with which we are not at war--yet. Two years before the recent
enunciation of a "Hitting First" policy of pre-emption and even more
recent revelations of an existing attack plan from land, sea and air,
Bush's warring language was unambiguous. Likewise, when speaking of
anger and vengeance post-9/11, he is nothing if not clear, and his
dyslexic tendencies are nowhere in evidence. Down-homish and
cringe-inducing though it may be, "evildoers" is a phrase whose meaning
is singular, and Bush's repeated use of it has not been subject to the
usual emendations or "clarifications" of his handlers. Similarly, Bush
famously threatened to "smoke 'em out" of their holes, another
inappropriate, unpresidential, phrase; yet no one was confused about
what it meant for Al Qaeda.
The Bush Dyslexicon makes it clear that even after the 11th of
September, Bush's personality was far from "God-touched" or even
transformed; in fact, provided with the opportunity to inflate his
defense budget, savage Social Security and go after the Taliban as if in
a 'coon hunt, Bush was just this side of gleeful at the prospect for
revenge. Hardly had the mourning American public time to collect itself
before Dubya encouraged the military to "smoke 'em out of their caves,
to get 'em runnin' so we can get 'em" in order, as Bush himself put it,
to "save the world from freedom."
Given the potentially dire consequences of Bush's post-9/11 policy
agenda, though, it seems strangely incongruous that Miller so often goes
for the breezy, snappy rhetoric and eschews a more forthrightly
analytical tone. It may be therapeutic to laugh in the face of danger,
but somehow these do not seem to be particularly funny times.