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 time.
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” (September 2000).
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 his presidency.
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 aristocratic behavior.
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.