I once knew a fairly intelligent man who disconcerted me one day by denouncing the arbitrary domination of the then-Soviet Union by a sinister-sounding body named "the Politurbo." Allowance could be made in his case; not everybody understood the abbreviations of "agitprop" and the crude origins of Com-speak. Had the term been spelled out as "Political Bureau" I am sure he would have got there easily in the end. But what unhorsed me at the time was this: He must have seen the word "Politburo" in print many times, and also heard it spoken very often, without ever registering the connection.
The term for this failure of mental word-processing is dyslexia, and it can occur in mild and severe forms. I used to have the job of tutoring a dyslexic child, and I know something about the symptoms. So I kicked myself hard when I read the profile of Governor George W. Bush, by my friend and colleague Gail Sheehy, in this month's Vanity Fair. All those jokes and cartoons and websites about his gaffes, bungles and malapropisms? We've been unknowingly teasing the afflicted. The poor guy is obviously dyslexic, and dyslexic to the point of near-illiteracy. Numerous experts and friends of the dynasty give Sheehy their considered verdict to this effect.
The symptoms and clues have been staring us in the face for some time. Early in the campaign, Bush said that he did indeed crack the odd book and was even at that moment absorbed by James Chace's biography of Dean Acheson. But when asked to report anything that was in the damn volume, the governor pulled up an empty net. His brother Neil is an admitted dyslexic. His mother has long been a patron of various foundations and charities associated with dyslexia. How plain it all now seems.
The rhetorical and linguistic train wrecks in the speeches of Reagan and Bush Senior were of a different quality, arising variously from hysterical lying, brutish ignorance, senile decay and cultural deprivation. But the problem was chiefly syntactical. The additional humiliations of Dubya derive from utter failures of word recognition. A man who has somehow got this far in politics and refers to "tacular" weapons is unclear (or do I mean nuclear?) on the concept. In free-trade language, tariffs and barriers are not necessarily conterminous, but in no circumstance are they "terriers." To use "vile" for "viable" might look like misfortune, but to employ "inebriating" for "enthralling" looks like carelessness, especially in someone with his booze and cocaine record. Bush doesn't want our enemies to "hold us hostile"; I must say I agree with what I'm sure he didn't mean to say. Confusing "handcuffs" with "cufflinks" might be a yuppie slip; at any rate it presumably doesn't mean softness on crime. As for "Reading is the basics of all learning," well, there you are.
Does any of this matter? Of course it does. Bush has already claimed with hand on heart that he personally scrutinized the death-row appeals of more than a hundred condemned wretches in the shocking Texas prison system; we now have to face the fact that he not only did not review the clemency petitions but could not have read them even if he wanted to. Aides now remember the times they presented the governor or the candidate with that crucial briefing paper, only to see him toss it on the desk and demand a crisp, verbal, "bottom line" summary of its contents. Decisive, right? Wrong.
I know from my teaching experience that nature very often compensates the dyslexic with a higher IQ or some grant of intuitive intelligence. If this is true for Bush it hasn't yet become obvious; his Texas chief of staff, Clay Johnson, told Gail Sheehy that the attention span of his boss is, not to euphemize matters overmuch, somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen minutes. In other words, and as far as we know, he has only the downside of his difficulty, which is attention-deficit disorder. In the high noon of the age of information, the Republican Party packages and presents a provincial ignoramus who can neither read nor write. Woof.
But now here's another amazing thing. Nelson Rockefeller was dyslexic, though nobody knew it until after he'd become Vice President. Ronald Reagan's neurons and synapses were being devoured by Alzheimer's from at least… well, I'd say 1982 from personal observation, though experts differ. Bill Clinton was understood by some of the closest of his circle, including his awful wife, to be a pathological liar and sexual delinquent when he was still lucky enough to be governor of Arkansas. Usually, these and many other disqualifications, like Nixon's alcoholism, await the patient, too-late forensic attention of the court historians. Yet here's a man whose aides and flacks are visibly white-lipped every time he opens his mouth, and who should be seeking remedial care but is instead seeking the presidential therapy that he doesn't need, and nobody says a word. Nobody had the poor taste to follow up Gail Sheehy's findings.
Ah, but Bush has a disability…. Can that be it? From "compassionate conservatism" to compassion for the conservative? Well, I'm ready to feel compassion for him. I want him to get all the help he needs (which will probably involve him in emulating his flabbergasting running mate and moving his official residence to another and more compassionate state). But I think, in presidential terms, we should leave this child back and let him catch up in his own special way at some later date.
Meanwhile, the press and the Democrats should either stop citing and mocking the flubs or come right out and say what they mean. A danger of heartlessness, even of callousness, exists. Seeking to explain away his wastrel life and his obnoxious manner–nagging problems that persisted until his mid-40s–Bush invites us to believe that he mutated into finer personhood after having a personal encounter with God. The pious toads at the head of the Democratic ticket are full of unction at this and any other manifestation of hypocrisy. In a farcical recent moment, Bush contradicted his own mother, who claimed he'd always read his Bible as a youngster, by telling the Washington Post that he'd read no such thing. So–what if he had meant to say all along that he'd found a personal "dog"? The time to clear this up is now.