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.