Politics & Prose September 2001

The Bumbling Communicator

The Bumbling CommunicatorTelevision has finally found a President who speaks its language
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Reading The Bush Dyslexicon is a threat to your mental health. It induces helpless despair. It will also cause you to weep for democracy, will renew your disgust with Al Gore, and make those of you who supported Ralph Nader reconsider your purity in the light of its price. Consisting of a few hundred pages of the shallow thoughts and illiterate speech of George W. Bush punctuated by the author's often brilliant interpretations of this mind-resistant flood, The Bush Dyslexicon raises a disturbing question. How can a man who says things like, "Laura and I don't realize how bright our children is sometimes until we get an objective analysis"; "My education message will resignate amongst all parents"; "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family"; and "I want a foreign-handed foreign policy"—how can this verbal sloven be President of the United States? Yet he is President, and the aura of office has already begun to rub off on him. His recent televised speech on stem-cell research was clear and reasoned, written by other hands but read by the President as if the words reflected his own thinking. Bush, as Mark Crispin Miller, the author of The Bush Dyslexicon, points out, is not stupid. But on the evidence of the three hundred pages of Bush-speak included in The Bush Dyslexicon, he has the kind of difficulty with language, syntax, and coherence that, had he been born George Smith rather than George Bush, would likely have consigned him to a low-status job—speech being a cruel marker of class disadvantage. An encouraging thought: Bush's ascent is a sign to intelligent people with poor educations that they can overcome the social stigma attached to bad grammar. The fact that we almost always know what Bush means—an even-handed foreign policy, an education message that will resonate—bears out common experience. People with Bush-like problems get their point across all the time.

Explanations of Bush's penchant for barbarisms begin with the obvious: inheritance. W's father, only slightly better-spoken than his son, was a bad role model. In father and son alike poor speech betrays a certain weightlessness of character, reflects lives so gilded that neither man ever had to worry about how he came across. Bush-speak—"Is our children learning?"—sounds low class, but what it really betrays is the psychology of the aristocratic slacker: a "Grand daddy earned the money, I don't even have to try" contempt for earnest striving. As Miller writes in a sentence that deserves to follow Bush into the history books, "When he comments on how many hands he's 'shaked,' or frets that quotas 'vulcanize' society … he is, of course, flaunting not his costly education but his disdain for it—much as some feckless prince, with a crowd of beggars watching from the street, might take a few bites from the feast laid out before him, then let the servants throw the rest away."

Miller entertains the hypothesis that Bush has severe dyslexia, in which case those of us who are ashamed of him for his illiteracy should be ashamed of ourselves for scorning a man for his handicap. Here is Bush on Gale Sheehy's Vanity Fair article alleging his dyslexia. "That woman who knew I had dyslexia—I never interviewed her." If this slip of the tongue is indeed a sign that Bush has dyslexia, he could do a lot of good by owning up to his condition. I struggle to translate the words I see on the page to sounds, just as many thousands of you do. People have laughed at me for this just as they have laughed at you. Sure, I got into the best schools on my family connections. But the grades I earned there, mocked by so many journalists, came hard. I had to pretend they didn't matter to preserve my dignity just as many of you have had to pretend...

The dyslexia-as-disability hypothesis, however, falls in the face of evidence of Bush's lucidity. Bush can speak without mishap in two situations, Miller shows: when he has applied himself to a subject—education, stem-cell research—and when the sentiments he is conveying are cruel. No one would call verbally challenged a man who in one of his debates with Al Gore, answering the question of whether Texas needed a hate-crimes law, could muster this terse clarity: "No, we've got one in Texas—and guess what: the three men who murdered James Byrd—guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty and it's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death...." Miller accurately notes "the joyous leer with which the governor made that statement," and documents the meanness in other Bush statements, in his humor, and sometimes in his boorish conduct. In 1987 at a Dallas restaurant, Bush, apparently drunk, approached a table occupied by Al Hunt, of The Wall Street Journal, Judy Woodruff, of CNN, and their four-year-old son, and burst out with, "You no good fucking sonofabitch, I will never forget what you wrote!" Hunt had omitted the name of Bush's father from a list of possible presidential candidates he had sent in to Washingtonian magazine—because Vice President Bush had yet to declare his candidacy. The dark side of Bush thus revealed should not be surprising. After all, his motivation for seeking the presidency appears to have been revenge—the desire to defeat the men who defeated his father.

Yet against the evidence of the Hunt story, against the leer over the prospect of a triple execution, the frat-boy smirk, the grotesque jokes, the mocking of a woman on death row pleading for his mercy, the talking heads on TV pronounced Bush "likeable." They, Miller argues, are the true dyslexics—unable to translate the disclosures of Bush's unfitness into words. "Likeable" is the desired category of the products sold on TV. The gasbags, in applying that seemingly subjective standard to Bush, were not selling out to TV. They were TV. They scorned Gore, Miller writes, "for engaging the viewers in terms more complex than those of advertising, TV news, and other forms of supersimple propaganda.... Bush was literally more their style.... He spoke no language but the language of TV." The anti-Gore consensus "at the top end of the mediocracy" was driven by "their wish to make it clear to all that they are in control" and that "they know what we'll buy and what it takes to sell to us."

Yes, television cameras exposed Bush's gaffes during the campaign, but Sam, Cokie, & Co. discounted them. Such garbled phrases as "More and more of our imports come from overseas" distracted us from the real story: Bush's success in using TV. Television is a medium of propaganda, of the sub-rational suasion of advertising. The essence of propaganda is reason-obliterating repetition. Bush got his message across in the campaign through incessant repetition. His use of the same words over and over again in the same sentence, seen in this light, is not a handicap; it shows his affinity for TV and matches our expectations, built up over the decades, for "message" communication of the "Great Taste, Less Filling, Great Taste, Less Filling" order. As Ryan Lizza reports in The New Republic, Bush's handlers have him say the same thing so often that it is difficult for the TV cameras to catch him saying anything else. On August 7, during his "working vacation" at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, Bush used the word "home" six times in a minute of conversation with reporters: "It's nice to be home ... This is my home ... It's good to be home ... This is where you come home ... This is my home," etc. In fact it is not his home. "The Crawford ranch does not precede Bush's life on the national stage," Lizza writes. "It is a product of it." Bush lived in the Texas governor's mansion and vacationed in swank resorts and at Kennebunkport before the campaign began. Never mind. Bush got his message across: unlike Bill Clinton he has a "home." In a five-minute speech later in the month, Bush mentioned values at least seven times and "neighbor" or "neighborliness" or "neighborly" six times. In a twenty-minute speech the next day he used "character" eleven times. "And the repetition works," Lizza writes. "The headlines in the next day's New York Times and most other papers had 'Bush' juxtaposed with 'values.'" His job approval rating went up during the Crawford propaganda-fest. TV has finally found a President willing to sound like an idiot in order to exploit its inherent properties, to master its baldly manipulative code. Bush, the verbal bumbler, is the Great Communicator of the age.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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