Washington

What was that he said?

Andrew Phillips March 26 2001
Washington

What was that he said?

Andrew Phillips March 26 2001

What was that he said?

Washington

Andrew Phillips

It’s easy to make fun of the way George W. Bush mangles the English language. Too easy, in fact. But what the heck. Here are a few recent gems from the lips of the 43rd President of the United States:

“Ann and I will carry out this equivocal message to the world: markets must be open.” —Swearing-in ceremony for Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, March 2.

“Of all states that understands local control of schools, Iowa is such a state.” —Council Bluffs, Iowa, Feb. 28.

“You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.” —Townsend, Tenn., Feb. 21.

“Redefining the role of the United States from enablers to keep the peace to enablers to keep the peace from peacekeepers is going to be an assignment.” —Interview with The New York Times, Jan. 22.

OK, so the guy is in a losing battle with grammar and syntax. We knew that, and so did American voters when they elected him (sort of) last November. Jacob Weisberg of the online magazine Slate maintains a popular Web site dedicated to “Bushisms” that is updated almost daily with new violations of the language— including the ones above. But does it matter anymore now that he’s safely ensconced in the Oval Office, and is noting it just more unfair piling on by the supercilious news media?

Actually, you can’t blame the media this time. It turns out, as documented by Ken Silverstein in The Nation magazine, that major American news outlets are leaning over backwards to gloss over many of the new President’s verbal blunders. They’ve paraphrased him, used snippets from his speeches, or outright doctored his words to avoid making him sound, well, stupid.

Thus, when Bush declared during his Feb. 27 speech to Congress that “My pan plays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt,” The New York Times reported that the President “insisted that his plan ‘pays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt.’ ” And when Bush told a White House news conference that “the sanction regime [against Iraq] is like Swiss cheese—that meant that they weren’t very effective,” The Washington Post wrote that Bush signalled “his willingness to remove ineffectual sanctions against Iraq, which he again called ‘Swiss cheese.’ ” And on and on. Clearly the reporters don’t want to look like they are beating up on the man. After all, if they’re so smart, why aren’t they President?

Mostly, of course, Bush’s forehead-slapping lapses are just amusing. Some may even find them endearing. And he is President, after all, and doing a lot better than his opponents had predicted. So much better, in fact, that some of Bush’s most vocal critics are telling their friends to lay off calling the President of the United States stupid. E. J. Dionne Jr., an influential liberal columnist, wrote last week that continually mocking Bush just lowers expectations for him. If he gets through an appearance without making anyone wince too obviously, he gets a gold star.

The mockery also makes it easier for him to pose as just regular folks from Midland, Tex. “How,” Dionne wonders, “can a Harvard MBA who inherited large social, political and financial advantages—and who wants to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans-—end up looking like a populist? When his opponents cast themselves as elitist mandarins looking down their noses at a guy who won 30 million votes, that’s how.”

But before we write off W’s miscues as meaningless, consider the case of U.S. relations with North Korea. You’d think that a President discussing relations with the most isolated, paranoid country in the world, especially one armed to the teeth, would choose his words extra carefully. On March 7, however, Bush emerged from a meeting with South Korea’s president, Kim Dae Jung, and announced: “Part of the problem in dealing with North Korea, there’s not much transparency. We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements.”

In fact, Washington has only one agreement with North Korea, dating back to 1994, and U.S. officials acknowledge there is no evidence that the North is violating it. So what exactly was Bush talking about, confused reporters asked his aides. “That’s just how the President speaks,” one of them replied. North Korea, however, was not amused. It unleashed a new tirade at the United States, labelling it “a cannibals’ nation,” and abruptly cancelling cabinet-level talks with South Korea. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the delicate process of coaxing the North out of its shell was off the rails.

So did Bush misspeak? Did he not bother to read his briefing notes? Did he just not know what he was talking about? Or was it a cunning ploy to once again lull his opponents into complacency? As he himself has said, “One of the common denominators I have found is that expectations rise above that which is expected.” Or something.