W: A Usage Guide


Each time we hear President George W. Bush open his mouth, we should hear the sound of rushing air, argues media critic Mark Crispin Miller in his new book, The Bush Dyslexicon. A 76-page essay tacked onto 180 pages of verité quotes and transcripts, organized by categories (“Kosovo,” “Bob Jones University”), it’s a compendium of Bush’s best-loved (and most feared) linguistic manglings and, more importantly, an attempt to make sense of what they mean. Fervent W. bashers will buy Miller’s line. But Miller actually knows very little about language, and the damage he does with it makes one wonder if the partisan advantage has actually been served.

In some ways, The Bush Dyslexicon is a sequel to Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose’s Shrub. Where they interpret W.’s political record, Miller reads W.’s linguistic record for deeper clues about his intelligence, his personality, his moral universe, his real politics, and the squandering of his privilege. For him, verbatim quotes and transcripts represent what actually was said, and they prove what should be an obvious political conclusion: W. isn’t deserving, and because we (Miller gets cagey on who “we” are) fail to recognize this from his language, democracy is endangered. That rushing air is the sound of W.’s moral vacuity, as well as the abyss into which Miller would say we’ve stepped. It’s also the sound of a mainstream media in the bathroom brushing its teeth, fixing up its little blue (or in this case, red) dress.

Compared to lists of Bushisms that circulate via email, The Bush Dyslexicon places Bush’s literacy and speech in refreshing historical context. Measured against other presidents, who have been cultivated writers and orators, W. doesn’t look good. At the same time, as Miller points out, elitist charges of illiteracy have been a common feature of presidential campaigns. In 1828, John Quincy Adams launched a mud-slinging campaign against Andrew Jackson, charging that he lacked the requisite proper breeding and “cannot spell more than one word in four.” According to Adams, Jackson was “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” (Jackson himself encouraged the view, in part because it allowed him to draw Adams as a sissy.)

Among contemporary figures, W. has more peers. Miller compares W. to Dan Quayle, himself a deft malapropist (“We [Republicans] understand the importance of having the bondage between the parent and the child”), and to Bush pére. But it’s Nixon that Miller stands W. up next to, with the charge that, just as television never lied about Nixon, we’ll look back at W.’s tenure and realize the danger and deception we’d seen but never comprehended. He calls “pure Nixon” the tactic by which W.’s linguistic abilities constantly become transformed into political virtues. Only in an anti-intellectual America could this be true, where W., like Andrew Jackson, encouraged criticism about his speaking abilities in order to draw Gore as the East Coast egghead sissy. “Intelligence itself, in this equation, is a sign of wickedness,” writes Miller. “Thus Bush’s plain unbookishness was taken to evince his godliness, while Gore was just too goddamn smart for our own good.”

Miller warns his readers against the crafting of W. as a “cheery cretin” (though he clearly enjoys exercising his thesaurus, calling W. in the space of two pages a “dim bulb,” “plain half-wit,” “cheerful moron,” and “idiot prince”). You either have to know W., have followed his dealings for a while, or studied his linguistic record to know that he is actually “extraordinarily shrewd.” Calling him anything else provides the administration with cover for its deeds, not to mention a winning political formula. During the presidential campaign, Miller writes, “Everybody knew that Bush could not pronounce ‘subliminal’, while few had heard–or ever would hear–of his neglected military service, his many shady business dealings, or his close ties to the likes of Representative Tom DeLay.”

Yet the Bushite strategy for dealing with W.’s speech has not always been successful. For one thing, W. too often looks like he’s misreading the talking points some starch-shirted intern has just handed him. W. can seem to be ticking off a list–and failing. “We’re concerned about the short-term economic news, but long-term I’m optimistic. And so, I hope investors, you know–secondly, I hope investors hold investments for periods of time–that I’ve always found the best investments are those that you salt away based on economics.”

For another thing, W.’s over-handled language has coincided with a fondness in the print media for quoting politicians with all their spoken gaffes, garblings and perseverations intact, one result of the fact that when a campaign focuses its messages, rehearses its candidate and feeds him lines, the blurts and blunders that every human makes as a normal part of speaking take on amplified importance. Ordinary garblings, such as W.’s nervous defense of his appearance at Bob Jones University, come to signify the decadence of the political system itself. “I did denounce it,” W. said. “I de–I denounced it. I denounced interracial dating. I denounced anti-Catholic bigacy–bigotry… No, I – I – I spoke out against interracial dating. I mean, support–the policy of interracial dating.”

And when access to a candidate is sharply limited, or when the candidate resists a journalist’s probing, the verbatim becomes, by necessity, material for portraiture. I’m thinking here of Nick Lemann’s profile of Bush in the January 31, 2000 New Yorker, which reproduces large chunks of the interview and pays a lot of attention to the quality of Bush’s voice, as if Lemann were buying a violin. (“His voice isn’t a fabulous instrument, either: the range of tone and volume is too flat; it lacks richness and roundness.”) If Bush becomes a bug under a magnifying lens, it’s only because Lemann has subjected W.’s language to such scrutiny, and that’s because Lemann was given relatively little time with the candidate.

Miller is right in one respect: lists of Bushisms have a limited usefulness. So in order to make W.’s speech evidence of a national political dysfunction (and to make his book seem more like analysis, not propaganda), Miller cooks up a handy metaphor. As he puts it, W.’s linguistic record is a symptom of a “strange new national disorder.” “It’s as if the U.S. body politic were itself afflicted with a corporate version of dyslexia,” he writes. “Seeing that it’s all gone wrong yet always hearing, from on high, that everything is perfectly all right, we each feel–whether we can read or not–as helpless and perplexed as any undiagnosed dyslexic faced with street signs, menus, newspapers and exams.” But the ideas about language that underpin this metaphor turn out to be discriminatory, when they’re not wrong. As my father used to say, sooner or later all metaphors fail. Miller’s metaphor fails right out of the gate.

When it comes to language, everyone’s an expert. Unfortunately, most of what people say about language is flatly incorrect. They defend their own dialect as the “best.” They pipe French and Japanese lessons to their unborn children. And they mistakenly equate how someone speaks with how they think. This fallacy leads them to conclude that speakers of any non-standard dialect–teenagers, foreigners and babies–are cognitively impaired. Fortunately, Miller avoids this last fallacy, though it doesn’t keep him from slamming into some others. Take his diagnosis of W.’s “illiteracy,” for example. No matter how much academics squabble about how much inability to read and write constitutes illiteracy, it certainly doesn’t include misspeaking, even of W.’s caliber. Thus Miller’s statement that “George W. Bush is so illiterate as to turn completely incoherent when he speaks without a script” is plain wrong–if anything, an illiterate person would turn incoherent with a script.

So too with the charge of dyslexia, first suggested by Gail Sheehy in a Vanity Fair profile Actually, from a linguistic point of view, it’s more likely that W. is aphasic, not dyslexic. (More on why dyslexia is politically preferable below.) The possibility of aphasia was first raised about Bush pere in a 1992 New Republic article by Jesse Furman, “Is Bush Brain-Damaged?” Aphasia is a brain disorder that causes a broad range of linguistic dysfunctions, but neurological experts warned Furman that not everyone with symptoms of aphasia–“frequent grammatical errors, talking around subjects, groping unsuccessfully for the right word, and substituting one word for another of close meaning or similar sound”–actually has it. It’s seemingly counterintuitive, but the longer someone has had aphasic symptoms, the less likely it is that they actually suffer from it, since it’s most often the result of a stroke, Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. “I’ve been talking the same way for years,” Bush said before the 1988 election, “so it can’t be that serious.”

When I asked a speech pathologist friend what she thought of W.’s speech, she demurred on the grounds of professional ethics; apparently you can’t go around diagnosing people without their consent. (However, she admitted that activity on a speech path listserv had recently exploded with people doing just that.) You don’t have to be a trained linguist to see patterns in W.’s disfluencies, which suggest a deeper disorder, not common stupidity. Of the websites devoted to W.’s language, my favorite is at www.geocities.com/presidentialsyntax, which unlike Jacob Weisberg’s more famous list of Bushisms on Slate, categorizes errors and attempts some linguistic analysis. One recurring problem is basic agreement between subjects and verbs (“Laura and I don’t realize how bright our children is…”), and between pronouns and the nouns they refer to (“This administration is doing everything we can…”). Along with the plural -s and the past tense -ed (suggesting a basic inability to process words), W. stumbles at the boundaries of clauses, particularly between independent and dependent clauses. For example, in the sentence “I liked that dog that ran away with the coyotes,” W. would fall into garbled grammar between the independent clause that ends with “dog” and before the dependent clause that begins with “that.” He’s likely to produce a sentence that goes, “I liked that dog, you know – I hope not to see a dog run away, ever again – he was well-trained, so I’m surprised…”

Given this evidence, even as informal as it is, why does Miller propose that W. is dyslexic, not aphasic? For one thing, because it’s a linguistic disorder whose stigma is appropriately pitched for the times: It’s incurable, but dyslexics remain fit for society – with “proper” will and educational remediation. Plus, you can’t really accuse political culture of aphasia.

In other words, Miller uses dyslexia because it serves his political purposes best. Many writers have equated linguistic confusion with political confusion, and linked the body of an individual speaker with the political body. British journalist and novelist George Orwell, for example, argued that certain types of language endanger the conditions in which a political system ideally operates. In two works, the novel 1984 and the essay “Politics and the English Language,” he showed that manipulating words and grammar damages the free thinking required in a democracy. Even seemingly benign language commentators like William Safire keep the English vocabulary groomed free of nits because a clean, combed lexicon, he might argue, is one safe for democracy.

But dyslexia itself interests Miller only to the degree that he can make it resemble the political system. Aphasia, with its multiple symptoms, doesn’t translate. Like any number of other diseases and disorders (tuberculosis, cancer, AIDS, multiple personality disorder), dyslexia is a condition whose reality is often overshadowed by the metaphorical work it does in public life, where it’s too easy to forget that real people suffer from the literal condition. If Bush really is disordered, then Miller is creaming the people who really are illiterate, dyslexic, aphasic, disfluent, stutterers, phobic about speaking in public, or non-native speakers of English, all of whom make up the last slurrable group in America. (And you thought it was poor whites.) W.’s not the first Hispanic president; he’s the first president to belong to a linguistic minority.

But this isn’t the book’s most serious failure. What damages Miller’s argument is that he pretends that his metaphor about linguistic disorder and the body politic substitutes for political analysis. This metaphor’s a neat one, easy and catchy and glib, but it’s too simplistic, and all the sardonic prose in the world can’t disguise the fact that Miller lacks a model for how political language actually works. (Ironically, it’s a problem endemic to media studies and communication theory.) Even if he got the linguistic facts right, he makes his metaphor do too much work–which means that he can’t explain how nearly half of the electorate did, in fact, interpret W.’s political messages perfectly well. The result of the 2000 election doesn’t have anything to do with linguistic dysfunction, literal or figurative. It has everything to do with politics. And you can’t get to politics through a close reading of the linguistic record, even if it’s verbatim.

Michael Erard, a former college professor, has written about language for Brill’s Content, Lingua Franca, and the Atlantic Monthly.