Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Pseudonimity, outing, and blogging | Main | Sunday Sermonette: Thom Yorke of Radiohead on suicide of David Kelly »

June 18, 2006

Bush before and after

What a difference a decade has made to George W. Bush's debating skills.

Between that and the infamous rug interview, you start to wonder.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Bush before and after:


I remember seeing that clip a while back. It really makes me wonder if there isn't something organic happening in that pea brain. Regardless of the cause the man isn't fit to manage a hotdog cart, let alone the most powerful nation on earth. Scary shit.

A commentator somewhere, and I'm sorry I can't remember who, once pointed out that Bush stumbles most on his words when he's trying to empathize with ordinary folks (witness the clip in Fahrenheit 911 when Bush mumbles through "I can't, uh, imagine, what it's like, to, you know, to like, lose a child, and stuff"). However, the article noted, when speaking about things that didn't require empathy, he snapped right to, and didn't stutter or speak malapropisms too much at all.

The idea of the column was that since Bush cares nothing about the feelings of ordinary people, he's speaking a language he's just not used to, and so he stammers over it.

I rather think that who lies, stutters. Of course. You're constantly checking your lying speech, to ensure that it doesn't conflict with the last lie you told.

They might be on to something, but I'm not very impressed by that video. They're obviously cherry-picking their examples, showing just a couple minute-long clips out of all the endless public speaking that a president or a gubernatorial candidate does. As we said again and again during the Schiavo mania, you can't diagnose someone from a selectively edited video. Plus, a couple of those examples aren't even evidence for their point. The "love with women" thing was just an amusing gaffe, not difficulty speaking fluidly in coherent sentences, as was the "thinking about ways to harm our country", and the latter one might even have been written.

The way to do the analysis is to come up with some clear, objective standard (say, number of pauses, or number of backtracks, or number of ungrammatical sentences) and then apply it systematically to a large set of utterances (say, the gubernatorial debates and presidential debates). Language Log has done some work in this direction, and they don't think that Bush is as bad as his reputation.

Blar, I agree, you can't diagnose anyone from a video tape. I don't think diagnosis is really the issue, though. Bush's public speaking skills have degenerated markedly. It's not just the word-bloopers, it's his general demeanor. He doesn't sound as quick, as self-assured, or as alert as he did in those older tapes. Now, he's much more halting.

Granted, there's no reason to assume that this is a disease. Age, stress, different media coaching strategies might account for some of the changes. If my poll ratings were where his are, I probably wouldn't be at the top of my game either.

>different media coaching strategies

A few years ago, published an interview with someone who had advised the Bush camp not to let him do what he called the "Duck Neck," where he'd bob his head forward like a duck. That looked bad. For a time, after the date when the fellow told them that, Bush stopped doing it as much. However, after Katrina, if you look at his public appearances, you can see him doing it more and more, along with what I like to call the "William-F-Buckley-horrifying-grin-and-eyebrow-raise." He'll say something he really wants to convince us of, lurch his head forward (the Duck Neck), then pause, grin, and raise his eyebrows. It's as if he's trying to say, with his body language, "I mean, come on!", or "no, really, you guys!"

He started doing that much more after his poll numbers dropped. I don't think he's paying attention to his media coaching, I think that he's losing it, for the second reason you mentioned: stress.

Just listening to G. W. Bush speak I have no idea if there is any sort of pathology going on. I remember some pundit (Molly Ivans?) saying something to the effect that he gets less tongue-tied when he’s confident and bullying, or something like that. I think he has just never been much of a reader (for whatever reason, not necessarily including innate intelligence), and certainly not a writer, so he has never acquired the habit of being precise and careful with language. I get the impression that the Bush household never put much stock in language. Remember how goofy H. W. Bush could be when he opened his mouth? I can’t picture any of them punning or mocking a malapropism. People who are articulate enjoy language and speech, and enjoy playing with language. I just don’t see that in any of them, least of all George W. I could be wrong, I’ve never spent an afternoon chatting them up at the Kennebunkport compound.

I’m curious about more mundane aspects of W’s language like what exactly is going on with words that end in S? When G. W. says “please pass the peas” it comes out as “Pleess pass the peess”. Please for most of us rhymes with breeze, not fleece and peas with wheeze not peace. I know that’s not Texas, and I don’t think it’s Maine. I don’t know anyone that does that with Ss.

Then there’s the Texas accent. Why does he have it and Jeb doesn’t? I read once that Henry Kissinger has a younger brother who has no German accent. Did the timing of the Bush family’s moves between the East Coast and Texas affect accent acquisition passively among the siblings or was there an element of will in Dubya’s adopting the accent. I don’t doubt that his accent is genuine, but it seems just a bit off. It’s not quite the accent (or accents – Texas is a big and diverse place) I’ve heard other Lone Star natives speak. They say he sometimes cranks it up for particular audiences. How and to what degree? Many politicians do adopt the most bacon fat-soaked, corn pone drawl they can possibly manage, to the point of becoming cartoonish. Remember Phil Graham? Is there some of this in Bush’s refusal to pronounce nuclear as it is spelled? (Yo George, if you’re reading this, I promise to vote GOP for the rest of my life if you can pronounce nuclear the right way just ONCE.)

Finally, there are the weird little mannerisms, of which I’ll only mention one: The little Ehhhs and Aehhs that keep coming out of him between every third god-damned word!
George!!! Shut the fuck up with that!! You’re driving me crazy!

>I read once that Henry Kissinger has a younger brother who has no German accent.

My parents were both immigrants--they each have older siblings who have marked accents, but my folks themselves have/had no discernible accents (to my ears, anyway).

>They say he sometimes cranks it up for particular audiences. How and to what degree? Many politicians do adopt the most bacon fat-soaked, corn pone drawl they can possibly manage, to the point of becoming cartoonish.

I'm imagining an incognito Dr. Phil, giving secret classes:

Dr. Phil: "Hound dawg--"
Class: "Hound Dog--"
Dr. Phil: "no-no: Hound dawg--"

>The little Ehhhs and Aehhs

I really suspect that those serve the same purpose as the body movements I mentioned earlier: like an incredulous gasp that he's not being believed, or that everything he's saying isn't being accepted as obvious.

Quite amuzing.

I remember back during the last debates, someone writing that Bush's pauses imitate the speech styles of Southern pastors.

And after the debates, every time Kerry would wipe the floor with him, people would say that it was a tie. Bush would stand there, pausing, saying nothing. I interpreted it as being completely lost. But many others interpreted it as the pastor being upset and preparing to chastise.

It is interesting to see the earlier debate, and his different style.

Though, if it is Altzheimer's or some sort of disease that could have been helped with stem-cell research...couldn't happen to a better person.

Hey, the rug interview is a model of lucidity compared to Dubya's "explanation" of why we need to privatize Social Security:

THE PRESIDENT: Because the -- all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculated, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those -- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be -- or closer delivered to what has been promised.

Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the -- like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate -- the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those -- if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

This clown is the President of the United States?! Moreover, he is not universally acknowledged to be a drooling lunatic; tens of millions of Americans even think he is a great man. WTF??

Then there’s the Texas accent. Why does he have it and Jeb doesn’t?

I read some linguist type once who remarked that listening to Dubya and Jeb's accents no one could guess that they had grown up in the same household.

when speaking about things that didn't require empathy, he snapped right to, and didn't stutter or speak malapropisms too much at all.

I saw that somewhere, too. Mark Crispin Miller, maybe? Whoever it was said that when Bush was trying to pretend that he gave a shit about regular folks his speech was very garbled -- evidently since he really didn't feel that way and was just making it up as he went along. But when he was speaking sincerely about things he enjoyed, like executing people, he had no trouble speaking clearly.

btw, I see that Saddam's prosecutor says he should be executed. When does Bush get put on trial for his crimes against humanity?

Thanks Frederick, I think that's who it may have been. This is not the interview that I read, but the sentiment was right:

BuzzFlash: What's unique about the Bush Administration is how overt its complete lack of humility is for institutions such as the United Nations and for the leaders of other countries.

Mark Crispin Miller: I agree. That's why Bush, in the fall of 2002, had such a hard time uttering that Quaker axiom, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." As ever, his tongue went AWOL not because the man's an imbecile, but because he just can't make his mouth say things that are completely foreign to his nature. One of those things is, of course, contrition. Bush could just as easily say "Shame on me" as he could dance Swan Lake.

>tens of millions of Americans even think he is a great man.

Holy cow--I was floored a few months ago--a few months ago, I say again--to see a man-on-the-street interview featuring the quote: "I think he's the best president _ever_."

Ever? Ever! Yes, forget Lincoln, and his freeing the slaves baloney; forget Kennedy staring down the Russians; forget FDR, taking us through the Depression and the Second World War with a smile and a plan; forget Washington, leading us into nationhood; forget Jefferson, hewing manfully to his vision of egalitarianism; forget even Reagan, once so beloved of conservatives. No, George W. Bush, with his great and masterful achievements in the area of (fill in blank). The Best President Ever.

He is obviously reading from a tele-prompter.
Look at his eyes!

I keep thinking about Dubya and his strange language.
Anyone whose every public utterance is recorded for global consumption is likely to sound goofy or confused or actually stupid from time to time. None of us is so honey-tongued that we can always be glib. The MSM, which has given Bush a pass on everything from his assault on the poor to mass-murder, somehow picked up on his crazy language and reports it, so I have to think he really is inarticulate. The press often puffs up some insignificant presidential gaff or foible just because, apparently, they need to fill column space or airtime. The Carter rabbit attack or Ford stumbling being typical examples of the kind of stupid, pointless crap the Whitehouse press wastes our time with. Bush, on the other hand, regularly shreds his words on the way out so badly and so often that even a slobberingly adoring press corps can’t hide the fact.

Which begs the question: where do his flaming-train-wreck sentences come from?

- We know that he is incurious and not much of a reader, so that might account for his having a fairly limited vocabulary which would limit the range and variety of verbal artillery he can use to hit any particular idea he might want to express. On that score he comes across as using a BB gun.
- A life of privilege in which minions’ and servants’ livelihoods depend on their ability to decipher his garblings doesn’t help.
- Arrogance, both native and learned at Bab’s knee: a corollary of the previous statement. -Can’t follow my drift? Well, that’s your problem.-
- Confusion about details of the policies and methods of his own office and staff. Remember, he’s a “big picture” guy and can’t be troubled with particulars. Gets back to privilege and arrogance.
- Nervousness, stage fright. I think he suspects he’s in over his head and he’s afraid it’ll show.
- We all have different strengths and weaknesses, different “intelligences”, to use a popular term. He’s said to be very smart (I’d use the word “cunning”) with respect to certain things, but in the category of “verbal ability” he scores an “F” for “fucking stupid”.
- Might there be something genetic? Remember his daddy was often given to crazy talk. A year or so ago a gene that followed classical Mendelian rules was linked for the first time to a specific speech defect. Insofar as it’s undoubtedly certain that human speech depends on some sort of genetic scaffolding, it would hardly be surprising if some combination of alleles resulted in diminished verbal skills.
- Might there be something developmental? I swear to God there’s something in the water down there in Texas that makes a scary lot of them dumber’n fucking armadillos.
- Cocaine? If I had the dough to afford the heaps of blow he could, I might be tongue-tied and babbling myself.
- Alcohol? I don’t know enough about the pathology of alcoholism to know how exactly it affects language. I do know that he sometimes sounds like someone who keeps their possessions in a shopping cart.

The other thing that baffles me is why so many people find the thick-tongued / hillbilly / rusty-ol’-pickup-truck speech pattern so god-damned endearing. I mean, ok, Americans don’t want a snooty Frenchified intellectual president spouting Spinoza and Kierkegard at them, but why the sort who works in the kitchen because they can’t manage a simple phrase like “would you like fries with that”? Part of a president’s job description is that he be glib. The president is supposed to be, in part, actor and grifter. Two professions that demand a high level of verbal skill. Usually the primary process weeds out the ones that come across as nitwit hayseeds. How did someone whose speaking ability is outmatched by your average parrot become president?

I'd be really impressed if he knew the difference between the verbs "hone" and "home."

Well, everyone knows that I'm a slobberingly adoring cfrost fan, but I agree completely with all but the last four, which must remain speculation (and I've known a good Texan or two).

>- A life of privilege in which minions’ and servants’ livelihoods depend on their ability to decipher his garblings doesn’t help.

I call this "President-itis," as in not just POTUS, but company presidents. My last CEO had INCREDIBLY crappy communication skills, and it was obviously because he had been a CEO for too long, and too many people had allowed his mumblings to go by, and were too scared for their jobs to call him out on it or ask for clarification. This guy and I had some virtual screaming matches, all right. (It's nice that I don't have a family to support--I occasionally have the luxury of reading out an executive when I feel like it, which most working people can't afford to do.)

Oh, and this thing:

>thick-tongued / hillbilly / rusty-ol’-pickup-truck speech pattern so god-damned endearing.

Bugs the SHIT out of me. Doubtless referring to W, the West Wing had some shows talking about how Governor Ritchie (the President's Republican rival on the program) worked the rusty ol' pickup truck angle, and how the President shouldn't be afraid to seem well-educated.

Did we (and by "we," I mean the ~50% of American voters who voted against my candidate) actually elect someone stupid because we didn't want to feel threatened and shown up by an expert?


Sorry. I just inadvertently stole your 'Bush Before & After' title. Oh well - worst thefts have happened. I find Bush's abuse of the queen's english one of his more endearing qualities.

The comments to this entry are closed.