Message: I Don't Care

TRB

April 09, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — By the end of President Reagan's first term, friend and foe alike had begun to use the term ''Reaganism'' to refer to his governing ideology. But no one uses the word ''Bushism'' to mean any coherent set of political beliefs. A ''Bushism'' has come to mean his funny way of talking. The staccato sentences with no pronouns. The long, meandering non-sentences that reverse course or get lost completely halfway through. The fractured syntax. The weird mixed metaphors and non-sequiturs.

Mr. Bush's rambly, semi-coherent style has been compared to Eisenhower's, but Ike's verbiage lacked Mr. Bush's essential frantic quality. Eisenhower's admirers believe he could turn the fog machine on or off at will, and used it purposely to divert and confuse. No one has ever tried to make that case about Mr. Bush, so far.

The positive spin on Bushism is that his inarticulateness illustrates his sincerity and lack of artifice. It shows he's a regular guy. The president himself advanced this theory in the most eloquent performance he's ever given: his acceptance speech at the 1988 GOP convention. Naturally he didn't write it himself. Peggy Noonan, Official Purveyor of Soaring Lyricism to Republican Presidents, did.

In one of that speech's most absurd flights of Noonanism, Mr. Bush read from his teleprompter: ''Now I may be -- may not be the most eloquent, but I learned that early on the eloquence won't draw oil from the ground. . . . And I'm a quiet man, but I hear the quiet people others don't. . . .''

In fact, no one has ever accused Mr. Bush of being a ''quiet man.'' He's a babbler. Some of his most insincere babbling comes when he wants to be demotic. (''When I need a little free advice about Saddam Hussein, I turn to country music.'') The best case for Bushspeak as an expression of the democratic impulse was made by Jacob Weisberg of The New Republic, who compared President Bush to ''a big, clumsy golden retriever, drooling and knocking over furniture in his eagerness'' to please everyone.

The canniest description of the president's strange discursiveness belongs to Timothy Noah of the Wall Street Journal, who compares it to call-waiting: Mr. Bush is always putting one half-finished thought on hold to take up the next.

Closely related is the tendency described by Meg Greenfield in Newsweek: ''Bush is always telling you how to look at what he is doing, or what the impression is he is trying to create.'' (''We have -- I have -- want to be positioned in that I could not possibly support David Duke, because of the racism and because of the bigotry and all of this.'')

These tics share a clear view of the mind at work. Mr. Bush's mental processes lie close to the surface.

This is honesty of a sort. President Bush is famous for his attitude that politics is something one stoops to when necessary. When he denies a remark he has just made (''People understand that Congress bears a greater responsibility for this -- but I'm not trying to assign blame''), or reads his stage directions aloud (''Message: I care''), he is telegraphing that he doesn't really mean what he says -- it's all just politics. It's a verbal wink, implying that as long as we're all in on the joke, it doesn't matter. (''I've told you I don't live and die by the polls. Thus I will refrain from pointing out that we're not doing too bad in those polls.'')

But maybe it does matter. What Mr. Bush seems to have no interest in is not just politics, but political ideas of any kind. He reveals this in unconsciously dismissive references to ''freedom and democracy and things of that nature.'' When he says, ''I think in politics there are certain moral values. I'm one who -- we believe strongly in pluralism . . . , but when you get into some questions there are some moral overtones. Murder, that kind of thing . . . ,'' he is transparently faking it.

Mr. Bush's problem is not a lack of intelligence, it is a simple lack of anything to say. That's why he babbles. That's why he contradicts himself. That's why he tells you how you should perceive what he's saying, instead of just saying it. That's why he tells transparent whoppers.

A man anchored in true beliefs not only would be more articulate in expressing those beliefs. He would make a better liar, too. He wouldn't wreck a story about how faith sustained him while he waited to be rescued from the sea during World War II by adding, preposterously, that he was also sustained by thoughts tTC of ''the separation of church and state.''

If there were a real Bushism, in other words, there might not be all those Bushisms. Is that clear at all?

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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