The presidential parlance

George W. Bush has a few favorite phrases that get attention if not always approval.


January 13, 2002|By Elisabeth Bumiller | Elisabeth Bumiller,New York Times News Service

Like a cantankerous parent telling teen-agers they can't have the family car for a road trip, President Bush announced in California recently that the Democrats would reverse his tax cuts of last year "over my dead body." Actually, Bush said "not over my dead body," thereby mangling a familiar idiom, but the crowd's roar of approval indicated that everyone knew what he meant.

So did the headline writers, making the president's "my dead body" the first memorable Bushism of 2002, and the first since Sept. 11 to address the indisposed economy. But it was only the latest in a string of presidential phrases, from "smoke them out of their caves" to "the evil one," that have punctuated Bush's speech and are destined to live on as signposts of his presidency.

Herewith, a primer of the newest Bushisms.

"Over my dead body"

White House aides said that Bush was speaking in California from notes, not a text, and that the remark was ad-libbed. The declaration immediately evoked memories of Bush's father's reneged-upon and politically disastrous pledge, "Read my lips: no new taxes," but in fact "over my dead body" has been a favorite of politicians, sometimes with unpleasant results, for some time.

Ronald Reagan announced in Little Rock, Ark., during his 1984 re-election campaign that there would be tax increases only "over my dead body," a pledge he had to retreat from in his second term. Prime Minister John Major of Britain said in 1982 that the pound would be devalued only "over my dead body," and soon enough the currency was down 15 percent.

But Homer may have been the first to use it, in the Iliad, when Hector tells his wife, Andromache, that he will "let the earth come piling over my dead body" before he will allow the fall of Troy and hear her cries as she is dragged off by the Greeks.

In that same passage, in what could be read as another literary allusion to the family Bush, Hector lifts his infant son and asks the gods to grant that the boy "rule all Troy in power and one day let them say, 'He is a better man than his father!' "

"The evil one"

Bush has regularly used this phrase to describe Osama bin Laden. Among evangelical Christians, it is an obvious reference to Satan, and appears throughout the Bible. (From Matthew, in the New American Standard Bible: "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart.")

Bush was raised an Episcopalian, became a Methodist after his marriage and then in 1986 said he was recommitting his heart to Jesus Christ -- a "born-again" experience, at least in the words of evangelicals, although the president has not used that term to describe himself. Still, evangelicals recognize the terminology of "the evil one" as their own.

But some in the evangelical movement have questioned the phrase. "The problem with 'the evil one' is that in Christian thought, the only one who is totally, hopelessly evil is Satan," said Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., the largest seminary in North America for the mainstream evangelical movement. "We don't really believe that anybody is beyond redemption until their dying breath, if they reject Christ." Calling bin Laden "the evil one" supernaturalizes him, Mouw said. He added that saying bin Laden is wanted "dead or alive," as the president does, "trivializes" human life. "That's not an example of moral leadership, or spiritual leadership," Mouw said.

"Smoke them out

of their caves"

Bush has with great relish promised to smoke the Taliban and al-Qaida out of their hiding places. In the early days of the war, his reference to caves was thought by some to be metaphorical, but the bombing of Tora Bora proved that the president was speaking more literally than anyone knew.

Then on Dec. 19, appearing on the South Lawn of the White House with Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana, Bush suddenly used the phrase in connection with rabbits, leaving the press corps perplexed.

"I know the governor likes to hunt rabbits down in Louisiana," the president said. "Sometimes those rabbits think they can hide from the governor. But, eventually, he smokes them out and gets them. And that's exactly what is happening to Mr. bin Laden, and all the murderers that he's trying to hide in Afghanistan."

Foster later explained that the president was referring to a rabbit-hunting trip he had taken with Bush on the Louisiana coast during the 2000 presidential campaign. "You let beagles loose, and they howl and go after the rabbits and chase the rabbits out in front of you," Foster said.

"I guess you could smoke them out," Foster added, "but I don't know anybody who hunts them that way."

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