Bush whacks speech

Words still stumble on their way out

October 05, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At times, President Bush and the English language have had a rocky relationship. Apparently, they're on the fritz again.

Bush, inventor of words like "subliminable" and "misunderestimate," has drawn bewildered looks from listeners often in recent weeks, committing verbal gaffes or, sometimes, completely forgetting what he was trying to say.

At a fund-raiser in Baltimore Wednesday, Bush was talking about how the United States and its allies have arrested several thousand terrorists.

"We're hauling them in," he said proudly. "The other day we got the fellow -"

Then came a presidential pause.

"I forgot the guy's name."

Then came a rescue attempt by an audience member.

"Moussaoui!"

"No, it wasn't Moussaoui," Bush replied, having brought his policy speech to a grinding halt. "Bin al-Shibh is the guy's name."

Indeed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh was captured in Pakistan three weeks ago and is believed to have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush never has claimed to be an artful speaker, and rarely have gaffes or malapropisms done political damage to him. One might dare say that, in the eyes of many supporters, they are part of his charm.

The recent Bushisms have gone mostly unnoticed, even as the president enjoyed a successful past week, drawing members of Congress closer to his position that Iraq must be confronted. But even when the topic has turned to Iraq, Bush has not been free of the kind of quirky locution that helps make him who he is.

In the Oval Office, Bush was asked whether he considered Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a greater threat than Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

"That's a ... that is an interesting question," Bush said, before pausing. "I'm trying to think of something humorous to say."

It was not clear why thoughts of Hussein and bin Laden led the president to aim for humor. Perhaps he found the question odd and wanted to chide the journalist, which would not be out of character.

Whether mangling words, obliterating a famous cliche or just saying something weird, Bush has injected occasional awkward moments into many public appearances, typically leaving listeners with quizzical looks on their faces.

Speaking about the need for the United Nations to confront Hussein, the president told an audience at a Nashville school: "We're trying to figure out how best to make the world a peaceful place." He might have been wise to leave it at that. He didn't.

"There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas ... it's probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on ... Shame on you. It fool me. We can't get fooled again."

The evidence suggests Bush was trying to say: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

After that, Bush kept it simple. The U.N., he insisted, "must not be fooled."

Bush recently met with lawmakers to discuss terrorism insurance. He then fielded questions from reporters, who ignored the topic of the meeting and asked about Iraq as the lawmakers sat tight. Appearing to sympathize, Bush turned to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, and said: "Thanks for serving as a prop."

An aide to Sarbanes insisted that the senator was not offended by being called a prop.

Sometimes, the president's malaprops are due simply to dialect.

In late August, an audience in Oklahoma was told that tax cuts are desirable because, "if you let people have their own money, they will demand a gooder service," and "when somebody produces that gooder service, somebody is more likely to find jobs."

As it turns out, Bush's Texas drawl masked that he was really speaking of "a good or service." The president corrected the problem in later speeches, referring to "a good or a service."

But in Baltimore last week, regression. The president told Marylanders that more money in their pockets means more to spend on - what else? - "a gooder service."

Bush seems to have a sense of humor about his linguisitic gymnastics.

Last year, he thanked former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra - who is famous for uttering profundities like "baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical" - for being an inspiration. Some, Bush said, think Berra "might be my speechwriter."

And sometimes, Bush gets the last laugh.

Last month, the president complained that Saddam had "side-stepped, crawfished, wheedled" out of international agreements.

Injecting crawfish into the Iraq debate brought Bush ridicule. A British columnist wrote that Bush had used a term found in no dictionaries and that he should "rethink his choice of words before he addresses the United Nations."

Critics should have taken a look at Webster's International Dictionary. There, one definition of crawfish is "to back out" - which Bush was clearly accusing Hussein of doing.

The lesson: Don't misunderestimate this president. Bush would tell you that himself.

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