The Way the President Speaks

The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder
by Mark Crispin Miller
W.W. Norton & Company; ISBN: 0393041832
Reviewed by David Cogswell
This review appeared in the March/April 2002 edition of American Book Review

It came to him like a vision. It was during a sleepless night soon after the Supreme Court stopped the hand counts in Florida and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.

"I lost a lot of sleep after that decision," said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media ecology at New York University. "One of those nights as I tossed and turned, The Bush Dyslexicon just popped into my head. And I got a little chuckle out of it. So I decided I would do a book comprising Bush's funniest slips of the tongue -- until I started looking through the transcripts, at which point I discovered the problem was larger and a lot more serious."

Miller dropped the book he had been writing on propaganda and rapidly put together The Bush Dyslexicon, which came out four months after Bush's inauguration.

Miller's vengeful glee at the prospect of ridiculing Bush soon deteriorated as he found to his horror that the joke was on him, and on the American people. A close examination of the record did not leave him laughing.

"Even if our president were the cheery cretin that such satire makes him out to be," he wrote, "it wouldn't make our plight a comic one, for he has a highly seasoned, wholly ruthless, and, for that matter, deeply humorless cabal of rightist pols and operatives around him -- and that's no joke."

Miller found that Bush's distortions of language mask a deftness in the political arts. It is foolhardy to "misunderestimate" Bush. He may be ignorant of much a president is normally expected to know, much a graduate of both Yale and Harvard would normally be required to know, and things a man of privilege would traditionally make it his business to know. But he is not stupid. He possesses a degree of cunning and native intelligence that are extremely well suited to politics.

As Miller points out, it was Junior, as he was then called, who influenced his father to take some of the more unseemly courses of action that helped to destroy Michael Dukakis in the election of 1988. Working with the late Lee Atwater, the legendary political attack dog and Nixon protege, Junior convinced his father to give up his intention not to "go negative" and to pull out the hot-button "Willie Horton" ads that linked Dukakis with the image of a violent black criminal.

It was also George W. who suggested the strategy by which the then-vice president diverted Dan Rather's questions about Bush's involvement in the Iran Contra affair by bringing up the time when Rather walked off the set of a news broadcast.

Examining Bush's language, Miller believed he unearthed deep incongruencies that gave indications of Bush's true motivations and patterns of thinking. Those discoveries, he felt, were not trivial. He found in Bush a vivid example of the Orwellian use of language as a tool of political manipulation, which Orwell explained in his essay, "Politics and the English Language."

"... one ought to recognize," wrote Orwell, "that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language."

Political language, he continued, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

When it comes to butchery of the English language, Bush stands in a category by himself among all U.S. presidents. His father paved the way for him in this as in everything else with some amazingly confused language of his own. Bush Senior's vice president Dan Quayle created his own body of malapropistic masterpieces, but he was only vice president and was kept on the sidelines. Bush Jr., who has added such phrases as "Is our children learning?" and "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family" to the historical archive of presidential quotations, has far outperformed them both, and his term is (sigh) only begun.

Bush's level of language mastery is particularly odd given that he has degrees from both Yale and Harvard. As Miller says, "Although the GOP machine has spun his elementary goofs as signs of kinship with the Common Man, they are in fact an insult to the people. Every bit of broken English, every flash of comfy ignorance reminds us of a privilege blithely squandered."

Yet Bush can be surprisingly articulate, Miller says, in the rare instances when he is discussing policy he fully understands, or when is being cruel or discussing "the punitive infliction of great pain." In one debate he gleefully pointed out that the killers of James Byrd in Texas were going to be put to death (though it was only in part true). The comment, Miller says, "stood out for its rare pithiness -- and the joyous leer with which the governor made that statement..."

Miller included extensive commentary with the quotes,as well as a 76-page essay at the beginning and an 18-page essay at the end, all intended to "shed some light on propaganda in our time."

Bush loyalists will of course find the book offensive and write it off as a left wing point of view. They would be more accurate to say it falls outside of the simplistic bi-polar political system which is religiously adhered to by the establishment media.

The way the major media frame issues, there is little room for the point of view of the average citizen, because the media are -- like both the Republicans and Democrats in government -- part of the power elite. To those who receive their news from major corporate media and are therefore only exposed to a narrow range of opinion, this book may shock, because it is clearly beyond that range. That fact also makes it refreshing. Miller's point of view represents those who are not members of any privileged elite in either politics or the media, and whose points of view are rarely represented in either realm.

Perhaps that is the most valuable thing about the book: that it departs from the media system that draws its boundaries so narrowly, placing Bill Clinton on the far left next to Satan, and Bush in the middle of America. Miller and most of America stand far from either Republicans or Democrats and the narrow spectrum of political interests represented by the major corporate interests that now control practically all of the visible political players.

The Bush Dyslexicon is also well grounded in American democratic traditions, which in spite of the high-flown patriotic flourishes of politicians, are becoming forgotten relics in the 21st Century.

Though the book will enrage Bush supporters, those not within the loyalist camp may be impressed with Miller's eloquence, his creative and playful use of language, the subtlety of his analyses, and the range of his historical resources. While beginning from an extremely grim premise, Miller manages to create prose that is both humorous and hopeful.

The portrait of Bush, however, will remain deeply disturbing. His disregard for the rules of grammar and logic seems to be part of a larger disregard for democratic institutions and other laws and traditions which he seems to believe do not apply to him.

It is a portrait that recalls Vaclav Havel's description of a politician who is out of touch with right and wrong: "He believes that he has something like an unconditional free pass to anywhere, even to heaven. Anyone who tries to scrutinize his pass is an enemy who does him wrong."

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