June 13, 2004

W the debater

Readers who are interested in the question of George W. Bush's linguistic skills (some of our previous discussion of this is here, here, here, here and here) will want to study James Fallows' cover story "When George Meets John", in the July/August Atlantic (the story is not yet on the web, so go buy the magazine!).

After reading Fallows' article, I'm more convinced than ever that Jacob Weisberg's Bushisms enterprise is an equal mixture of cultural prejudice, cheap shots and gullibility, and that the Democrats accept the view of Bush as a tongue-tied boob at their peril.

Some quotes from Fallows' article:

Recently I saw an amazing piece of political video. It was ten-year-old footage of George W. Bush, and it changed my mind about an important aspect of the upcoming campaign. [...]

...it was the hour in which Bush faced Ann Richards [in the debate during the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election] that I had to watch several times. The Bush on this tape was almost unrecognizable--and not just because he looked different from the figure we are accustomed to in the WHite House. He was younger, thinner, with much darker hair and a more eager yet less swaggering carriage than he has now. But the real difference was the way he sounded.

This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled a word or two ..., but fewer than most people would in an hour's debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. "To lay our my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so," he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his priniciples.

Richards's main line of attack--in fact, her only one--was that Bush had done so poorly in a series of businesses that he would be over his head as governor. Each time she tried this, Bush calmly said, 'I think this is a diversion away from talking about the issues that face Texas"--which led him right back to the items on his stump speech ("I want to discuss welfare, education. I want to discuss the juvenile-justice system ..."). When talking about schools he said, "I think the mission in education ought to be excellence in literature, math, science and social science"--an ordinary enough thought, but one delivered with an offhand fluency I do not remember his ever showing at a presidential press conference.

[...] The man on the debate platform looked and sounded smart and in control. If you had to guess which of the two candidates had won the debate scholarship to college and was about to win the governship, you would choose Bush.

Fallows goes on to say that "I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape--but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written often of the importance of metaphor and emotional message in political communications."

After seeing the Bush-Richards debate from 1994, Lakoff concluded that it should be used to teach successful debate technique. Within the first few words of each reply Bush had figured out how to use the question as an opening not simply for his major campaign themes but also for the personal and emotional messages he wanted to project.

Fallows also raises the question of why Bush has seemed so different in recent years.

Yolette Garcia, who as the executive producer at KERA-TV, in Dallas, had supervised negotiations for the Bush-Richards debate, says that in those days Bush was noted for his poise and ease in public appearances--including the informal Q&As he has tried to avoid as President. [...]

Obviously Bush doesn't sound this way as President, and there is no one conclusive explanation for the change. I have read and listened to speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President's peculiar mode of speech--a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder that makes him so uncomfortable when speaking off the cuff. The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate. George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change was intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne. ...

I say: Maybe. Clearly Bush has been content to let his opponents, including the press, think him a numbskull. ... But to me the more plausible overall explanation is the sheer change in scale from being governor of Texas to being President of the United States.

I think we need to start out by observing that part of the change may be in the audience rather than in the performance. Bush's disfluencies as president have been relentlessly exaggerated by Weisberg and others, and this has probably affected Fallows' perceptions along with everyone else's. That said, I'm inclined to agree with Fallows about the reasons for whatever real effect there may be.

Fallows gives three specific examples of poor verbal performance by Bush on the national stage: one in a debate with McCain on 2/15/2000, another on Meet the Press in 2/2004, and the last in a prime-time press conference in April. In the 2000 debate, the problem was not lack of fluency, but rather confrontation with an angry McCain over some campaign ads accusing McCain of abandoning veterans. This was not so much a linguistic failure as a moral one, and it put Bush in the position of defending the indefensible. In that case, "staying on message" was no help at all, since the "message" was an absurd counter-charge that McCain's ads had compared Bush to a Democrat.

In the two cases from 2004, Fallows' diagnosis is that Bush did not "even go through the motions of politely trying to connect the question that was asked to the on-message theme he had previously decided to stress." It was indeed a rhetorical flaw for Bush to fail, under stress, to give due deference to the ritual pretense that the norms of conversation are being observed in a discussion between a politician and the press. However, this is surely more a matter of temperament -- or lack of practice -- than basic linguistic facility. "Poise and ease" may be involved, but there is hardly any reason to invoke "some organic basis" such as dyslexia or a learning disability. Fallows' explanations seem adequate: a lot was at stake, and not just for Bush personally; and he lacked recent practice in interactive press rituals. The daily experience of being president, in modern times, must tend to exaggerate the natural arrogance of anyone who makes his way to that position; and this makes the ritual stance of politician as a conversational equal with the press all the more unnatural, and all the more dependent on acting skills.

I'd also add that it's not helpful to raise the question of whether a change in self-presentation -- if one exists in this case -- is "intentional". I suspect that this is Fallows' word, not Lakoff's. As qualified support for the plausibility of (what I take to be) Lakoff's position, I can refer back to recent posts on acquired disfluency as a sign of (male) status in some cultures (here and here).

Fallows gives equal space to a discussion of John Kerry's debating skills, to which he also gives high marks. It should be an interesting campaign.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 13, 2004 03:45 PM