Here is a provocative theory.
We all know that George W. Bush mangles words.
Recently, while promoting the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, he comically urged that "childrens do learn." Over the past six years his clumsy speaking style drew frequent contrasts to Tony Blair's endlessly cheerful, sustained eloquence. As Bush acknowledged, meeting with French President Nikolas Sarkozy in August: "I don't [speak French], I can hardly speak English!"
Although Bush's unique way with words is a frequent topic in the media, it has never interested me much on the face of it. We all know people who do not speak extemporaneously very well but nevertheless have intelligent and complicated responses to the world. Vladimir Nabokov, for one, was famously tongue-tied in person. He demanded interviewers submit their questions in advance, so as to avoid his endless "umms" and general incoherence as an interlocutor. What they got, after submitting their questions as instructed, was stunningly lucid language, which Nabokov made to seem effortless only by a massive amount of work.
So give Bush a break. Forget "misunderestimate" and the like. Imagine if any of us had to speak spontaneously every day in front of multiple recording devices. I know I would spend every night with my regrets.
But maybe there is something about the way he talks that is significant after all.
This is what got me thinking:
I noticed that Bush not only says silly things -- it's the way he says them.
I'm sure it has caught your attention that he also emphasizes words more than most people. Jon Stewart's imitation of Bush captures some of the habitual emphasis he puts into his sentences with that sharp, downward gesture with his hands on the last word (followed of course by the "he he" knowing laugh).
Think back to every time Bush has introduced an appointee (or said goodbye to a departing one) in his administration. He often says, "He's a good man" in a strange way, as if this simple description carries with it a tremendous amount of meaning -- which we are expected to share. Or think more recently to the clips you have seen of Bush insisting that we "don't torture people." Again, the word "torture" has a kind of talismanic quality for Bush, as if by saying it out loud, and insisting that it is what our country does not do, he has separated himself from it. Done deal.
Well, what's wrong with this use of emphasis? It gives him a kind of charming everyman quality, doesn't it?
Exactly. It does give him an everyman quality. And how does it do that? It signals that words to Bush are not malleable -- they represent fixed things in the world. Bush's way of talking suggests that he believes that things simply ARE a certain way, and he is privy to the key, the talismanic words, which reveal the simple truths of this world (which were obscured behind, no doubt, a cloud of confusion stirred up by liberal "PhD types").
It's very effective, this certainty Bush has about even the most abstract words like "good" or "freedom." And it's very dangerous.
I would imagine that this misapprehension about the nature of language is natural for someone who struggled with it as a child. If we can imagine that George W. found reading difficult because of his dyslexia (or some other learning disability), he might have learned to think of words as deeply mysterious, holding some key that was often just beyond his grasp.
The point of all this is that he used this mindset to craft a very powerful self-image -- a man who speaks more haltingly and simply than his friends at Andover and Yale, but who nevertheless has the keys that are necessary to access the Kingdom of Things as They Really Are. He believes that words count, and he makes you feel that.
You might be saying... Wait, words do count. Isn't Bush right in this?
Of course they do. We rely on them to count every time we speak. But most of us know, consciously or intuitively, that words are only approximations of meaning -- and inextricably social in their meaning at that. They do not represent anything fixed underneath them, any Platonic ideal that stands apart from their use in context.
I am influenced by the philospher Wittgenstein here, who pointed out that without both a speaker and a listener -- a social interaction -- words cannot have any consistent meaning through time. Robinson Crusoe on his island, calling a bird a "redfeather," would have no way of confirming that when he called a bird a redfeather the next day it would still be the same word or the same kind of bird. The sounds produced by "redfeather" would simply have no meaning. (This, incidentally, is what is known in philosphy as Wittgenstein's "anti-private language argument.")
So instead of thinking of words, rightly, as a social process, and definitions as fluid, Bush learned somewhere along the way to think of words as, well, name tags, each placed on a definite and unchanging thing. "Torture" has some meaning in his mind (I don't even want to know the series of images that flash through his consciousness). So when he says that we don't "torture," he means it. The problem is, without discussion it means nothing to anybody else. The word alone is worthless. And so is the false sense of sanctimony that his private languge provides him.
Here we begin to see how Bush's problem with language has many real-world repercussions. A talismanic understanding of language (perhaps brought on by a childhood learning disability?), has created a kind of short-circuit to our President's ability to think in terms of process, streams of data, analysis.
He is the Decider. The One Who Knows What Things Really Are.
The rest of us, still mulling over nuances are, in his mind, merely "PhD" types. We can debate into the night, while he sleeps the sleep of the innocent.
Most voters, or half of the voters in this country at least, apparently appreciate this short-circuiting of thinking. If you say, in a subtly aggressive tone, "I don't know about you, but I love America because it is free," then you don't leave a lot of room for a discussion about what this term "freedom" conveys. If you have to ask, you are on the wrong side to Bush and those like him.
Perhaps to compensate for boyhood slights due to difficulties with what is often called "book-learning," Bush has developed an uncanny ability to channel the charisma of not-thinking. When he speaks in simple terms of freedom, evil-doers, or even hot dogs, we are compelled to listen because he invests in these words a sense of an unchanging, unreflective meaning which they otherwise lack.
The last point I would leave you with is that neuroscience may support a connection between difficulties with language (diagnosed as dyslexia or some other learning diability) and a tendency to impulsive decision-making. We may be able someday to speak accurately about specific areas of the brain which are affected. Wouldn't it be interesting if someday, in a peaceful world (a guy can dream, can't he?) the disasters wrought by the Bush Presidency are taught in terms of the unique nature of his brain and his adaptations to it as a teenager?
If only it were that simple.