Monday, August 09, 2004

Bushisms, cont'd.

This is no longer news, but the discussion of it (see "comments" below) has brought up some interesting points.

Ask Americans today what Abraham Lincoln sounded like, and they'll probably imagine a stoic gravitas at the podium, and a deep, rolling bass voice worthy of James Earl Jones (who has narrated several Lincoln programs).

Surprise. Lincoln was a tenor who jumped up and down on stage while speaking. His presence was "uncouth" and "awkward," as even his intimates admitted. One of the common descriptions of his voice was "shrill." In one speech,

"Lincoln's voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered."

And that's from his friend, Billy Herndon.

When Lincoln spoke off the cuff, he often made trouble for himself, as when he told an Ohio crowd during the secession crisis that "there is nothing going wrong ... nothing that really hurts anybody." The press jumped all over him.

So after he became president, Lincoln made very few speeches (a mere 95 over four years, most of them brief and formal). He knew that he had a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, and that as president his every word was recorded. When the crowds called for an impromptu speech, Lincoln often declined, explaining, "Every word is so closely noted that it will not do to make trivial ones. If I were as I have been most of my life, I might perhaps talk amusing to you for half an hour, and it wouldn't hurt anybody."

"Abe is becoming more grave," a magazine correspondent wrote after the election. "He don't construct as many jokes as he did. He fears that he will get things mixed up if he don't look out."

One result of all this was that the Gettysburg Address was not recognized at the time of its delivery as a great work. Only a few men saw its worth. The conventional wisdom on Lincoln in 1863 was that he was not much of a speech-maker and a mediocrity as an orator. That's what people expected, so that's what they heard.

In the media age, George W. Bush doesn't have the luxury of avoiding comment, as Lincoln did.

The AP slug on the story was BC-Bushism. It moved at 12:28 p.m. EDT.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush offered up a new entry for his catalog of "Bushisms" on Thursday, declaring that his administration will "never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people."

Bush misspoke as he delivered a speech at the signing ceremony for a $417 billion defense spending bill.

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we," Bush said. "They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

No one in Bush's audience of military brass or Pentagon chiefs reacted.

But it was the AP's headline that really betrayed the bias, to me. Bush insists his administration seeking 'new ways to harm our country.'

Reporters don't put the headlines on their stories. Editors, who decide what stories to move on the wire, do that. In this case, the reporter wrote about an apparent mis-statement. But the headline editor didn't. He or she offered no suggestion there that this wasn't what Bush meant to say. It was presented as a straight news headline. That's disingenuous, at best.

An hour later, AP moved a new version of the story, a "1st Ld-Writethru" (1:35 p.m. EDT). It was hardly a write-through in the usual sense of the word, and the lead wasn't changed at all. In fact, it only added another sentence from Bush's speech, after the very last paragraph. But it did change the headline:

Bush misspeaks, says his administration seeking 'new ways to harm our country'

Perhaps someone called attention to the AP's deceptive set-up of the story. But even after the AP jiggled its headline, many news outlets continued to run the AP story without mention in headlines that it was a "mis-speaking" event. NBC network channel affiliates ran it all day with the headline, "Bush Says He Seeks 'New Ways To Harm Our Country.' "

Cox News Service, meanwhile, sent out its own, bylined, version of the story, under the headine, Bush says 'we' never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country

If you're really writing a story about Bushism, shouldn't the headline say as much? But if your intent in running the story is to do as much harm as possible to this man, you'd probably write a headline that presents his actions in the most demaning light possible, and omit the key fact that this was not what he meant to say.

Frankly, I'm not even sure it was a mis-speak. I sometimes think about how I would break into my own house if I wanted to rob it. It doesn't mean I want to rob my house. It means I want to know where to put the locks, where to hang the outdoor lights, where my vulnerabilities are. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we," could be read (or heard) in the same spirit.

Meanwhile, Bob Herbert of the "New York Times" has taken the comment one step further. It's not a "Bush-ism" any more, it's a "Freudian slip."

The pressure may be getting to Bush. He came up with a gem of a Freudian slip Thursday. At a signing ceremony for a $417 billion military spending bill, the president said: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Freudian slip: "a mistake made in speaking by which, it is thought, the speaker inadvertently reveals unconscious motives, desires, etc." [Webster's New World, 4th ed.] Herbert says he thinks the Bush administration really works deliberately and tirelessly to harm America. That's rhetoric unworthy of anything above

Cox had the sense to add to its "Bushism" story a Kerry gaffe from the same cycle, which none of the other media reported.

Sunday in Michigan, apparently forgetting he was no longer in Ohio, Kerry voiced support for "Buckeye football." The Ohio State Buckeyes are the University of Michigan's top rival.

As the boos reminded him he was no longer in Buckeye country, Kerry declared Michigan "a powerhouse of a team."

Yeah, every politician does that at one time or another. So do rock stars. I once saw Evan Dando get up on a club stage looking like he'd just rolled out of bed, and say into the mike, "where am I?" He got about 20 different answers. I don't think he ever really found out.

It's no reason Kerry shouldn't be president. Kerry's response to being caught in a slip is hard to judge from this meager account. But it seems like he might have just erased it, said the right thing, and pretend it never happened. Bush, at least, is capable of self-depriciating humor.

But ask yourself, honestly: if Bush said something that indicated he didn't know what state he was in, would it be found only buried in a third-string news service's story?

In that ubiquitous Jib-Jab parody of the election, with Flash animation Bush and Kerry singing to the tune of "This Land is Your Land," Bush's verbal awkwardness is one of Kerry's main attacks, while the cartoon Bush mocks the cartoon Kerry for his "flip-flops."

But that's not quite right. The emphasis on Kerry's "flip-flops" comes from Bush, Cheney, Rove, et al. It's part of their political campaign, right or wrong, while the media debates whether having a candidate who never changes his mind is worse than having one who always does. But that debate is one step removed from the source of the meme.

The "Bush can't speak right" meme, by contrast, comes right from the media. The national Democratic Party doesn't have to sully its hands making fun of the man's colloquial pronunciations. The AP does it for them.

Which is more relevant to the election, Kerry's decision-making qualities or Bush's problems with grammar? After all, we already know we can survive four years of Bush's mangled English.