September 10, 2004


BUSHSPEAK: The President’s vernacular style. (PHILIP GOUREVITCH, 2004-09-06, The New Yorker)

When Bush appeared in person, moments later, he seemed surprisingly ordinary. “I’m here to ask for the vote,” he told the audience. “I believe it’s important to get out and ask for the vote. I believe it’s important to travel this great state and the country, talkin’ about where I intend to lead the country.” He made this sound like an original idea, and perhaps a controversial one, and the way he repeated the words “I believe” carried an air of defiant conviction: I’m not here offering myself to you because that’s how it’s done in a democracy but because that’s just how I am, and I don’t give a damn who says different.

He wore no tie, and his sleeves were rolled up, and the simplicity of the proposition, the easy conversational forthrightness, seemed so natural, so obvious and reassuring, that it was easy to forget, as he wound on through his stump speech, that he had promised to lay out a plan for the future. He offered no such plan, or even any new initiatives. He just declared the past four years a success, and said that more and better was to come. What was the alternative? John Kerry? Bush spends a good deal of time on the stump deriding his rival, and the rest of the time he projects the attitude of a man who is running unopposed—which he could be forgiven for thinking if the election depended simply on who is the better campaigner.

Bush campaigns with the eager self-delight of a natural ham. There’s an appealing physicality about him. When he says he wants your vote, he does not just mouth the words but follows them through with his entire body, rising to his toes, tilting toward you yearningly. When he works his way along the edge of the stage, waving, shaking hands, he has the concentration of an athlete in the thrall of his game. He seems to hold nothing back. He reaches for the hands around him, tipping so far forward that it appears, in the frozen fraction of a second captured in photographs, that he has lost his balance. He twists, and stoops, and spins, and stops abruptly to wave, and the raised hand seems to lift the rest of him with it, up and forward. Bush is said to be charming, and polls show that Americans tend to find him more likable than his policies, but one does not even have to like him to admire how truly at home he appears in his body.

He has a repertoire of stock poses and expressions, as does any professional performer, but the freedom of his movements is striking. Flip through snapshots of him, and you’ll find any number that catch him in a bizarre or comical position. The mobility of his face leaves him open to lampooning, not least because of its simian modelling, which is underscored by his affectation of an equally simian gait—the dangle-armed swagger, like a knuckle-walker startled to find himself suddenly upright. But even when he looks foolish, or simply coarse, Bush is never less than an expressive presence.

The same can be said of his language. He is grossly underestimated as an orator by those who presume that good grammar, rigorous logic, and a solid command of the facts are the essential ingredients of political persuasion, and that the absence of these skills indicates a lack of intelligence. Although Bush is no intellectual, and proud of it, he is quick and clever, and, for all his notorious malapropisms, abuses of syntax, and manglings or reinventions of vocabulary, his intelligence is—if not especially literate—acutely verbal. His words, in transcription, might seem mindless, incoherent, or unintentionally hilarious (“I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family”; “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”), but it is pretty plain what he means. “Even when we don’t agree, you know what I believe and where I stand,” he reminded the nation at Madison Square Garden, during his acceptance of the Republican nomination.

Bush’s top speechwriter, Michael Gerson, is regarded as a master of his trade. His speeches are composed of short, declarative sentences packed with substance. While John Kerry can speak rousingly for whole paragraphs without saying anything precise or concrete, Bush rarely puts ten words together in a major address without taking a position, passing a judgment, or proclaiming a purpose. He is less concise when unscripted, or—as on the stump—only loosely tethered to a text, but when he’s ad-libbing he makes up for whatever tightness he lacks with an emotional appeal, seeking and generally finding a level of connection to his supporters that eludes his rival entirely. Bush’s gift in this regard is a function of his lack of polish: the clipped nature of his phraseology, the touch of twang, the hard consonants, the nasal vowels, the dropped conjunctions and slurred or swallowed suffixes.

“I’m sorry Laura’s not here,” he told the breakfast-hour crowd in Las Cruces, and they moaned in sympathy. “I understand,” he said, and got a big laugh. “I kissed her goodbye in Crawford this morning and said, ‘I’ve got to go to work.’” More laughter. “She said, You git over to New Mexico and you remind ’em that her kinfolk were raised right here down the road in Anthony. I’m proud of Laura. She’s a great mom, a wonderful wife.” Loud yips and applause. He continued in a deadpan: “I’ll give you some reasons why I think you ought to put me back in. But perhaps the most important one of all’s so Laura’s the first lady for four more years.”

To watch Bush work a room, however cheesy his salesmanship and however canned his hucksterism, is to behold a master of the American vernacular, that form of expression which eschews slickness and makes a virtue of the speaker’s limitations—an artfulness that depends on artlessness, an eloquence that depends on inflection and emphasis.

Though less ambitious than it should have been, the documentary Journeys with George is a worthwhile portrait of Mr. Bush on the campaign trail and of the grudging respect of the press corps for him as a campaigner and reluctant liking of him as a man.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2004 9:17 PM

Asking for their votes "sound[ing] like an original idea": When I was a rookie federal prosecutor, I was instructed that, at the end of opening statement, I should tell the jury I would be asking them to convict the mope on trial at the end of the case. Likewise, in closing argument, I should expressly ask them -- eye-to-eye -- to convict. This is a form of 'closing the deal.' Its surprising how often trial lawyers and politicians forget or omit this fundamental technique. I'm sure it sounds canned to reporters covering the campaign, but it often is important to the real audience.

I only wish I had the talent to make my closing arguments "rarely put[] ten words together [] without taking a position, passing a judgment, or proclaiming a purpose."

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 10, 2004 9:42 PM

Journeys with George was filmed by Nancy Pelosi's daughter.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 10, 2004 9:44 PM


Which makes it all the more worthwhile.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2004 11:18 PM


I attended a semi-private screening here in SF. I expected a hatchet job, given the documentarian. I was truly surprised at how much I liked it.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 10, 2004 11:54 PM


Ooops. Forgot to mention that Alexandra Pelosi was present, and did a Q&A after the showing. The SF crowd was all over her about how 'human' she 'made Bush look.' She explained without batting an eye that he was charming, real, a good guy, etc., and she felt like he was her father when giving her a bad time with a twinkle in his eye on the press plane about dating a Time magazine reporter (if you haven't seen it, its one of the best scenes in the documentary). Needless, to say, her answer didn't satisfy the crowd, but I found it admirable.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 11, 2004 12:04 AM

She's made some harsher statements about Bush's policies since then, but given the environment she's coming out of, that may be in part just to keep peace in the family and maintain her friendships with others in San Francisco and from her time at NBC.

Posted by: John at September 11, 2004 12:08 AM


Interesting the way the film is structured around the scene where she's pissed off all the other reporters and Bush saves her. Not just that he does save her but how wise he is about his power and the certainty that they'll bend to it. Anybody who can watch just that scene and still think Bush is a moron is in denial.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2004 12:18 AM


Agreed. That was a great scene on many levels. When you cite President Bush's 'power', I suspect you aren't talking merely about the power of the presidency. It reminded me more of driving my daughter and her gal pals to an amusement park when they get into a silly argument, and I (given my superior skills and wisdom), defuse the antagonism with either a sharp rebuke or with mocking mimicry (with a twinkle in my eye), or a technique in between. Notwithstanding President Bush's status and stature, I suspect he's driven his daughters and their gal pals around in their childhood and adolescence. Which is probably why he has little problem handling the oh-so-important national press when he's driving them around the country on his campaign plane.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 11, 2004 1:49 AM


Just realized that George W. wasn't president during the time framed by Pelosi's documentary. Doesn't change my thoughts, but does illustrate that the power to which you referred didn't derive from the office.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 11, 2004 6:49 AM

The other thing about the conversation, as Pelosi presents it, is that with just a few words -- making the point that the press corp has no core, while he knows who he is and who his friends are -- changes her life and convinces her to leave journalism.

Posted by: David Cohen at September 11, 2004 10:27 AM