the bush dyslexicon: observations on a national disorder

Miller has been paying attention to—and remembering—the endless parade of verbal blunders that marked George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and subsequent power snatch after the hopelessly sullied election of 2000….”


by marc covert


Canadian and American media outlets have recently been all a-twitter over the two countries’ latest international flap: Francoise Ducros, a top aide to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien (his director of communications, no less), was recently overheard by a gaggle of alert reporters referring to George W. Bush as “a moron.” Ultimately this slip cost Ducros her job; she resigned on November 26 after the Canadian public seemed unsatisfied with Chretien’s clarification: “He’s not a moron at all—he’s my friend.” In diplomatic and political circles, this is huge—a recognized official of a closely allied sovereign nation referred to the President of the United States, on the record, as a moron (that is, idiot, fool, halfwit, numbskull, imbecile, dimwit, simpleton, ignoramus, dullard—oh, how I love my thesaurus).

Huge, yes; but a first, no. According to Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon, President Bush was referred to by Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka as “totally an asshole” (in English) during a state visit to the U.S. in June 2001. As reported in Japan’s Weekly Post, “There has never been a statesman in Japanese history who called a U.S. president ‘an asshole.’”

So what are we to think? Is he an asshole? Is he a moron? Judging at first glance from The Bush Dyslexicon, Miller appears to come down squarely on the “asshole” side, with “mean-spririted,” “canny,” “hard-hearted,” and “extraordinarily shrewd” thrown in for good measure. But on closer analysis it seems Miller concludes that Bush is neither asshole nor moron; that he is definitely not stupid; and that, even though a book on George Bush could easily be written just for the sake of laughs, “the situation that we find ourselves in today is definitely not funny.” He is careful to point out the danger of just assuming that Bush is a genial twit, or a down-home, “aw-shucks” chucklehead; or the Alfred E. Neuman caricature of a thousand supposedly cutting-edge political cartoons; that the real George W. Bush is there for all to see if they are careful not to fall for the buffoonish façade presented by his detractors and operatives alike.

The publication of The Bush Dyslexicon in June 2001 could not have come as good news to Dubya’s handlers, advisors, and colluders. Rather than amuse the reader with yet another collection of “Bush Boners” in the vein of or Molly Ivins’ Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, Miller has been paying attention to—and remembering—the endless parade of verbal blunders that marked George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and subsequent power snatch after the hopelessly sullied election of 2000. Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University and serves as director of the Project on Media Ownership, a non-profit media watchdog group . He is no Johnny-come-lately to the world of mass media studies or commentary; he wrote Boxed In: The Culture of TV in 1988, a collection of essays written mostly about the warped world of mass-market television and the benumbed, drooling legions who eagerly sop it all up. Boxed In takes on an almost quaint flavor when compared to the issues faced by the world today—in it Miller skewers “Family Feud,” Bill Cosby as sitcom family man/pudding pusher/Coca-Cola shill, ads for Hanes nylons and Shield soap, Ronald Reagan the image-vs.-Ronald Reagan the man, Walter Mondale’s disastrous 1984 presidential bid, Elvis Presley’s post-mortem money machine—but even then he saw dark days ahead if the culture of T.V. were to follow its inevitable, deliberate progression into the future:

“The arrival of the culture of TV, then, was the imperceptible result of many factors—material, commercial, demographic, technological. This culture, however, represents not only the convergence of those disparate developments, but also—or primarily—the fulfillment of an old managerial ideal: to exact universal assent, not through outright force, but by creating an environment that would make dissent impossible.”

I first read The Bush Dyslexicon in early 2002, well after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and was struck by the thought that, for all its strengths, the Dyslexicon was written too early; that Miller’s observations on the true nature of George Bush and the nation’s media would be sorely needed in the coming months and years. And of course, as Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer, and others of the Bush management team were quick to point out, the president was now—supposedly—a completely different man; a wholly transformed leader who stepped up in the plate in the face of the most horrifying event in American history and took charge; a man being made before our eyes into a “new Franklin D. Roosevelt” or “a new Caesar.” If that were the case, Miller’s book would be doomed to the bargain bins, languishing alongside Frugal Gourmet cookbooks or Richard Nixon’s Into the Arena.

Miller saves the Dyslexicon from such an ignominious fate in his 2002 preface, “Now More Than Ever.” He reminds readers of the travails of the early months of the Bush administration: the lack of a clear message other than “Bush as the Anti-Clinton”; his surreal June 2001 tour of Europe, with his lukewarm reception there; the American economy first gone adrift and then into outright recession; his plan for oil drilling in the Arctic defeated in Congress; the Enron collapse threatening to expose Bush and Dick Cheney alike as deeply connected corporate crooks; the defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party to the Independents in May 2001 shifted the Senate to Democratic control. While not exactly heralding the failure of the Bush presidency, Miller writes of that shaky summer, “Riding fairly high in April, shot down in May, he never rose again throughout that summer, but merely floated in a seeming state of grace that looked less comfortable the more one studied it.”

He then makes the case that this supposed post-9/11 metamorphosis of George Bush is nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of a frightened and traumatized populace, and a spin team who were the partial authors of his transformation—”their panic driving them to see an FDR where there was only Dubya.” And, as pointed out in the first edition of the Dylexicon, the “new” George Bush was always much more at ease, and much less prone to his infamous verbal flubs, when he was free to leave his prepared texts and riff on themes of punishment, vengeance, and retribution, and that “It’s when he’s had to fake ideals that he does not believe in, feign emotions that he cannot feel, that he has been most prone to gaffes. But when the blast of war blows in his ears, Bush shows the certainty of one who likes to go on the attack, hang tough, say ‘no.’”

It would be hard for even the most biased, right-wing fanatic or even the kowtowing corporate media to dismiss Miller’s book on a point-by-point basis, bolstered as it is by copious quantities of George W. Bush’s own words. Miller is meticulous in setting context; he knows only too well how easily statements from any public figure can be manipulated, shaped, and bent to fit any agenda. He does take a patently anti-Bush stand that may make it easier for pro-Bush loyalists to dismiss the book out of hand, but the Dyslexicon contains some real meat for those who care to pay attention to what the man says, when he says it, and to whom. From the chapter “The Nation’s Health”:

“I’m sorry. I wish I could wave a wand.” — New York Times, February 18, 2000

Such was [Governor Bush’s] compassionate response to a mother who asked him how he planned to deal with cases like her own: a son with a chronic, life-threatening illness and a medical insurance plan that would not cover the expenses of his care. Although she had asked the candidate to talk about his policy on health insurance, he replied as if she’s asked him for a handout.

Or the following, in his post-9/11 chapter, “Business As Usual”:

Q: How much sacrifice are ordinary Americans going to have to be expected to make in their daily lives and their daily routines?
BUSH: Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever. We would like to see life return to normal in America.” — September 15, 2001

After 9/11, people wanted, naturally enough, to do something—anything. …There was also speculation, both by talking heads and actual human beings, that “terrorism” might now prove to be our Great Depression/World War II/Cold War—a national ordeal that would deliver us from e-mail, fast food, shopping malls, and trash TV and introduce us, finally, to the hardiness and pluck that made the “Greatest Generation” so grown-up.

Although he did all he could to feed that yearning, the president was also careful not to call for ‘sacrifice,’ as in ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ or ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. …The sort of market self-denial that was urged on people during World War II—gas rationing, victory gardens, patching up old tires—is just the sort of thing that Bush would not want anybody thinking of, since it might lead to timelier notions of sustainable development.

The Bush Dyslexicon is in itself a bit of an anomaly—the 2001 edition hit the New York Times bestseller list immediately, and it’s not exactly light reading, despite the title and the cover photo of a classically-flummoxed Dubya, head askew, in all his mouth-breathing glory. Many book buyers in those first weeks must have been disappointed if what they expected was a collection of knee-slapping howlers. The Bush Dsylexicon has plenty of that, but what they got, and what is especially the case with the new edition of Miller’s book, was ultimately a dark, frightening tale, especially if they are not happy about living in a country led by “a man who never tried and doesn’t care.”


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Four
February 2003


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