Published on Thursday, November 28, 2002 by the Toronto Star
When Mark Crispin Miller first set out to write Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder, about the ever-growing catalogue of President George W. Bush's verbal gaffes, he meant it for a laugh. But what he came to realize wasn't entirely amusing.
Since the 2000 presidential campaign, Miller has been compiling his own collection of Bush-isms, which have revealed, he says, a disquieting truth about what lurks behind the cock-eyed leer of the leader of the free world. He's not a moron at all — on that point, Miller and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien agree.
But according to Miller, he's no friend.
"I did initially intend it to be a funny book. But that was before I had a chance to read through all the transcripts," Miller, an American author and a professor of culture and communication at New York University, said recently in Toronto.
Bush is not an imbecile. He's not a puppet. I think that Bush is a sociopathic personality. I think he's incapable of empathy. He has an inordinate sense of his own entitlement, and he's a very skilled manipulator. And in all the snickering about his alleged idiocy, this is what a lot of people miss."
Miller's judgment, that the president might suffer from a bona fide personality disorder, almost makes one long for the less menacing notion currently making the rounds: that the White House's current occupant is, in fact, simply an idiot.
If only. Miller's rendering of the president is bleaker than that. In studying Bush's various adventures in oration, he started to see a pattern emerging.
"He has no trouble speaking off the cuff when he's speaking punitively, when he's talking about violence, when he's talking about revenge."
"When he struts and thumps his chest, his syntax and grammar are fine," Miller said. "It's only when he leaps into the wild blue yonder of compassion, or idealism, or altruism, that he makes these hilarious mistakes."
While Miller's book has been praised for its "eloquence" and "playful use of language," it has enraged Bush supporters.
Bush's ascent in the eyes of many Americans — his approval rating hovers at near 80 percent — was the direct result of tough talk following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In those speeches, Bush stumbled not at all; his language of retribution was clear.
It was a sharp contrast to the pre-9/11 George W. Bush. Even before the Supreme Court in 2001 had to intervene and rule on recounts in Florida after a contentious presidential election, a corps of journalists were salivating at the prospect: a bafflingly inarticulate man in a position of power not seen since vice-president Dan Quayle rode shotgun on George H.W. Bush's one term in office.
But equating Bush's malapropisms with Quayle's inability to spell "potato" is a dangerous assumption, Miller says.
At a public address in Nashville, Tenn., in September, Bush provided one of his most memorable stumbles. Trying to give strength to his case that Saddam Hussein had already deceived the West concerning his store of weapons, Bush was scripted to offer an old saying: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. What came out was the following:
"Fool me once, shame ... shame on ... you." Long, uncomfortable pause. "Fool me — can't get fooled again!"
Played for laughs everywhere, Miller saw a darkness underlying the gaffe.
"There's an episode of Happy Days, where The Fonz has to say, `I'm sorry' and can't do it. Same thing," Miller said.
"What's revealing about this is that Bush could not say, `Shame on me' to save his life. That's a completely alien idea to him. This is a guy who is absolutely proud of his own inflexibility and rectitude."
If what Miller says is true — and it would take more than just observations to prove it — then Bush has achieved an astounding goal.
By stumbling blithely along, he has been able to push his image as "just folks" — a normal guy who screws up just like the rest of us.
This, in fact, is a central cog in his image-making machine, Miller says: Portraying the wealthy scion of one of America's most powerful families as a regular, imperfect Joe.
But the depiction, Miller says, is also remarkable for what it hides — imperfect, yes, but also detached, wealthy and unable to identify with the "folks" he's been designed to appeal to.
An example, Miller says, surfaced early in his presidential tenure."I know how hard it is to put food on your family," Bush was quoted as saying.
"That wasn't because he's so stupid that he doesn't know how to say, `Put food on your family's table' — it's because he doesn't care about people who can't put food on the table," Miller says.
So, when Bush is envisioning "a foreign-handed foreign policy," or observes on some point that "it's not the way that America is all about," Miller contends it's because he can't keep his focus on things that mean nothing to him.
"When he tries to talk about what this country stands for, or about democracy, he can't do it," he said.
This, then, is why he's so closely watched by his handlers, Miller says — not because he'll say something stupid, but because he'll overindulge in the language of violence and punishment at which he excels.
"He's a very angry guy, a hostile guy. He's much like Nixon. So they're very, very careful to choreograph every move he makes. They don't want him anywhere near protestors, because he would lose his temper."
Miller, without question, is a man with a mission — and laughter isn't it.
"I call him the feel bad president, because he's all about punishment and death," he said. "It would be a grave mistake to just play him for laughs."
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