Just Above Sunset
August 8, 2004 - The president once again says something really dumb

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

The president once again says something really dumb,

which is a Freudian slip or not,

a sign of incompetence or not,

or just shows he’s a causal kind of guy

but has really strong convictions.



This topic has been around along time.

In this - July 27, 2003 Mail - you will find these remarks by the President – who was standing next to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in a photo opportunity, as documented by a White House Press Release on July 14, 2003 2:11 P.M. EDT -


The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region. I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful.


There was a lot of argument as to what was going on here.  Was Bush detached from reality and actually believed this – or was he lying to make a point, thinking we would all buy the lie?

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, commented -


Was this a Bush "lie" or a Bush "goof"?  An argument can be made for both sides.  Technically, he's obviously wrong, UN inspectors did obviously go in and then leave shortly before the bombing started.  On the other hand, he was probably thinking of that time before the UN resolution when Iraq actually was refusing to allow the inspectors in, at least unconditionally.

As for the question of what the media is to do about Bush's comments: Nothing much.

Although people think journalists are always there, ready to jump all over slips like this, that's pretty much a misconception.  Think about it. A lthough you may think you do, you actually rarely see news media, on their own authority, running around pointing out the lies of public officials.  What you actually see is news media running around reporting on some political opponents' claims about the other guy's lies.  Try as it might, objective journalism has yet to find a way to independently expose what may or may not be "lies" and even just "goofs" without appearing, maybe with some justification, like they're just pimping for some special interest or political ideology. …


So we let such things pass.

See November 2, 2003 Other Mail for a general discussion of the president’s use of language, and a note on Jacob Weisberg of SLATE, the online magazine, where for the last several years he has been publishing quotes from president Bush under the heading Bushism of the Day. These are direct, puzzling quotations from Bush. In fact Weisberg has two books of these in print – “George W. Bushisms: The Slate Book of The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of our 43rd President” along with “More George W. Bushisms: More of Slate's Accidental Wit and Wisdom of Our 43rd President” - both published by Fireside Press.

Also see March 14, 2004: Medical science is just catching up with George Bush? for a discussion of this language problem perhaps being the result of an undiagnosed language and hearing disability.

And here we go again.

This week (on August 5th) the president said this - "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."

Ouch.  Bummer.  He didn’t really mean that.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, fired off an email to me saying he had just heard about this from someone at ABC who insisted it was taken directly off the wires, and that he is not making it up.  And no one in Bush's audience of military brass or Pentagon chiefs reacted.

And I responded.


Yeah, I saw the actual video clip on Judy Woodruff's "Inside Politics" on CNN - and she just looked depressed, and followed up quoting White House spokesman Scott McClellan - saying that Bush's misstatement "just shows even the most straightforward and plain-spoken people misspeak. But the American people know this president speaks with clarity and conviction, and the terrorists know by his actions he means it."

Your friend from ABC is not making up stuff. This is accurate. No one made it up. The White House even responded. (The McClellan quote is from the AP wire.)

The shorter McClellan: "Who cares about words? Actions matter. Get over it."

As you have often said, everyone knew what he meant and the press should not ever make too much of this. And I really don't think this is a Freudian slip revealing that Bush does mean to harm America - there is no plot to screw us all over. He not smart enough for that - mean enough, but not smart enough. On the other hand, that he is a not terribly coherent speaker and nearing pure buffoon-dom (the near Platonic ideal of the buffoon) is not reassuring. Yeah, you know what he meant. And he sincerely means to “get the bad guys." I don't doubt his sincerity, really. He just wanted to display conviction, but has a tin ear and did not pay attention to what the actual words really meant in the order he said them.

That he seldom pays attention to what the actual words really mean in the order he says them, is, I think, quite dangerous in the world of diplomacy for some and war for others. This slip is of no significance in and of itself. None at all. That he generally doesn't PAY ATTENTION - and just goes for the "close enough" broad idea - is why this is really, really dangerous. That can get people killed - and, as we know, has. It may get my nephew killed.

Yeah well, I think words matter, and think detail matters. Of course those who think that hate America and want the terrorists to win. Sigh.

Oh well, it's a frat-boy cool thing. Calling him out on it makes you prissy nerd. That is SO uncool. Everyone knows what he meant. And details don't matter - the BIG CONCEPT does. Close-enough got Bush through Yale, and close-enough got Bush through forty years of a constant alcohol buzz and failing in business after business before he found Jesus when Laura threatened to leave him. Close-enough has always worked for him. He's not going to change.

Four more years of this?


And now that I think of it, that no one in Bush's audience of military brass or Pentagon chiefs reacted is a sign that they all know words don’t matter, and, what the heck, they’ll clean up after George – as everyone has for him all his life.

But should the press clean up after George? Does this merit some serious attention?

Rick clarifies his old comments (above) on where the press should make something of this verbal incompetence – or not -


I think what I was saying, of course, is that since most viewers won't see this as a smoking gun and will not be swayed either way by this kind of gaffe -- I'm pretty sure, for example, that this was not that "tipping-point" that decided you, Alan, to not vote for the guy -- then making too much for it would open them up to the accurate accusation that they are trying to rally voters against Bush.

Personally, I hope a few swing voters will be swayed against him after hearing this. But that's just me, the citizen, not me, the sometimes-journalist.


Okay, agreed.  And that is a useful distinction.

And Rick reviews what was said by Brian Montopoli at Campaign Desk - the daily web log of the Columbia Journalism Review:


This morning, President Bush made a beaut of a verbal gaffe. Speaking at the signing of a defense appropriations act, he said the following:

"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."

After CNN ran the clip of this portion of Bush's remarks, the network cut to a deadpan Jill Doherty, who didn't bother to react to, or even mention, the president's verbal faux pas. (Instead, she seamlessly transitioned to a report on where the campaign was headed next.)

The segment left us scratching our heads for a variety of reasons. (Bush appeared to be reading his comments, after all.) But, as media critics, we were left to ponder: Why on earth did CNN play this particular clip? If they wanted to bring attention to the president's blunder, they should have acknowledged it, instead of treating the words as just another sound bite. And if they just wanted to show a portion of the president's speech, surely they could have found a section in which the president doesn't assert that he doesn't ever "stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people."

We're often told that folks in the news business grow weary of candidate's speeches, and tune out more often then they'd like to admit. So maybe CNN simply didn't notice the gaffe, and some producer just queued up the tape, oblivious to the president's accidental declaration of war on his own people. But, nafs that we are, we would have thought that someone at the network was paying a little bit more attention than that.


No, they were paying attention.  The just decided not to say anything.

Rick says he would have posted this comment if he didn't have to register as a member to do so:




When news happens, CNN brings it to you, but without necessarily attaching all the spin that the various partisans would prefer they attach.

I suppose some Republicans would want Jill Doherty to add that it was obviously a harmless slip of the tongue that means nothing and that he's still the best man for the job, while some Democrats would want her to point out that Bush is a bumbling buffoon who has finally fallen victim to his own melodramatic demagoguery and is unfit for the office. I don't know what you, Brian, would have her say, but wonder how closely it lines up with one of the above.

But a principle that seems to be slowly getting lost in our democracy is that the main job of the news media is to inform the world, not reform it. Armed with the information that you, the citizen, get from them, the media, it's up to you to decide how (and even if) you want to make the world a better place.

This clip of the latest Bush gaffe stands or falls on its own merits and really doesn't require a comment from an anchor or reporter. They might choose to tag it with a comment, or they could decide not to; there really is no deeper significance to whichever road they take.

If, on the other hand, you insist on having someone decide for you, instead of report to you, you should probably be watching Fox News Channel, where they famously claim they don't do that sort of thing but are widely understood to do it all the time.



And here, I actually agree with Rick.

CNN cannot comment either way.  It really isn’t their job to do that.

Arguing that someone whose use of language is vague and who only gets the general idea of things – and who thinks close-enough is good-enough in running this country and its foreign affairs and in committing us to war - arguing that this sort of person is unfit for the office, and so far has caused us all enormous damage - well, arguing that is actually the job of those who work on having someone else replace him, someone detail-oriented and who recognizes complexity, and who is careful and precise in what he or she says.  And that might be someone who might even read books and be curious about the world and listen carefully to all sides of things.

The job of saying it doesn’t matter, that everyone gets the general idea when Bush speaks, that nuance and precision are for wimps and sissies?  That’s for Bush’s political supporters.  They can argue strong conviction is a far more important thing to show the county and to show the rest of the world – far more important than coherence and competence.  We have to appear resolute – and so on and so forth.  "It’s very simple, really…."

CNN and all of the actual journalists can report on what each side is saying.  And actually they do.  Fox News Channel will take sides.  But that’s another matter.


By the way, the next day Bush said this -


We actually misnamed the war on terror, it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.


He’s working on it.

There is a curious use of the phrase “a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world” and one assumes he meant confidence, not conscience.  But maybe not – maybe he understands that terrorist acts do make us examine our conscience, as we think about what grievances might give rise to such suicidal madness.  We wonder about what we might have done to make folks behave like that – if we played any part in this.  Such acts start us thinking and wondering and doing some research and reading and….

No, Bush couldn’t mean that.  Not Bush.  He’s said all along such grievances are unimportant – as they are evil and we are good.  “It’s very simple, really….”

But note he is working on a bit more nuance.  The sentence is longer, and much closer to being coherent.  And too, this statement is the first time Bush has publicly acknowledged that a War on Terror may be a bit broad and need some more precision… or nuance.  It’s a start.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....