President Bush's upward spike of popularity owes a lot to his presence on television — a medium that has not always been so kind. At times, under pressure, he has earned many comparisons to a deer in headlights. But after a wobbly performance on Sept. 11, Bush got into a groove of seizing the TV opportunity and making the most of it.
Today's television environment is, more than ever, warmly hospitable to simple — and simplistic — declarative statements. That's just as well for Bush, who has shown a distinct tendency to get entangled in a morass of fragmentary linguistic riffs. Last year, on many occasions, he seemed painfully anxious to make his way to the end of sentences without further embarrassment. But now, for the most part, it's a very different story.
For insights about recent shifts of George W. Bush's persona on television, I contacted media critic Mark Crispin Miller, whose 1988 book "Boxed In: The Culture of TV" was a groundbreaking analysis of the tube. In the book, he disputed the customary image of the U.S. president as a "mighty individual" — and identified that image as "a corporate fiction, the careful work of committees and think tanks, repeatedly reprocessed by the television industry for daily distribution to a mass audience."
Boosted by family ties and powerful corporate backers, Bush won the presidency (though not the popular vote) while projecting an affable personality that some have found endearing. But even while carrying out weighty duties of the presidency with all its trappings, he struck many Americans as a lightweight, ill-suited for the job. A turning point came with his dramatic speech to a joint session of Congress in mid-September.
The rave media reaction "was understandable," Miller told me, "because it actually reflected less on Bush's speech per se than on the moment's strange and terrifying context. The speech was deemed 'Churchillian' because the audience (the American people, the Congress, the media) was so desperate for a proper leader at that fearful moment. At that moment of catastrophe, there was so fierce a hunger for a national father-figure that the audience saw one in the president, who therefore came across like Churchill, or like FDR, despite his lack of stature — which, prior to the shock, had been quite clear to most observers."
Miller's book "The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder," published a few months ago, warns against assuming too much about the significance of Bush's habitual tongue-tangles. It's a cautionary note that now rings especially true. The man in the White House is shrewd and capable of high-impact rhetorical feats.
Since Sept. 11, Miller says, President Bush "has continued, by and large, to speak with more authority than usual." While acknowledging that Bush "has at times reverted to his usual gaffery" (as in his announcement that "ticket counters and airplanes will be flying out of National Airport"), Miller observes that "on the subject of 'America's new war' — 'the focus of this administration' — Bush has managed to ad lib with an overall coherence that is, for him, extraordinary."
Miller adds that "the president has lately spoken relatively well for the same reason that he's always broken into sudden fits of lucid English — because, in speaking of our national mission of revenge, he's speaking from the heart." In fact, George W. Bush "has always spoken clearly on those subjects that genuinely matter to him. Thus it is that, when he talks about baseball, say, or about his property in Crawford, he has no problems with his syntax, grammar or vocabulary."
Professor Miller, who specializes in media studies at New York University, contends that Bush also "is most articulate when speaking cruelly — on the value of the death penalty, or when cracking jokes, or when saying no. It's when he tries to sound a higher note — idealistically, or out of magnanimity, or on his trademark theme of 'compassion' — that Bush starts speaking broken English, because, like most of us, his tongue will not cooperate when he is being insincere."
These days, President Bush is evidently sincere about wanting the missiles to keep flying and the bombs to keep falling on Afghanistan — circumstances that notably enhance his verbal skills. The fact that large numbers of Afghan people are now facing imminent starvation due to the ongoing attacks does not seem to bother our nation's leading compassionate conservative. "The president," says Miller, "has lately spoken with unusual coherence in his off-the-cuff remarks — because his subject nowadays is war."