George W. Bush: a Man of His Words?
The Presidential debates revealed aspects of Gorge W. Bush’s character that bear careful scrutiny–if not acute psychiatric care. The media made much of his body language and facial expressions, especially his reactions to John Kerry when his opponent appeared to be scoring a direct hit when he accused Bush of "misleading the American people."
In his 2000 encounters with Al Gore, Bush occasionally flashed that "deer-caught-in-the-headlights" look, that befuddled, almost pathetic expression of surprise. But he recovered to resume the combative, jousting presence that his parents must have instilled in him as "proper" for a young man with limited intelligence and capabilities. Bush repeated phrases from his limited vocabulary. He used some of them again, with modifiers, in the 2004 debates, like "Leaders lead." This kind of proclamation often followed an embarrassingly long pause in which Bush appeared to ponder whether he should offer an Alfred E. Newman grin–"What, me worry?"–or resort to the pugnacious posture with which he seems equally comfortable.
Bush’s behavior led Professor of Social Work Katherine Van Wormer to label him "a dry drunk," (October 11, 2002 Counterpunch) referring to "a slang term used by members and supporters of Alcoholics Anonymous and substance abuse counselors to describe the recovering alcoholic who is no longer drinking, one who is dry, but whose thinking is clouded. Such an individual is said to be dry but not truly sober. Such an individual tends to go to extremes."
Before Bush led the nation to war against Iraq, he used terms like "crusade" and "infinite justice," which he later withdrew as inappropriate. But he seemed truly comfortable with "evil doers," "axis of evil," and "regime change." This "bravado speak" emanates from a man who drank and used drugs for years, a man that addiction psychologists describe as nursing a deep, dark wound inside him. Yes, Bush got "born again" in his early forties, but how does "finding Jesus" account for his seeming unwillingness to admit that he has made mistakes–claiming, for example, he had to invade Iraq because it possessed weapons of mass destruction and tight links to the terrorist Al-Qaeda? The 9/11 Commission, along with his own weapons inspector, David Kay and finally the CIA have effectively refuted those allegations.
In his almost four years in office, Bush’s unsteadiness as President corresponds to his use of extreme language. He warned the nations of the world: "Either you are with us or against us." The heads of state of almost all countries had offered aid and sympathy to the American people after 9/11. But with this statement Bush effectively brushed aside the solidarity and set his own standards for the world’s behavior.
But these "standards" lack consistency. "He who harbors a terrorist is as guilty as the terrorist," he snapped, as if unconscious of the fact that he himself harbored a covey of anti-Castro terrorists in Florida. Not only had he his father and his brother bent over backwards to accommodate such notorious bombers as Orlando Bosch (co-author of the successful plot to bomb a Cuban airliner over Barbados in 1976, killing 73 people), but some of these thugs actually helped him intimidate Florida vote counters in 2000.
So, it did not exactly shock me when, in late August, outgoing Pnamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned four anti-Castroites who had long terrorist records. Their release and arrival in Miami, to a heroes’ welcome by the hard line anti-Castro sector, coincided with Bush’s campaign stop there. Bush never criticized Guillermo Novo, (who fired a bazooka at the UN in 1964 and plotted to kill Orlando Letelier in 1976) or Gaspar Jimenez (convicted in 1977 of assassinating a Cuban official) and Pedro Remon (who assassinated another Cuban exile, Eulalio Negrin in 1979). The FBI calls them "terrorists." They strongly support Bush and he knows that if the Florida vote is close he can call on the services of such "zealous patriots" as he did in the 2000 election.
Bush’s use of encompassing idioms to justify his policies led Van Wormer to conclude that such articulation is common in "newly recovering alcoholics/addicts. Such a worldview traps people in a pattern of destructive behavior. Obsessive thought patterns are also pronounced in persons prone to addiction. There are organic reasons for this due to brain chemistry irregularities; messages in one part of the brain become stuck there. This leads to maddening repetition of thoughts."
Count the times Bush said "free Iraq" and "free Afghanistan"–neither of which is free by any meaningful definition–and how often he rebuked Kerry’s criticism of the Iraq invasion by resorting to: "that’s not a good message to send to our troops." Have the troops not learned that the Iraqi people did not welcome them with open arms, but rather used arms against them?
Bush did, however, send a clear message to the world. He undid the Nuremburg doctrine outlawing aggressive war and the UN Charter outlawing pre-emptive intervention, legal precedents that the US government took the initiative to establish. He has not acknowledged his dramatic violations of international law. Indeed, from what he says, he apparently does not think about such matters.
Van Wormer also lists impatience as another characteristic of "dry drunks." Bush could not wait, for example, for UN weapons inspectors in Iraq to complete their mission in early 2003 before sending in US troops–who, as we know, also failed to find the non-existent weapons. In reaction shots shown by TV networks during the first debate with Kerry, Bush’s facial expressions also indicates an appearance of barely contained tolerance.
Televised debates don’t, however, probe Bush’s character. Without a teleprompter, Bush has difficulty achieving coherence or articulating sequential messages. For a man who admittedly does not read, he nevertheless evinces an aura of "certainty." His aggressive, conservative aura of assurance seem more like one of Karl Rove’s marketing ploys than an expression of real conviction. How can an ignorant man have deep convictions about complex subjects other than by referencing some higher connection that assures him of the truth.
Bush’s character also raises doubts about his ability to govern. He blatantly used his family connections to get into Ivy League schools and the Air National Guard, rather than get drafted for Vietnam. He refuses to clarify missing links in his biography or talk about details of his 1976 DUI; or other incidents in his "partying days."
But his former professor Yoshi Tsurumi, a Visiting Professor at Harvard Business School in 1973-4 remembered that "students who challenged and embarrassed Bush in class would then become the subject of a whispering campaign by him." (Mary Jacoby Salon Sept. 16, 2004)
Senator John McCain might recall the whispering campaign circulating ugly rumors about his personal life in South Carolina in 200 as he challenged Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries.
Tsurumi recalled that Bush "made this ridiculous statement ‘The government doesn’t have to help poor people — because they are lazy.’" Bush could not defend the statement, Tsurumi said, and then denied saying it. Bush called "Roosevelt’s policies ‘socialism.’ He denounced labor unions, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Medicare, Social Security, you name it. He denounced the civil rights movement as socialismAnd when challenged to explain his prejudice, he could not defend his argument, either ideologically, polemically or academically."
In class, Professor Tsurumi remembers, Bush "wouldn’t challenge them. But after class, he sometimes came up to me in the hallway and started bad-mouthing those students who challenged him. He would complain that someone was drinking too much. It was innuendo and lies. So that’s how I knew, behind his smile and his smirk, that he was a very insecure, cunning and vengeful guy." Other professors shared his recollection Tsurumi said, but feared to speak out. Tsurumi himself became a US citizen before talking to the Salon reporter, because he feared what Bush might do to him. But he felt the Iraq bloodshed and out-of-control federal deficit made it imperative to reveal his observations about the Commander in Chief’s character.
Bush’s malapropisms continue to amuse some. "I’m not the expert on how the Iraqi people think, because I live in America, where it’s nice and safe and secure," he said at a press conference with Ayad Allawi, the man he named as Prime Minister of Iraq, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 23, 2004. Bush also claimed at that time that "It’s the Afghan national army that went into Najaf and did the work there."
It’s not that Bush twists words or deliberately distorts for political ends. He’s not that clever. Seymour Hersh explains in his new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib that "words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases make them real. It is a terrifying possibility."
As Bush bad-mouths Kerry and repeats lies about Iraq, he also mangles the language. In that sense he has become a man of his words.
SAUL LANDAU is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.