Tuesday, October 12, 2004

What's Wrong with George W. Bush?

People are starting to wonder why Bush, who apparently was a skilled orator only a decade ago, has become so poor a public speaker that he is painful to listen to (and even more painful to watch!). About a week ago, Brad DeLong offered four possible explanations for the dramatic decline in Bush's speaking skills:

1. George Lakoff's theory: it's deliberate--these daya George W. Bush wants to sound more like John Wayne.
2. Kate O'Beirne's theory: George W. Bush is out of practice, because nobody has dared contradict him to his face for four years.
3. The "worried man" theory: George W. Bush knows he has messed up badly, and is scared, and it shows.
4. The "organic brain damage" theory: something is going badly wrong inside George W. Bush's brain--perhaps the result of lots of substance abuse in his youth.

Yesterday, after listening to a recording of Bush then and now, DeLong decides that 1 and 2 are extremely improbably, and 3 is in fact the most likely. In response, Lindsay Beyerstein gives us an argument for 4, writing:
I'd like to float a few alternative hypotheses: depression, adverse effects prescription drugs (antidepressants, anxiolytics, beta-blockers...?), or my personal favorite: frontotemporal dementia.

I'm no medical expert, so I can't speak to the likelihood that Bush has some degenerative brain disorder, but the list of symptoms that Lindsay gives for frontotemporal dimentia sure sound like Bush. Still, I'm inclined to believe that there is another alternative, call it hypothesis 5, which is similar to DeLong's 3 and Lindsay's "depression" hypothesis. Here it is:

5. The "even more worried" man theory: Bush is just way, way over his head. He is dealing with issues, facts, policies, and real-world situations that he is simply incapable of understanding, and because of this, his attempts to speak about them are forced, often memorized, and bumbling.

Why would this cause a change in his speech? Well, as governor of Texas (one of the least powerful governorships in the country), he could keep the issues he was dealing with at any one time to a minimum, and use typical conservative rhetoric to talk about them. His speech then was clear and precise, but it showed no real individual insight into any topic on which he spoke. Furthermore, in public speeches and debates he was able to minimize the number of talking points that he had to address. When he became president, and particularly after September 11, this became impossible. He became mired in the diplomatic and intellectual quagmire that is the Middle East. It is a chaotic region, and a dizzying set of foriegn relation problems, that has made much more intellectually capable men and women look foolish. Add to that the increased complexities of the national economy, and other domestic issues, and you cannot escape the feeling that Bush is hopelessly over his head, and has been for almost four years.

The evidence for this hypothesis? Well, one of the most noticable characteristics of Bush's speech during the first year or two of his presidency was the distinct impression that I and many others got that everything Bush said was either read or memorized. Often his linguistic miscues were in the form of broken statements that, later in a speech or an answer to a question, he would correct using the same words but in the right order. He often sounded like an actor who had briefly forgotten his lines. His speech, in 2001 and now, has been filled with catch phrases that he has repeated over and over in the course of single speeches, or across multiple speeches. Every time he has been forced to deviate from the script, his speech has become even more erratic.

Which of these hypotheses is the most likely? I hesitate to believe 1, because I am simply not that cynical. I don't want to believe that Bush and his political advisors have purposefuly turned Bush into a veritable Rainman simply to gain the idiot vote. I think two is even more unlikely, as, with the exception of his race against Ann Richards in 1994, Bush has never really been challenged, so he would have been out of practice long before now. Hypothesis 3, as Brad formulates it, seems psychologically implausible to me. While Bush has certainly fucked up royally, it's not clear that he is the least bit aware of this, and even if he were, I'm not sure how this would create such a dramatic change in his speaking abilities. This leaves us with 4 and my hypothesis 5 as the only plausible explanations. Hypothesis 4, particularly Lindsay's version, is definitely a possibility, but it's unlikely that we will have any hard evidence for this for years to come (if ever). So, I'm going to go with 5. Bush is lost in a world of difficult problems with which he is unequipped to deal. This forces him to rely on a great deal of memorization and scripted speeches, a strategy that fails anytime a press conference or debate deviates, even a little, from the prescribed course.

I wonder, regardless of which of these hypotheses, if any, is true, can the explanation for Bush's verbal incompetence be anything but frightening to anyone concerned about the direction in which this country is going?


Anonymous said...

It might also simply be that he wants to consider his answers since the consequences of misspeaking as a Governor and as a President are radically different. I think you'll find most people change their style of speech. There are a few who don't - perhaps Clinton or Reagan. But both of them were truly remarkable orators and actors. (Yeah, perhaps some may cringe at the Clinton as actor, but even a lot of his staff have discussed how he practiced for public events)

Bush doesn't have that skill. He perhaps is among the worst, but I think his father became like that a little (opening up a lot of SNL sketches) Even Kerry is surprisingly less agile on his feet than in the debates I'd watched him in. I think people parse your words *so* carefully now that you simply can't be plain spoken. (I'd add that I think that a sad commentary on our culture and I think both candidates have been treated poorly by this)

I'd simply suggest that the mere fact of speaking quickly doesn't entail intelligence. I can think of some remarkable people I've encountered who were brilliant but not terribly good communicators. I find myself sometimes performing like Bush when I'm thinking through the answers in my head before speaking. (One reason why I prefer email to phone calls) While it doesn't happen when I'm very familiar with the issues, when my words are being parsed carefully and the issues are more complex, I too have melted down rhetorically.


Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

Good points. I have to admit I am of the school that Bush isn't terribly bright, and have been since his days as governor (I'm in Texas), but I'm obviously biased. 

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

My own feeling is that it is less about intelligence than what I'd call critical thinking skills. i.e. skepticism, curiosity and inquiry. I simply don't think you can get an MBA from Harvard without some intelligence. However perhaps I'm cynical, but I do believe you can get an MBA from nearly anywhere without the kind of critical thinking skills necessary in philosophy or the hard sciences.

I'll be the first to admit that I find this deeply troubling in Bush. But I'm also of the opinion that this election, like the last, doesn't exactly offer a lot for voters. I'm somewhat regretfully voting for Bush, although I confess a few things the last few weeks have made me feel much better about Kerry if he wins. (Which is still definitely possible) 

Posted by Clark Goble

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