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Saturday, 3 March, 2001, 15:13 GMT
'Bushisms' cause national debate
President George W Bush
President Bush has delivered a series of memorable verbal gaffes
By Stephen Sackur in Washington

There's a growing schism in the United States which is pitting north against south, town against country, sometimes father against son.

So the question facing Americans is this - does it matter that the man leading them into the 21st century has a sometimes troubled relationship with the English language?

It's a national argument which will do much to define America's character in the 21st Century.

I speak of course about President George W Bush's use of the English language.

First let's get the sniggering over and done with.


This, after all, is the president who in the last few months has delivered a series of memorable verbal gaffes.

When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible

George W Bush
My own personal favourites are his declaration that "families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream", and his assurance that "I am a person who recognises the fallacy of humans".

Every day, several websites update their list of so-called Bushisms, and newspaper commentators continue to fulminate about the grammatical failings of a president who says education is his top priority.

Actually, he said education was "not" his top priority in last week's address to Congress - but that was just a slip of the tongue.

'Pronoun confusion'

After Mr Bush told a group of schoolchildren in Tennessee that "If you teach a child to read, he or her will be able to pass a literacy test", one leading commentator rather pompously huffed and puffed about Mr Bush's "pronoun confusion".

George W Bush
The stream of 'Bushisms' shows no sign of drying up
She even suggested his slips were scandalous - as if his poor grammar might lead to the collapse of America's public schools.

In fact, I was myself on the end of some vintage Bushspeak just a few days ago.

I asked the president a question about the European Union's plans to develop a rapid reaction military force in the run-up to Tony Blair's visit to Camp David.

Mr Bush plainly did not want to provide a direct answer so he hummed and hah-ed for a few seconds and then said "Laura and I are looking forward to having a private dinner with he and Mrs Blair".

So the question facing Americans is this - does it matter that the man leading them into the 21st century has a sometimes troubled relationship with the English language?


George W Bush
Every President develops his own unique style
During last year's election campaign, there were signs that it was having a corrosive impact on his credibility - the New Yorker magazine went so far as to declare that George W had dyslexia - and many uncommitted voters said they found Bush sympathetic but weren't sure he was up to the job.

But that was before Bush showed poise and grace during what could have been a difficult inauguration.

Before Bill and Hillary Clinton tried to run off with half the White House furniture while pardoning a particularly unsavoury assortment of moneyed crooks and fugitives.

And before George W's down-home, west Texas style had been given the extra lustre of that beguilingly simple title - Mr President.

Body language

In short, many Americans, especially those living far away from the partisan bear-pit of Washington DC, don't seem to give a hoot about their leader's verbal shortcomings.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton was the 'smooth talking good ol' boy'
They know what he means, and he speaks to them in a calm, understated way which strikes a chord.

Add to that the warmth in the body language - the nods, the winks, the friendly gestures - and you have got a man who many Americans feel increasingly comfortable with.

Even the Washington Post, a bastion of East Coast liberalism, recently referred to the president's misstatements as "endearing tics".

Easy style

Every president develops a style which comes to define their public persona - with Bill Clinton it was the ever-so-smart, smooth talking good ol' boy, charismatic if not entirely trustworthy.

President Bush's speech plays out on multiple screens
Mr Bush appears comfortable with his responsibilities
George Bush is less effusive, less clever and, until recently, he seemed less sure of himself.

But that's changing. America's 43rd President appears increasingly comfortable with the responsibilities of the office, and crucially he seems at ease in his own skin.

The stream of 'Bushisms' shows no sign of drying up, but his opponents would do well to mask their disdain - for as George W himself recently said of the Democrats: "They have long miscalculated me as a leader".

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See also:

05 Sep 00 | Election news
Why Bushisms matter
12 Feb 01 | Americas
Bush blunders become bestseller
06 Sep 00 | Americas
US networks relish Bush's gaffe
05 Sep 00 | Americas
Bush: No apology for gaffe
15 Dec 00 | Americas
Bush mocked by Cuban media
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