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Spoken Like a True Son of a Precedent, er, President

With a precarious grasp of the English language, George W. Bush often says the darndest--and sometimes quite comical--things on the stump.

May 08, 2000|DANA MILBANK | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Inside the human brain, a part of the frontal lobe called Broca's area directs the production of clear and intelligible speech. In the case of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, however, something between Broca's area and the tongue has an occasional tendency to go comically wrong.

When Bush endeavors to say "tariffs and barriers," it can come out "terriers and bariffs." "Handcuffs" becomes "cuff links," and "tactical nuclear weapons" morphs into "tacular weapons." Once, Bush's brain cruelly caused him to pronounce "missile launches" as "mential losses."

The insensitive louts of the press generally respond to Bushspeak by poking fun. A TV producer on the Bush bus nicknamed him "The English Patient." Slate anthologizes the "Bushisms." (This week's installment: "I hope we get to the bottom of the answer.")

Yuk, yuk. Very funny.

Surely we wouldn't make fun of a man suffering from diabetic attacks or epileptic seizures. And though Bush's affliction isn't so serious, there's the possibility that he can't control it. We asked the opinions of leading speech pathologists. They haven't examined the man, but they have a few ideas.

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"It's a Verbal Goulash Syndrome," pronounces Sam Chwat, a New York speech therapist who has helped the likes of Julia Roberts and Robert DeNiro say their lines. Lyn Goldberg, a George Washington University speech pathologist, pronounces the governor "motorically vulnerable."

Clearly. When Bush attended Perseverance Month at a New Hampshire school, he famously declared: "This is Preservation Month. I appreciate preservation. It's what you do when you run for president. You've got to preserve." Another time, he repeatedly insisted that "I denounce interracial dating." (He meant he denounced a policy against interracial dating.)

Part of the problem is not of his making: It's the fault of snobbish Easterners who just can't understand his West Texas dialect. Sure, he talks about "nucular" warheads, but so do many Southerners, including Jimmy Carter. So what if "obfuscate" rolls off Bush's lips as "obscufate" and "obsfucate"? They understand him just fine in Midland. Yet he continues "getting pillared in the press and cartoons," as he puts it, grasping for "pilloried."

Bush's aides say the malapropisms are the byproduct of an effervescent nature and an agile mind. Why the gobbledygook?

"Because his brain faster works than his mouth does," jokes Mindy Tucker, Bush's spokeswoman.

It's true that Bush speaks far more freely than his Democratic rival, Al Gore, who gets panned for his slow, deliberate speaking style. Gore chooses his words carefully and corrects his mistakes, but he orates like a somnambulist.

Some of Bush's errors could happen to any person under pressure and public scrutiny, particularly when off-the-cuff remarks are transcribed for posterity.

Speech pathologist Chwat says the governor is probably modeling his speech after that of his famous father, consciously or unconsciously. It's simply the way he learned to talk, Chwat says.

Famous for coining phrases and words such as "hyporhetorical questions" and "hypothecate," Bush the elder constantly spouted Yogi Berraisms, once imploring: "Please don't look at part of the glass, the part that is only less than half full."

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Tired cliches breathe new life into the governor's speech. "We ought to make the pie higher," he opines, and suggests that one "can't take the high horse and claim the low road." Particularly if he is one of those Internet millionaires "who have become rich beyond their means." Better call the credit bureau.

"He has a singular output channel, and he's jamming it with too many words," Chwat says. Some other errors, he adds, are evidence of an "incomplete education" (despite Bush's two Ivy League degrees). Among the flubs Chwat puts in this category: when Bush says that "I don't have to accept their tenants," instead of tenets, and when he talks about education being about more than "bricks and mortars," using the term for heavy artillery instead of the construction mixture.

But is Bush's problem simply a matter of nurture? Other scientists are convinced that nature has some role. Robert Shprintzen, an otolaryngologist and speech pathologist at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical University, says Bush's speech pattern, like everybody's, is influenced by genetics.

Much of the way people talk is biological, Shprintzen says, dictated by the physical structure of the brain, the number of brain cells and the level of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Obviously, George W. would inherit characteristics from his old man; "even children who have been separated from their parents at birth have been found to be astonishingly like their parents," Shprintzen says.

Whatever the cause, the English Patient should survive this malady. Of greater concern is what happens to the rest of us. "The problem is, it's catching," says Richard Wolffe, who has been following the governor for the Financial Times. "I can't even say 'tariffs' anymore. I say 'terriers.' "

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