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Go On, Snicker -- Bush May Well Laugh Last

August 31, 2004|Chris Bray

"Bushisms," those much-discussed cultural artifacts that demonstrate the apparent stupidity of our poorly spoken president, really are pretty revealing. But criticism of them is likely to backfire horribly. A couple of examples will illustrate.

Ben Tillman wasn't an ordinary farmer, but his political opponents helped him to become one. As the South Carolina politician waged a vaguely populist battle to seize control of his state's Democratic Party through the mid-1880s, the well-to-do merchants and professionals who ran the party lashed out in disgust. Tillman, they noted, was boorish and without nuance, an inelegant speaker with a habit of mangling the English language.

Newspapers joined in the refrain. The Charleston News and Courier argued that Tillman's crude politics were aimed at stirring "the passions and prejudices of the ignorant." Responding to Tillman's charge that an aristocracy ran the state, the newspaper petulantly agreed; it was, the paper shot back, "an aristocracy of brains and character." And so Tillman, who owned more than 1,700 acres and was no struggling farmer -- became an ordinary guy who didn't talk like the overeducated aristocrats.

The voting majority, which noticed that it had been repeatedly described by the reigning political elites as ignorant, gave its loyalty to "Pitchfork" Tillman, the plain-spoken farmer.

In a biography of Tillman, from which this account has been taken, the historian Stephen Kantrowitz notes one of the central ironies of his rise to power: "When his adversaries used his behavior and his followers as proof of Tillman's demagoguery and disreputability, they revealed their own profoundly elitist notions of citizenship and leadership."

The campaign for John Kerry should paint that cogent sentence on the wall of its headquarters, in foot-high letters.

George W. Bush's politics are obviously very different from Tillman's, but the point is more personal than that: Call someone stupid or unsophisticated and you have to say why. That's where things get tricky, for pretty obvious reasons.

Similar examples pop up throughout American history. In 1840, a Democratic reporter sneered that William Henry Harrison, the not-terribly-distinguished Whig candidate for president, would be perfectly happy to spend the rest of his days sitting around in a log cabin with a jug of hard cider. Harrison took that image to the bank, cheerfully (and falsely) agreeing that he was an ordinary man who felt plenty comfortable with simple shelter and drink. Harrison won the election handily.

Ignoring U.S. political history, Bush's most virulent opponents are engaged in a staggeringly obtuse cultural offensive that defines most of the country outside their circle. Attacking his instances of inelegant speech, people who loudly and publicly criticize Bush attack the inelegant. Anyone who has spent some time around the humanities division will recall the comfortable claim that most highly educated people live on the political left. Granting that self-aggrandizing and highly debatable point for the sake of argument, we might stop to note that only one American in four graduates from college -- from any college, all grade-point averages included. That's a pretty narrow path to political success, folks. Most people can smell contempt.

So rant on, and take note of every stupid-sounding thing that the president says. But remember what the horrified New York Times Book Review had to say about Huey Long, the wildly successful governor and senator from Louisiana, when he published his autobiography in 1933: "There is hardly a law of English usage or a rule of English grammar that its author does not break somewhere." And remember one other thing: 1934 was a very good year for Sen. Huey "Kingfish" Long, as he polished his platform, "Every man a king," for a presidential run.

Chris Bray is a UCLA graduate student.

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