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The Nation

Bush Uses His Word of Choice a Heck of a Lot

January 14, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It is presidential language that would make Harry S. Truman blanch -- not for its saltiness but, heck, for just the opposite.

On a daily basis, sometimes several times an hour, the word "heck" creeps into President Bush's public pronouncements. People he wants to praise, as well as places, ideas and winning sports teams, are all told that they are or have done a "heck" of a good thing.

You might think Bush would have retired the expression after he infamously told the man who led the federal government's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

But the verbal quirk has turned up in Bush's speeches at least four times this week. On Thursday, he used it four times in a 10-minute address.

"New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit. It's a heck of a place to bring your family," the president said in talking about the city's reconstruction efforts.

Bush said later in the day that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had "fashioned one heck of a piece of legislation for the people of this important state."

A day earlier, in Louisville, Ky., Bush apologized to his audience for not bringing his wife: "She is a heck of a person," he said.

And Margaret Spellings, he said Monday at a Maryland elementary school, is "doing a heck of a job as the secretary of Education."

The word was used several times Jan. 5, when Bush addressed a summit of university presidents. Condoleezza Rice, he said, is "a heck of a secretary of State.... And Don Rumsfeld is a heck of a secretary of the Defense."

Scanning his audience, Bush then addressed a group of ambassadors in the crowd. "What the heck are you doing here?" he asked jokingly. "Like, you're supposed to be -- the deal was, overseas."

For the president, the word also shows up in the weightiest of moments.

In that same speech, Bush sought to draw a distinction between Western democracy and what he said was the flawed vision of America's enemies in the battle against terrorism.

"We're going to win," he said. "Our ideology is a heck of a lot more hopeful than theirs."

Why all the "hecks"?

"It's a way to be a common person, and it may be who he is," said Montague Kern, an associate professor of media and politics at Rutgers University who specializes in political language.

"It gives impact to an idea, without having to explain the idea," she said. "This is an advantage that Bush has always had -- the idea that he's a common person. He's more complex than that, but that's the public persona."

Last year, Bush told Boston Red Sox players, who were visiting the White House after their long-awaited World Series victory, that "this is a heck of a team." He even threw in a little praise for the mayor of Boston. "You've had a heck of a year, Mayor," Bush said.

Four years earlier, Bush had offered a similar commendation when hosting the team's archrivals, the New York Yankees.

"What a heck of man he is," Bush said of Yankees manager Joe Torre. "And, Don Zimmer, you're not so bad, either," he added, referring to the famed coach, then with the New York team.

Of course, that kind of praise did little good for former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown, the "Brownie" who Bush said was "doing a heck of a job" responding to Katrina.

Ten days later, Brown was looking for a new job.

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