Tangle Tongue

Listening to George W. Bush speak off-the-cuff is a bit like watching Shaquille O'Neal shoot free throws. The anxiety produced by a sense of impending disaster is coupled with incredulity that someone in so exalted a position has failed to master one of the rudimentary skills of his profession.

In a recent round-table interview with 14 reporters, Mr. Bush finally addressed the collateral damage that resulted from his July 2, 2003 challenge to insurgents in Iraq: "My answer is, bring’em on."

"Sometimes words have consequences you don't intend them to mean," Mr. Bush ruefully admitted, in a poorly constructed sentence that tidily illustrates his point. That extemporaneous remark, full of the mock bravado one would expect from a male cheerleader trying to ingratiate himself with the varsity football team, was intended "to rally the troops," continued Mr. Bush. "And those words had an unintended consequence. It kind of – some interpreted it to be defiance in the face of danger. That certainly wasn't the case."

The last remark is indisputably true. Mr. Bush is surrounded by an impenetrable security cocoon. He's shielded from the unsightly spectacle of public protests by those opposed to his policies. In fact, performers at Mr. Bush's second inauguration have been instructed not to look directly at the president as they pass the reviewing stand, lest by doing so they be considered a security threat. So it's obvious that however one might characterize the "bring’em on" taunt, it didn't represent "defiance in the face of danger," since Mr. Bush – unlike the men and women he dispatched to Iraq – is entirely unacquainted with personal peril.

In some ways, George W. Bush's relationship with the English language resembles that of his much more articulate – and notoriously dishonest – predecessor.

During a recent interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Bush was asked if significant changes needed to be made in his policy toward Iraq. After all, the administration now admits that Saddam did not possess a fearsome arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. With casualties mounting, and scandals accumulating with respect to torture and faulty intelligence, the Post inquired, could we expect to see changes in policy or personnel? To judge from Mr. Bush's astoundingly self-serving reply, the answer is – apparently not.

“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections,” Mr. Bush told the Post. “The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.”

This statement earns a full 9.0 on the Clinton Scale of artful dishonesty. (Although, to be fair, I've given Mr. Bush an additional point for "degree of difficulty" in light of the special challenges he has with the English language.) It should be noted that the president did not say that his assessment was truthful or reliable, but only that a spare majority of the voting public bought into it. Rather than being subject to accountability, in other words, Mr. Bush and his handlers are now beyond accountability.

This sense of impunity has taken hold throughout the Bush administration. Left-wing investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has bragging rights to a series of remarkable scoops regarding the Iraq War, reports that "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept the message. Rumsfeld added that America was committed to staying in Iraq and there would be no second-guessing."

"This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign," a former high-level intelligence official informed Hersh. "Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign. We've declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah – we've got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism."

As that official's comments illustrate, George W. Bush's difficulties with the English language – like the casual arrogance with which he holds himself above accountability – is contagious. "We" – the American people – have not "declared war" on Iraq, or any other nation, since December 1941. And while the Bush administration will be gone four years from now (assuming it doesn't stage a coup, which is a possibility not to be lightly dismissed), the American public will still be paying for the policy decisions made as part of the administration's "last hurrah." Our military is already badly over-extended in Iraq. Extending the war to Iran, Syria, and points beyond, will almost certainly require a return to conscription – and accelerate our descent into national bankruptcy.

By permitting the Bush administration's usurpation of the power to declare war, Congress has written a blank check against the blood, treasure, and liberties of the American people. The result is what Abraham Lincoln in 1848 described as "the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions" – the power of a chief executive to commit our nation to war on his word alone. The words of any president given such power will have dire consequences for our freedom and prosperity. But this is particularly true of President Bush, who not only has difficulty using words correctly, but is demonstrably a man whose word means nothing.

January 21, 2005