I was listening to George W. Bush speak at a rally in New Hampshire, in January 2000, when he came up with what remains my favorite of his miscues: “I know how hard it is to put food on your family.” This could be an amusing few months, I remember thinking.
The only slow period for Bushisms was right after Sept. 11, when the president’s inadequacies no longer seemed very funny. Then Mr. Bush declared that normality was returning: “I am here to make an announcement that this Thursday, ticket counters and airplanes will fly out of Ronald Reagan Airport.”
The president’s critics see such flubs as proof of his idiocy. His defenders believe that calling attention to them is hostile. But the president’s verbal stumbles have only made me like him better. It’s hard to despise someone who just wants “to make the pie higher” or who says he won’t answer your question, “Neither in French nor in English. Nor in Mexican.”
Maybe the greatest expression of his befuddlement was something he said when asked to respond to an article by the writer Gail Sheehy claiming he was an undiagnosed dyslexic. “The woman who knew that I had dyslexia — I never interviewed her,” he sputtered.
Mr. Bush’s battle with English has enriched our political language. It is no longer possible to say a person or a factor has been underestimated. Thanks to him, that word is now misunderestimated. In trade negotiations, tariffs and barriers have become bariffs and terriers. Kosovo is the land of the Kosovians, Greece the ancient homeland of the Grecians, a Reagan-loving people with no gray hair. There is no strategy, only “strategery,” a term coined by the comedian Will Ferrell and adopted inside the administration.
Most politicians don’t care about language and abuse it through euphemism, vagueness and cliché. Mr. Bush is not so indifferent. When words won’t do what he wants, he tries to wrestle them into submission. His memorable coinages — Hispanically, arbo-treeist — express the frustration we all feel at those moments when language won’t go our way. In the face of defeat, Mr. Bush remains unbowed by grammar. You’ve got to admire that, kind of.
— JACOB WEISBERG, the editor in chief of the Slate Group and the author of “The Bush Tragedy”