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Bush's problem with, uh, public speaking

By Justin Droms

Is he an idiot, or does he just play one on TV?

The debate about President Bush’s horrendous public speaking is sure to continue its invasion of American dinner tables and barstools after Dubya’s distracted stumble through his most recent White House press conference. The president’s verbal retardation was as apparent as ever, especially when asked if he felt he had “failed as a communicator” — not as a president, not as a leader, but as a communicator.


Ironically, in his response to accusations of ineffective and repetitive speaking, Bush predictably retreated to a formulaic tangent about his commitment to get the bad guys, punctuating it with anxious stammers, poor grammar, and his trademark deer-in-the-headlights stare. He finally conceded that, “Maybe I need to learn to communicate better.”

Gosh, do you really think so, George?

Because of the media’s meticulous coverage, public-speaking skills (or the lack thereof) play a large part in defining politicians’ identities, whether they like it or not. Look at what happened to good old Joe Lieberman, another politician whose dreadful oratory skills wreaked havoc on his political identity. Like Bush, late-night comedians lampooned him relentlessly, specifically for his droopy speaking style (one Conan O’Brien sketch had him dozing off mid-speech). The difference between the two men, however, is that Lieberman is obviously intelligent but leaves us doubting his passion, while Bush is obviously passionate but leaves us doubting his intelligence.

Many left-leaners use phrases like “bumbling idiot” or “stuttering moron” (most others can’t be repeated here) to describe the president, associating him with his speaking ineptitude before his policies. And Bush defenders are quick to point out that just because he is a poor public speaker does not mean that he is unintelligent or a bad leader. Bushists’ favorite illustrations include Steven Hawking’s inability to speak clearly and Adolf Hitler’s undeniable oratory skills, implying that verbal dexterity is not necessarily representative of intelligence or goodwill.

But Bush’s blundering performance in that most recent press conference — as well as his awkward February interview with Tim Russert — brings up serious questions about his tunnel vision on relevant issues. His familiar tough-guy smirk and shoot-‘em-straight swagger have deteriorated into desperation to stay on message (which basically means infinite repetitions and combinations of the phrases “war on terror,” “stay the course” and “the American people”).

While presidents from Kennedy to Clinton often traded witty barbs with reporters during their frequent press conferences, Bush understandably shies away from media interaction and admittedly was “stumped” when asked about mistakes he had made since Sept. 11, according to an Associated Press report.

"Maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be,” replied the visibly stunned commander in chief, as he struggled to think of an acceptable answer. "I'm sure something will pop into my head here … but it hadn’t yet"

You can’t get hired at McDonald’s with a response like that.

But will it be enough to get hired for a second term as the leader of the free world? To use the president’s own wise words from that press conference earlier this month, “That's the kind of thing the voters will decide next November.” Insightful as always, Mr. Bush.

Regardless of what happens in November, the press conference shows that Bush’s oratory incompetence has emerged from the realm of late-night comics and is now a fully viable political issue.


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