'The Bush Dyslexicon' author Mark Crispin Miller
Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media ecology at New York University. He is also involved with directing PrOMO, the Project on Media Ownership. He is a well-known writer on the media, and an activist for democratic media reform. He joined the CNN.com chat room from New York to discuss his new book, "The Bush Dyslexicon."
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Mark Crispin Miller, and welcome.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Hello, everybody.
CNN: What got made you so committed to doing the tremendous clipping and research that obviously went into this book? Did you feel it just had to be recorded?
MILLER: Yes. I was quite shocked and saddened by what happened on December 12, 2000, when the Supreme Court aborted proper democratic procedures in the state of Florida. I was also struck by what seemed to me to be a grossly inadequate coverage of the presidential race by the major media. I therefore felt compelled to write a book that would offer readers a detailed record of how George W. Bush actually did perform on television, and at the same time, a record of how the media handled his performance. The result is "The Bush Dyslexicon."
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dyslexia is defined as a disturbance of the ability to read. What does "Dyslexicon" mean in your title?
MILLER: My title refers to two forms of what I call dyslexia. On the one hand, there is George W. Bush's famous difficulties with the English language. There is evidence that his linguistic problem may derive in part from actual dyslexia in the clinical sense (I don't think that dyslexia explains all of his verbal failures, nor do I believe that dyslexia per se should disqualify him from a position of leadership.) So, to that extent, my title refers to Bush's speech problems, and what I believe they tell us about the man himself, and his agenda.
More importantly, however, there is, I believe, a serious disorder that afflicts American political culture at the top. Indeed, dyslexia refers to the inability to translate written characters into sounds. I use the term as a metaphor for how the mainstream media could not or would not perceive the evidence of our own senses, as they covered the Presidential race. In other words, I argue that there was a very disorienting difference between what the TV media showed us about George W. Bush, and what the TV industry's talking heads told us about him. I believe that the medium was largely merciless in its presentation of his unfitness for the Presidency. The medium has been similarly merciless in bringing us other modern presidents, such as Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George Bush, Sr. While the medium showed us one thing, however, the telejournalists, anchors and pundits seemed intent on talking around the spectacle of Bush's unpreparedness and ignorance. So, "The Bush Dyslexicon" refers to a kind of corporate or collective dyslexia by the US media.
CNN: Was there so much focus on the choice of words by a president say 100 years ago?
MILLER: No. TV has obviously changed the nature of Presidential performance, and the whole character of modern campaigning, so that we can safely say that chance remarks by candidates were not formerly subject to this sort of scrutiny, and even since the rise of television, there was not quite the same attention to extemporaneous speech as we see today with George W. Bush. Certainly, people were often critical of Dwight Eisenhower's comments during his press conferences. Certain liberals were too quick to assume that Ike was a dim bulb, because his syntax often became very murky as he replied to reporter's questions. However, it's now clear that such seeming incoherence was a tactical device that Ike would use to keep his true opinion hidden.
George W. Bush has become the object of such scrutiny because he is easily in a class by himself when it comes to the mangling of the mother tongue. Some of the criticism is quite petty and irrelevant, however, it is reasonable to expect the Chief Executive of the world's most powerful country to be able to speak coherently to his people, and to the peoples of the world. However, having said all that, I want to make clear that I am less concerned with Bush's various blunders than I am with what those blunders often tell us, both about the man himself and about the system that we now inhabit.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is your favorite Bushism?
MILLER: My favorite Bushism is something the candidate said when campaigning in New Hampshire last year: "I know how hard it is to put food on your family." This is my favorite, not just because it's a funny thing to say, but because it is a good example of the kind of statement that Bush has trouble making clearly.
Bush can often be quite lucid when he speaks on subjects that really matter to him, and when he's talking from the heart. For example, when, during his second debate with Al Gore, he spoke about how James Byrd's murderers are going to be put to death down in Texas, he spoke with a sudden clarity that had to startle anyone who expected everything he said to be unclear. Bush usually tends to be clear when speaking from the heart like that.
It is, on the other hand, when he tries to sound a note of compassion, that he tends to speak most nonsensically. There are many good examples in my book, but the remark he made in New Hampshire is a perfect example. I argue that his inability to say "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family table" betrays the fact that he does not know how hard it is to have to struggle economically, and furthermore, that he does not really care. All of us, regardless of our educations, tend not to speak coherently when we speak insincerely. George W. Bush is no exception.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could it be that a candidate's image and not his or her words is more important these days?
MILLER: Absolutely. In the culture of TV, all candidates must have winning images, or they'll get nowhere fast. This raises interesting questions about the image of our President, whose image actually did not appeal to a majority of the electorate. Neither Bush nor Gore had an especially strong image. What's most noteworthy about Bush's story is that while his image or persona struck most Americans one way, the judgment that we all kept hearing was very different. We heard endlessly that Bush was very "likeable." There is no evidence, however, that his TV persona really seemed that "likeable" to more than a plurality of viewers.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What do you make of his one-month working vacation?
MILLER: I personally am not reassured by his penchant for long rest periods, but my personal opinion is of no concern. My judgment as a media critic is that Bush's long vacation is one more example of the kind of misstep that his propaganda team keeps making. Bush has been slipping in the polls since the climax of his honeymoon a few months back. One reason why Americans are growing more and more doubtful about the job he's doing is their sense that he is something of a slacker. His status as a man of lifelong privilege is probably his major liability as a politician. This vacation therefore seems to me to indicate a certain lack of judgment on the part of the White House propaganda team that reveals a degree of simple arrogance.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is it possible that Bush will read your book?
MILLER: It is possible. It's certainly likely that some of the people around him will read it, because they are extraordinarily attentive to public opinion, and to the extent that "The Bush Dyslexicon" succeeds in reaching people, it will certainly concern the Bush team enough to get them to start reading it. Bush himself is quite thin-skinned, and so his handlers may not want him to be looking through it.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: But Mr. Miller, statements in debates are all prepared and coached, so how can you say, "from the heart"?
MILLER: Actually, most of the statements made in debates are not coached. That's why we watch them. Certainly a great deal of preparation goes into a debate performance, but most of what a politician says up there on the stage is extemporaneous. It couldn't be otherwise, given the format of the spectacle.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Since Bush says he doesn't care about polls (what the people think), what difference will changing polls and public opinion make to him and his handlers?
MILLER: Polls matter enormously to the Bush-Cheney team. The recent news accounts of how the Bush team will be emphasizing values after his vacation make quite clear that this bunch does every bit as much polling and focus group research as the Clinton-Gore team ever did. It may be true that Bush himself does not sit down and talk to pollsters, but that does not mean that Karl Rove and Karen Hughes pay no attention to what pollsters say. The fact is that no modern President can afford to give up polling. Bush's claim to be indifferent to such information is nothing more than another of his efforts to appear before us as the anti-Clinton.
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
MILLER: I want to make clear that this is not a partisan exercise. "The Bush Dyslexicon" has been endorsed by some Republicans, including Judge Lawrence Walsh, who was the independent counsel in the Iran Contra hearings, and Ariana Huffington who has certainly been no supporter of Clinton-Gore. I myself am an Independent. I did not vote for Gore. My book has no partisan axe to grind, but is a hard-hitting critique of what I take to be a growing danger to American democracy. The danger comes, I argue, both from a political establishment now utterly dependent on corporate interests and from a media system too concerned with ratings and with advertising revenues to do the sort of journalistic work on which democracy depends.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today.
MILLER: Good bye everyone, and thanks very much for your questions.
Mark Crispin Miller joined the CNN.com chat room by telephone and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Monday, August 6, 2001.
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