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Mr. Bush, Let's Move Beyond the Banalities

Charlie Clark

George W. Bush has been forgiven his tendency to mangle the English language. The gravity of Sept. 11, combined with his handlers' success in diffusing the ineloquence issue through self-deprecation, have headed off any risk that Bush II would go down as a festival of "Saturday Night Live" skits about "strategery" and office water-cooler sessions devoted to Bushisms.

Columnist George F. Will, reflecting the current conservatives' tactic of protecting Bush by making virtue of a necessity, goes so far as to assert that Bush's "syntactical minimalism suits the new sobriety."

But for me, Bush's higgledy-piggledy sentence structure was never the revealing trait. What matters more are Bush's banalities, which I believe are harming our national dialogue. Recent examples: When asked why Congress wasn't informed of his "shadow government" of 100 bureaucrats in secret locations, Bush replied that this is "serious business." (A trenchant insight.)

When asked to comment on signs that the recession may be ending, Bush said, "I don't care what the numbers-crunchers say, the attack on America affected our economy and it affected a lot of people's lives." (Could anyone argue?)

In pre-empting criticism of his political fund-raising at a time when Democrats are rallying behind the commander in chief, Bush told a cheering crowd: "Some people ask whether I think the president should campaign when there is a war on. I do." (Can we discuss why?)

When preparing to announce his choice to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year, Bush ignored speculation about his military priorities and said, "I'm looking for somebody, obviously with experience, somebody who understands what the job entails." (I agree with the obviously part.)

And at his March 13 press conference, Bush was asked about legislation to raise the debt ceiling, ironic at a time of budget deficits less than a year after budget surpluses. Bush would say only that Congress should "quit playing politics and pass it, quickly and soon."

Now, it is true that the millions who approve of Bush seem to like a president who speaks with all the tics of a regular Joe. And no one begrudges a new president a chance to grow in self-confidence (which Bush clearly has done, despite a few unpresidential "ums" and "ahs" during interviews). And yes, Bush, like our most articulate presidents, is entitled to rely on speechwriters for his historic and memorable lines.

But the Bush PR machine, oiled by image-makers Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, uses the leader's plain speaking to dumb down - even stifle - healthy debate. You see it in the rarity of press conferences. The White House prefers scripted town meetings that simply highlight goals ("pass my budget"), using language calculated to be utterly unobjectionable.

When Bush does confront policy puzzles, the multi-layered issue of the U.S. role in the Middle East becomes "the Israelis and Palestinians must stop the violence," while the complex question of how much testing to require of schools becomes "We've got to find out if our children are learning."

In this certitude-filled world of Potemkin unanimity, the airing of controversy becomes "partisan bickering."

In interviews, Bush reacts to questions as threats to parry, rather than opportunities for communication. He gets his answers over with. About halfway through delivery of a banality, his eyes light up and a grin forms, as if to imply "It's all so simple," when in fact, I suspect, he's pleased to see his way to his sentence's end with no off-message gaffe in sight.

The Bush tolerance for truism is replicated in the press briefings suffered by press secretary Ari Fleischer, whose monotoned tape loops remind us daily that the president is steadfast in his beliefs, that his programs are working, and that his appointees are outstanding citizens. Reporters have been lulled away from posing follow-up questions when Bush answers are nonresponsive. The press may be spooked by wartime patriotism, or by right-wing charges of liberal bias. Perhaps its members are charmed, or grateful for just a few words from this president as he scampers unsatisfyingly from topic to topic.

Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps betraying an awareness of Bush's bathos, says Bush is a man who says what he means and means what he says. It sounds leader-like and may be effective against our enemies. But what if the things the man says set a record for anticlimax?

I'll believe in Bush when he can step up to a pertinent question, offer some context, acknowledge opposing views, state his solution to the problem, justify it with sound reasoning and respond to a rebuttal.

Banalities may be safe for Bush politically, but they contain few nutrients for the American body politic.