THE TELEVISED GREATNESS OF GEORGE W. BU.S.H
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Coprrespondent
WASHINGTON -- President Bush's upward spike of popularity owes a lot to = his presence on television -- a medium that has not always been so kind. At=
times, under pressure, he has earned many comparisons to a deer in headlig= hts. But after a wobbly performance on Sept. 11, Bush got into a groove of = seizing the opportunity to be on tv and making the most of it.
Today's te= levision environment is, more than ever, warmly hospitable to simple -- and= simplistic -- declarative statements. That's just as well for Bush, who ha= s shown a distinct tendency to get entangled in a morass of fragmentary lin= guistic riffs.
Last year, on many occasions, he seemed painfully anxious to make his w= ay to the end of sentences without further embarrassment. But now, for the = most part, it's a very different story.
For insights about recent shifts of George W. Bush's persona on televisi= on, I contacted media critic Mark Crispin Miller, whose 1988 book "Boxed In= : The Culture of TV" was a groundbreaking analysis of the tube. In the book= , he disputed the customary image of the U.S. president as a "mighty indivi= dual" -- and identified that image as "a corporate fiction, the careful wor= k of committees and think tanks, repeatedly reprocessed by the television i= ndustry for daily distribution to a mass audience."
Boosted by family ties and powerful corporate backers, Bush won the pres= idency (though not the popular vote) while projecting an affable personalit= y that some have found endearing. But even while carrying out weighty dutie= s of the presidency with all its trappings, he struck many Americans as a l= ightweight, ill-suited for the job. A turning point came with his dramatic = speech to a joint session of Congress in mid-September.
The rave media reaction "was understandable," Miller told me, "because i= t actually reflected less on Bush's speech per se than on the moment's stra= nge and terrifying context. The speech was deemed 'Churchillian' because th= e audience (the American people, the Congress, the media) was so desperate = for a proper leader at that fearful moment. At that moment of catastrophe, = there was so fierce a hunger for a national father-figure that the audience= saw one in the president, who therefore came across like Churchill, or lik= e FDR, despite his lack of stature -- which, prior to the shock, had been q= uite clear to most observers."
Miller's book "The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder,= " published a few months ago, warns against assuming too much about the sig= nificance of Bush's habitual tongue-tangles. It's a cautionary note that no= w rings especially true. The man in the White House is shrewd and capable o= f high-impact rhetorical feats.
Since Sept. 11, Miller says, President Bush "has continued, by and large= , to speak with more authority than usual." While acknowledging that Bush "= has at times reverted to his usual gaffery" (as in his announcement that "t= icket counters and airplanes will be flying out of National Airport"), Mill= er observes that "on the subject of 'America's new war' -- 'the focus of th= is administration' -- Bush has managed to ad lib with an overall coherence = that is, for him, extraordinary."
Miller adds that "the president has lately spoken relatively well for th= e same reason that he's always broken into sudden fits of lucid English -- = because, in speaking of our national mission of revenge, he's speaking from= the heart." In fact, George W. Bush "has always spoken clearly on those su= bjects that genuinely matter to him. Thus it is that, when he talks about b= aseball, say, or about his property in Crawford, he has no problems with hi= s syntax, grammar or vocabulary."
Professor Miller, who specializes in media studies at New York Universit= y, contends that Bush also "is most articulate when speaking cruelly -- on = the value of the death penalty, or when cracking jokes, or when saying no. = It's when he tries to sound a higher note -- idealistically, or out of magn= animity, or on his trademark theme of 'compassion' -- that Bush starts spea= king broken English, because, like most of us, his tongue will not cooperat= e when he is being insincere."
These days, President Bush is evidently sincere about wanting the missil= es to keep flying and the bombs to keep falling on Afghanistan -- circumsta= nces that notably enhance his verbal skills. The fact that large numbers of= Afghan people are now facing imminent starvation due to the ongoing attack= s does not seem to bother our nation's leading compassionate conservative.
"The president," says Miller, "has lately spoken with unusual coherence= in his off-the-cuff remarks -- because his subject nowadays is war."
Note to online readers of "Media Beat": You can access free audio and vi= deo of Norman Solomon's recent appearance on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" = at www.c-span.org/journal/ -- listed under Monday, Oct. 15. The one-hour pr= ogram focuses on media coverage of terrorism and the bombing of Afghanistan= . (The audio and video will remain posted on the C-SPAN site until about = Oct. 24.)