Ballot Box

The Arizona Debate: Bush Brought to Book

Tonight’s Republican debate in Phoenix, Ariz., was much, much better than the one that took place last week in New Hampshire. That debate, sponsored by Fox News and WMUR television in Manchester, was all inside baseball. The questioners, Brit Hume and Karen Brown, asked McCain about his temper, Bush about whether he knew how to read, and Keyes about his eccentric view that he is the victim of media racism. This one, sponsored by CNN, featured far more useful questions about actual issues in the campaign. Correspondents Judy Woodruff, John King and Candy Crowley asked intelligently about education, economics, and foreign policy. The more varied format, which also allowed the candidates to question each other, was a marked improvement as well.

Once again, all eyes were on the front-runner. George W. Bush’s second performance was consistent with his first. He came across as jaunty, likable, and brimming with self-confidence. He did not blunder by confusing the Balkans with the Baltics, referring to the ruler of Korea as “Kim somebody,” or identifying the EITC as a baseball statistic. But if Bush didn’t blow it, he also failed to reveal any hidden depths. In the round of questions on foreign policy, Judy Woodruff asked him my dream question, which was what he learned from that book about Dean Acheson he mentioned he was reading. To be precise, Woodruff asked what lessons Bush took from the successes and failures of Acheson and George Marshall.

Still failing to identify the book (which must be the recent Acheson biography by James Chace), Bush said–and this is a verbatim transcription, checked against my tape–“The lessons learned are is that the United States must not retreat within our borders. That we must promote the peace. In order promote the peace we’ve got to have strong alliances–alliances in Europe, alliances in the Far East. In order promote the peace, I believe we ought to be a free-trading nation. … The lessons of Acheson and Marshall are is that our nation’s greatest export to the world has been, is, and always will be the incredible freedoms we understand in the great land called America.”

One lesson Bush obviously did not learn from Dean Acheson is how to form a grammatical sentence. Maybe he does better in Spanish, but the man can barely speak English. W.’s most common difficultly, as in the above passage, is with noun-verb agreement. When he gets even slightly worked up, he can’t arbitrate between his seeming need for a plural verb and his seeming need for a singular one. So he uses both, as in his favored expression “are is.” Bush also commonly removes the “to” from infinitives, as with “in order promote the peace.” Syntax is not his friend.

The way he speaks reminds me of something I once read about the linguist Myrna Gopnik and her work on what I believe she calls “Family K.” Although otherwise normally intelligent, members of Family K stumble over basic grammar, coming up with sentences like, “The boys eat four cookie.” They have trouble creating the plurals of words and forming verbs in the past tense–things most 4-year-olds can easily manage. I can’t remember what Gopnik calls this rare and peculiar form of aphasia, but W. and his father both seem to suffer from a version of it. Another possibility: The Bushes actually are “Family K.”

The second, and probably more significant criticism of Bush’s answer is that his comments on whatever Acheson book he is reading couldn’t have been more trite and banal. They are, in fact, simply Bush’s own platitudes about the present attached to a book he claims to be reading. Marshall and Acheson didn’t believe that communism could be contained, or the peace kept, by a policy of “free-trading.” They argued for line-drawing and military confrontation–a point John McCain made it clear he understood in a glancing reference to Acheson and Korea in his own answer to a foreign policy quesiton. Bush displayed this same callowness throughout the evening. In other instances, such as in his closing remarks, he simply recited familiar arias from his stump speech.

The other candidate whose performance deserves comment is Steve Forbes. What I noticed about Forbes’ performance tonight was that it was exactly the same as every other Forbes performance–thoroughly dishonest, numbingly repetitive, and increasingly obnoxious in its gratuitous and ineffectual anti-Washington demagoguery. In only his second campaign, Forbes has turned into a full-fledged Harold Stassen figure–a candidate for whom unpopularity serves as some kind of weird inspiration. The more you wish that Forbes would go away, the more it provokes him to stay and waste more of your time. And with his money, he can waste a lot of your time. 

Some assume that because Forbes looks like a dork, he must have some substance buried somewhere. Though he sounds even more canned than Bush, many people think of him as intellectually if not morally superior for canning the answers himself, instead of being sleep-taught by a team of former deputy undersecretaries. In fact, I think Forbes is far less of his own man than Bush, and too much of a weathervane to qualify even as a genuine ideologue. Bush, fairly new to politics, is still discovering his principles. Forbes is already abandoning his second set. Where Bush has an idea of where he wants to lead the Republican Party (to the center), Forbes thinks that if he figures out where the party is going, he can simply hop aboard and ride it. 

It’s this futile whoring after primary votes that has made Forbes such a pathetic figure. After his 1996 debacle, Forbes swapped his libertarian-tinged, purely economic conservatism for its opposite–a preachy, self-righteous social conservatism. He pandered to what he took to be the ascendant religious right by saying that abortion was the most important issue to him. Amazingly enough, many moral conservatives accepted his conversion. But their support hasn’t helped Forbes–in fact, it has made him more unelectable than ever. So without so much as a blink of the eye, Forbes has reversed course once again. In the recent debates, he has left abortion and school prayer to the true believers Keyes and Bauer, and focused exclusively on the flat tax, repeating the phrase as a kind of meditational “om.” Only this time, his fanaticism doesn’t even sound sincere.