Ballot Box

The Gaffes of George W. Bush

His most embarrassing quotes, in context.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate’s most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today’s subject is George W. Bush.

Quote: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” (Jan. 11, 2000).

Quote: “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family” (Jan. 27, 2000).


Quote: “This is Preservation Month. I appreciate preservation. It’s what you do when you run for president. You gotta preserve” (remarks during “Perseverance Month,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 28, 2000).

Quote: “The most important job is not to be governor, or first lady in my case” (San Antonio Express-News, Jan. 30, 2000).


Quote: “The legislature’s job is to write law. It’s the executive branch’s job to interpret law” (Nov. 22, 2000).

Quote: “You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test” (Feb. 21, 2001).

Quote: “I’ve coined new words, like misunderstanding and Hispanically” (March 29, 2001).

Quote: “Neither in French nor in English nor in Mexican” (declining to answer reporters’ questions, April 21, 2001).


Quote: “I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though I wasn’t here” (Aug. 13, 2002).

Charge: In September 2000, Gail Sheehy suggested in Vanity Fair that Bush’s “anti-intellectualism and frequent malapropisms may indicate dyslexic tendencies.” In March 2001, Slate’s Timothy Noah concluded  that Bush is “functionally dumb.”

Context: Only three of the quotes in this sample appear to have substantive errors. When Bush said “It’s the executive branch’s job to interpret law,” he was trying to repeat a point he had phrased correctly earlier in the same press conference: “Administering laws is the duty of the executive branch.” As to the “nor in Mexican” line, the Associated Press reported at the time that “White House aides said [Bush] was just joking about the Mexican part.” And when Bush said at a 2002 economic forum that “I will listen to what has been said here, even though I wasn’t here,” he simply meant that he would get a summary or videotape of the discussion that had been going on before he arrived.

Defense: The reason everyone gets the joke when Bush fumbles his lines is that most of these lines are off by a single word: “is” instead of “are,” “preservation” instead of “perseverance,” “her” instead of “she.” But that’s also why these errors are insignificant. We know what Bush meant to say and that he simply got two words mixed up.

Bush denied in 2000 that he was dyslexic. And Noah argued in 2001 that the charge of stupidity on Bush’s part must rest on more than his botched quotes.