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Another Puzzling Bushism:

Slate's editor includes this in his Bushism of the Day column today:

"I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense." — Washington, D.C., April 18, 2006

First, I wonder whether a little context — which Slate unfortunately doesn't provide, and doesn't even link to — might be helpful. Here's the broader exchange (April 18, 2006):

QUESTION: Mr. President, you created a practice of not commenting on potential personnel moves, calling it speculation...

BUSH: Of course, I do. You can understand why: because we've got people's reputations at stake.

And on Friday, I stood up and said I don't appreciate the speculation about Don Rumsfeld. He's doing a fine job. I strongly support him.

QUESTION: Well, what do you say to critics who believe that you're ignoring the advice of retired generals, military commanders, who say that there needs to be a change?

BUSH: I say I listen to all voices. But mine's the final decision.

And Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job. He's not only transforming the military, he's fighting a war on terror — he's helping us fight a war on terror.

I have strong confidence in Don Rumsfeld.

I hear the voices. And I read the front page. And I know the speculation. But I'm the decider and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.

The insistence that "I'm the decider" might sound slightly odd out of context. But in context, it's simply a reflection of the question — the questioner is stressing that some retired generals think Rumsfeld should go; so are various other commentators; Bush is stressing that it's not up to the generals or the newspapers to make the decision, but up to him.

But beyond this, what does this have to do with "The president's accidental wit and wisdom," the Bushisms column's subtitle? Am I missing some funny grammatical error? Some other instance of accidental wit? And if the criticism is a substantive criticism of Bush's message, wouldn't that require, well, some actual argument, rather than just a "Here are some silly words that speak for themselves"?

UPDATE: Commenter Confused suggests that the problem might be the use of "decider" instead of "decisionmaker." I hadn't even thought of this, but on reflection I agree that "decider" is considerably more often used to describe a deciding event -- especially a deciding event in sports, according my quick LEXIS search -- rather than a person who decides.

Yet the Oxford English Dictionary lists "One who or that which decides (a controversy, question, etc.)" as one of the definitions (the other indeed being "spec. in Racing. A final race or heat which decides the contest; esp. an extra one run for that purpose, e.g. after a dead heat."); the examples fit the "one who decides a question" definition. And the word "decider" used to mean "one who decides" fits so easily with normal rules of English word formation that it didn't even strike me as odd. (Yes, I know that normal rules of English word formation sometimes produce results that ordinary English speakers would actually never use, but the OED suggests that this isn't one such instance.) So at most, it seems to me, one would say that the usage is mildly unidiomatic, not wrong, silly, or even inadvertently funny.

Sam (mail):
The quote encapsulates two notable things about the President: (1) He is an awkward speaker, who seems to think that repetition for its own sake is persuasion ("I'm the decider, I decide", "What's best, what's best"); and (2) he never seems to fully understand the possibility that he might be wrong -- exemplified in this case by his insistence not that he THINKS it best for Rumsfeld to stay, but that it IS best. Now, is it hilarious? Not especially so. But years from now it will still be a good encapsulation of this President, and will bring a sad chuckle.
4.19.2006 3:03pm
Bryan Long:
It doesn't strike me as a 'Bushism,' but Bush's insistence that he is the 'decider' came across as defensive and not a little petulant. It would have been better if he'd left that off. If anyone in the world is a 'decider,' it's the President of the United States; it only serves to undermine his authority when he feels that he must remind people of that.
4.19.2006 3:05pm
Confused:
Isn't the point that when talking about a person who says what is to be done, standard English uses the word "decision-maker," not "decider"? The only context in which I've seen "decider" used is an *event* or *factor* that will determine outcome of something, and even then it's seldom used.

"I am the decider, and I decide" sounds like Seussian nonsense -- you can picture a furry caricature making a face -- not like a coherent explanation from the leader of the free world.

Normally, I'm on board with Eugene's criticims of the Bushism of the Day, but this one seems legitimate -- or as legitimate as poking fun at someone's malapropisms can be.
4.19.2006 3:11pm
A.S.:
I'm with Confused. I don't think "decider" is usually used like that (indeed, I had to look it up to make sure it's a real word).
4.19.2006 3:13pm
rbj:
Bryan,
it only serves to undermine his authority when he feels that he must remind people of that.
Sort of like when Clinton declared "The President is still relevant"? I think when someone is attacked day after day, as presidents usually are these days, they will come off as defensive sometimes - particularly when they are defending themselves.
4.19.2006 3:15pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Bryan: That might be right, but wouldn't the context be especially helpful for deciding that? Going around promiscuously saying "I'm the decider" undermines one's authority; responding that way to a question of "Why aren't you doing what X says you should do?" is at least potentially less jarring and less likely to be seen as "feel[ing] that he must remind people of that." Maybe I'm wrong, but I think one needs to see the context to decide that.
4.19.2006 3:26pm
Huh:
"Seussian" about sums it up. Hilarious, but dead-on. And yes, decision maker is more orthodox. EV is right, of course. It's not incorrect. But that's not necessarily the point. What's undeniable is that the repetition, the awkward diction, the condescension (he talks to the press as though they're children), and the defensive insistence on his own authority are classic Bush trademarks.

Remember his brief insistence that he was a (reluctant) "War President?" Think a staffer suggested he not use that phrase again? I think so.
4.19.2006 3:28pm
Bob Loblaw (www):
It reminds me of a kid insisting "you're not the boss of me", or to this Seinfeld classic...

The Wiz: That's right..they're bringing me back!
Elaine: What?!
The Wiz: That's right! I'm the Wiz! I'm the Wiz! I'm the Wiz and NO-body beats me!
4.19.2006 3:32pm
Adam (mail):
Wendy McElroy may provide the answer: Life Imitates Art -- the Presidential version
4.19.2006 3:35pm
Eric Rasmusen1 (mail):

"I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."



I'm surprised at the reaction in the earlier comments. These two sentences seem to me exceptionally well-stated-- even eloquent. Think about rewring the statement like this:


"I'm the decisionmaker. What's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."



"Decisionmaker" is the word most people would use, but it is longer and less direct than "decider", being derived from the weak phrase "to make a decision" instead of the punchier "to decide". If "decider" is a neologism, it's a good one--- better-sounding, and with a meaning instantly clear to the listeners.
4.19.2006 3:47pm
Bob Loblaw (www):
I also think this is probably not the right "Bushism" to go after Slate for - it seemed that practically every every news outlet on the web yesterday had an "I'm the decider" headline. It really is very funny, not just "slightly awkward out of context."
4.19.2006 3:48pm
anonymous coward:
"So at most, it seems to me, one would say that the usage is mildly unidiomatic, not wrong, silly, or even inadvertently funny."

Well, to me and clearly some others, it seems more than mildly unidomatic. I am also amused by the illogic: I am entrusted with making the decision, ergo I know the best decision to make.

It reads just as silly in context (unlike some other so-called Bushisms you have highlighted), and presumably Bush intended it to be matter-of-fact, not funny. I can't see reasonable grounds for criticizing this Bushism.
4.19.2006 3:59pm
Huh:
Eric Rasmusen1,

You're retaining too much of the president's awkward phrasing. For example, he could have said, "It's my decision. And I've decided we need Donald Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."

The "I decide what's best" is an example of President Bush's parental tic. He's chiding the press like a mother or father would talk to an 8-year-old. Undoubtedly, there are those who believe addressing the press in this fashion is warranted. But watching him answer questions, there's a very uncomfortable contradiction at work: he's not a gifted speaker, and he's clearly uncomfortable speaking on his toes. Yet he's extremely patronizing. It's just a weird combination.
4.19.2006 4:03pm
K Ashford (mail):
OED notwithstanding, "decider" is the word a precocious first grader might reasonably use.

Who bakes? A baker.

Who runs? A runner.

Who decides? A decider.

Who plays the flute? A fluter.

And so on.

The word is "decisionmaker", and let's not pretend that Bush was engaging in high oratory.

It's part of a pattern of awkward diction from the mouth of the Chief Executive. It may be grammatically correct, but he's speaking like a child would speak, or at best, speaking like an adult would speak to a child.

As my friend said, "Churchillian, he ain't".
4.19.2006 4:07pm
Bob Loblaw (www):

These two sentences seem to me exceptionally well-stated-- even eloquent.

That's rich.
4.19.2006 4:12pm
Tinhorn (mail):
I have no issue with the use of the word "decider," but really:

"I'm the decider, and I decide what is best."

seems dead wrong. He may be the decider of what *happens*, but neither he nor any other individual is the decider of "what's best." Indeed, GWB is fond of saying that "history will judge" how good a president he was. Doesn't that mean that history is the real decider of what is (was) best?
4.19.2006 4:17pm
Dave in NYC:
K Ashford, your fine understanding of precocious first grade logic is somewhat flawed. Your initial examples seek to form from an action verb a noun for the subject of that action. Two are common usage while the third is, OED "withstanding", acceptable if uncommon.

Your fourth example, which seems to be the one you chose to show how ridiculous the logic is, is flawed. Here, you have created a noun for the subject of the action from the object of the action, not the action verb. Following the original logic, it would be "Who plays the flute? A player [of the flute]." That is perfectly correct. Of course, one can create a noun for the subject of the action from the object of the action, but in this case, that would be "flutist" (or "flautist"), not "fluter." The logic of your fourth example would only hold up if the President had used some neologism like "decisioner" or "decisionist."

The whole concept of Slate's "Bushisms" is, frankly, childish and condescending. Why criticize substance when you can make fun of malapropisms?
4.19.2006 4:33pm
cirby (mail):

It may be grammatically correct, but he's speaking like a child would speak, or at best, speaking like an adult would speak to a child.


He's speaking to reporters. It is like speaking to children.
4.19.2006 4:34pm
Bob King (mail) (www):
The best comment I've seen is that rather than being a statement of personal responsibility, e.g., "the buck stops here," it's a statement of personal power.

To me, the larger context shows more clearly the work-product of an inferior mind. Or more generously, a mind unsuited to the challenge of the Presidency. I would say the same were he supposedly a Liberal Democrat. Although frankly, his actions and policies and approaches to problems seem far more Liberal than Conservative to me.

Being able to say the following with a straight face is bad; saying it with apparent conviction is downright terrifying in it's implications.


And Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job. He's not only transforming the military, he's fighting a war on terror -- he's helping us fight a war on terror.

I have strong confidence in Don Rumsfeld.


When I hear a passel of generals say that Rumsfeld must go, speaking from a strong - indeed, damn near ironclad tradition of respectful non-criticism of Civilian leadership, I'm inclined to think they are speaking of matters more fundamental than disagreement with his informed strategic decisions. It seems to me they are treating him (and indeed, CINC himself by implication) as a direct threat to the survival of the military and it's Constitutional mandate.

I do not think this to be an issue that can be reasonably dismissed as being ideologically motivated; generally military folk are conservative to the bone, professionally patriotic and absolutely committed to the core concepts behind the oft-used admin buzzwords such as "patriotism" and "homeland security."

I think we all need to wake up and consider the Administration to be a disaster in progress. Current news strongly suggests that it may well be about to escalate into a potential nuclear disaster. I think even the slightest concern about that potential, even were it being raised by complete loons, should merit at least a moment's pause to consider it.

"Hulk SMASH puny humans" seems to be the gist of the Bush foreign policy. Unlike the Hulk, we are NOT immune to large doses of gamma radiation.
4.19.2006 4:49pm
Anon1ms (mail):
What is funny is the suggestion that Bush might be consulting the OED.

If his use of "decider" was technically correct, it was just dumb luck.
4.19.2006 4:51pm
Ian D-B (mail):
I think the point here isn't whether the quote is funny. Slate put it up because it's just so absurdly condescending and patronizing. He sounds like he's saying, "because I'm dad, that's why."
4.19.2006 5:29pm
David Matthews (mail):
I think it might fit "Bushism" in that it's an awkward-sounding construction that nevertheless gets its point across unambiguously.

The trouble with the whole "Bushism" thing is when people start looking for "yet more examples that Bush is stupid, since we already know that Bush is stupid." It leads, often as not, to showing the commentators' ignorance, rather than the President's.

One of the most blatant examples of this was when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, after the State of the Union Address, came up with "Best use of archaic geography" for Bush's calling Burma, "Burma." The snide comment that they made was "No comment on his policy toward Babylon."

Now, the fact is that the official State Department name for Burma is "Burma;" "Burma" is also the name used in the Washington Post and by the B.B.C. In fact the only people calling Burma "Myanmar" are, apparently, the dictators running the place and the Star-Tribune.

What bothers me most about this attitude is that the Star-Tribune would expect to find a "Bushism" in a carefully-crafted, State Department-vetted, rehearsed and teleprompted State of the Union Address, as if Bush were just speaking off-the-cuff, or as if he wrote the thing himself....
4.19.2006 5:32pm
Sigivald (mail):
Bob: A different passel support Rumsfeld and Bush (Myers and Franks are, after all, not nobodies; Myers was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs).

Your summation of Bush's foreign policy doesn't strike me as even vaguely accurate or impartial, either. (Indonesian aid? Who Hulk smash what, huh? Even for Bush's war-related foreign policy, that's remarkably inapt - if evocative. But evocative and inaccurate don't make for good decisions, if what we care about is accuracy rather than partisan end-states.)
4.19.2006 5:38pm
John McCall (mail):
Meh. It's awkward and petty and never quite correct, but the same could be said for Bush's original quote. I can't imagine how a determination to seriously parse throwaway remarks could possibly survive a week of reading Slate.

Anyhow, clearly Bush is merely a five-state Turing machine:
1. If 'b' then 2R else reject.
2. If 'e' then 3R else reject.
3. If 's' then 4R else reject.
4. If 't' then 5R else reject.
5. If '\0' then accept else reject.
4.19.2006 5:40pm
BobN (mail):
I actually thought the first part of his statement was funnier:


"I hear the voices, and I read the front page"


We knew he heard voices, but the reading the paper bit is news!
4.19.2006 5:49pm
Monkberrymoon (mail):
The problem with "Bushisms", of course, is that not even its supporters can agree on why it should be a Bushism. Some of you don't like his use of "decider", some of you think that the "what is best" line is unduly patronizing, while others think the statement is facially stupid because it's defending Donald Rumsfeld. If no one can agree on why the sentence sucks, maybe Slate is trying to hard to find sucky sentences.
4.19.2006 6:18pm
byrd (mail):
As a writer and editor, I rather like the way it plays with the language. It's short, to the point, clearly expressive, and fits the rythm of the conversation. Granted Bush is an awkward speaker and probably didn't mean it to be all that, but the pile on is happening simply because it's Bush, not because of anything in the statement.

I hope Bush meant it condescendingly. Who do the press think they are? They know the United States has a civilian controlled military. They know it's Bush's job to make these decisions, but instead of asking him why he's sticking with Rumsfeld, they asked why he didn't defer to people whose job the decision isn't. They are children and they deserve to be spoken to like children.
4.19.2006 6:26pm
Confused:
I think Eugene for responding in the body, but I find his defense of the phrase unpersuasive. As Anon1ms notes, it is pure coincidence that "decider" is an acceptable usage, akin to when, debating over a Boggle word, my brother prevailed by finding that "toon" is not just an abbreviation for "cartoon" but also an aromatic tree in Asia.

As for it being simply a "mildly unidomatic" usage -- come on! Can you imagine being in a conference room at a business meeting, asking, "Who's in charge of sales here?" and getting the response, "Well, I'm the decider."?

Fluter, after all, is also in the OED (although it's marked as rare and superseded by flautist and flutist), as are all sorts of weird usages. It seems that decider is somewhat more prevalent, but I can say that I've never once heard the word used in lieu of decisionmaker.

I appreciate that to Eugene (and to at least one commenter), the phrase sounds fine. But to me and the majority of commenters, it sounded silly. Going to books.google.com, the only cases where "decider" is used to mean "a person who makes decisions" are in technical manuals or treatises (marketing and psychology primarily, poli-phi and philosophy less so). Particularly when coupled with "and I decide," the phrase used colloquially takes on a sing-songish, juvenile tone. (As I noted above.)

Frankly, I also think this might've been Bushism-worthy (with the caveat I gave before that I think culling someone's spoken errors is assinine) if he had said, "I'm the decisionmaker, so it's my decision to make," which shares the tautology / sing-song quality. Anyway, this is strikingly different from Eugene's other examples of bad Bushisms, where Slate was taking something out of context or cutting out key words to make Bush seem stupid. In this case, lots of people think it sounds silly, Eugene doesn't. Hardly a strong case for calling out Slate.
4.19.2006 6:34pm
crane (mail):
Is anyone really surprised when Slate picks strange quotes? I only wish the Bushisms feature had followed the Kerryisms into extinction. To be sure, I've never seen a Bushism reach the silliness of the Kerryism that reduced the senator's answer to the question of whether he favored abortion rights to "yes", relegating all subsequent explanation to the status of "quibble", but perhaps that's because I haven't read them much lately.


It does sound more natural for Bush to say "decider" rather than "decision-maker", though. He has a distinct tendency to overemphasize long or difficult words, as if he's putting them in finger-quotes. I can only think of two reasons for this: either he doesn't know them very well, and needs to make a special effort to remember them, or he thinks his audience doesn't know them very well, which means he has to enunciate clearly to make sure people understand, and maybe immediately restate the point in simpler terms.
4.19.2006 6:34pm
Neal R. (mail):
Eugene Volokh hears the voices like Confused's. And he reads the headlines that say "I'm the Decider, Bush declares." And he knows the criticisms of the President's diciton. But Eugene Volokh is the defender, and he defends what sounds right. And what sounds right is for the President to say, "I'm the decider and and I decide what is best."

(Because, after all, the President decides, and therefore is the decider of what is best, which is for Donald Rumsfeld to remain the Secretary of Defense. See OED (defining "decider" as "[o]ne who or that which decides").)
4.19.2006 7:03pm
J. Peterman:
David M.

It'll always be Burma to me too!


- J. Peterman

4.19.2006 7:19pm
Bob Loblaw (www):
Nice one J. Peterman.
4.19.2006 7:26pm
Francis Bacon:
"I decide what is best" is also a headline with picture on aol.com

Not only taken out of context, but not even satire.
4.19.2006 8:05pm
josh:
Professor:

You seriously need to get a sense of humor
4.19.2006 10:39pm
Ken Arromdee (mail):
As Anon1ms notes, it is pure coincidence that "decider" is an acceptable usage, akin to when, debating over a Boggle word, my brother prevailed by finding that "toon" is not just an abbreviation for "cartoon" but also an aromatic tree in Asia.

Come on now. Unlike "toon", the word "decider" is formed by a regular grammatical rule that Bush should have no trouble understanding. The fact that he applied a grammatical rule to "decide" and got a correct word, "decider", is no more noteworthy than the fact that he sticks the letter 's' on a word to make it plural. Saying that he only got it correct by coincidence is like saying that the plural ending in 's' is only correct by coincidence, because he never looked the plural up in a dictionary. He doesn't need to--that's why we have grammar.
4.19.2006 10:42pm
David A Lewis (mail):
"Decider" is ugly language, even in context. And a weak usage, to boot, which is why people react adversely to it. Just imagine what Roosevelt or Kennedy would have said, and you'll see what I mean.
4.19.2006 11:25pm
Redman:
Ich bin ein Decider.
4.20.2006 1:36am
randal (mail):
Look Eugene, the point of a Bushism is they're things only Bush would say. They're not supposed to be evidence of retardation or whatever you think Slate's trying to maliciously demonstrate.

The only valid criticism of a Bushism is a claim that someone else might plausibly have said it (sans identifying content). Who but Bush would say that sentence?
4.20.2006 4:09am
R Gould-Saltman (mail):
Doc Volokh:

you can imagine where I weigh in on this one; what's funny about it (and I thought it was funny before it was picked as a "Bushism") is the Prez' effort to sound pedantically didactic, which, in his case often makes him sound, as observed, like he thinks he's talking with first graders, or that he thinks he's Sideshow Bob Terwilliger (which is much the same style), cf. e.g.:

"You can't handle the truth! I deride your truth-handling abilities! No truth-handler, you!"
4.20.2006 12:00pm
Silicon Valley Jim:
the condescension (he talks to the press as though they're children)

That's not condescension. It's flattery.
4.20.2006 2:37pm
eddie (mail):
A. This sounds like a grade schooler no matter how you spin it.

B. The construction also uses grade school (and reverse) logic. I decide. I decide what's best. What's best is what I have decided.

C. Are we really being asked for serious criticism of the Bushism column? And more importantly, does the defense (or critcisim) of this particular quote really reach to the point of the column itself (of course some examples will be better than others), which is that this president has the rhetorical skills of an armadillo (and at least the armadillo has a tougher skin and knows when to be quiet).

No matter how we deconstruct the words in this example, wouldn't it have been much simple for him to say, "I have heard the criticism, but my decision is that Rumsfeld shall stay . . ."?

This then takes him out of the realm of somehow proving that his decision is right (sort of like Aquinas proving the existence of God) simply because as president his decisions are right. He also feels the need to emphasize that "he's heard the voices" but that these are voices of lesser beings, i.e. not deciders.

The point is that he doesn't need to prove it because he refuses to prove it. And yet he feels continually bound to prove it.

Have I finaly proved my point in a particularly Bushistic fashion?
4.20.2006 3:42pm
Neal R. (mail):
I hear the voices. And I read the blogs. And I know the speculation. But I am the derider, and I deride what is stupid. And what's stupid is to say that Don Rumsfeld should remain as the secretary of defense.
4.20.2006 4:16pm
december (mail):
Today's New York Times had a letter to the editor that called Bush's quote (and his actions in Iraq) "ill-advised, reckless, arrogant foolishness and tragedy," but went on to say, "Direct, concise and evocative, this sentence forever puts to rest any criticism that George W. Bush does not possess a command of the language."

I don't think the last sentence is meant as sarcasm. Apparently this Bush critic found Bush's wording effective. He just didn't like the content.

By the way, I think Bush's comment, "I decide what is best," may have been meant as a reminder that not only does the President have the power to select the Sectretary of Defence, he has the responsibility to make the best possible choice.

Some Bush supporteres have pointed out that 6 retired Generals are a tiny per cent of all retired Generals or claimed that a majority of retired Generals support Rumsfeld (which may or may not be true). Either would have been a mistake for Bush to say. As Bush rightly pointed out, retired Generals don't get to vote on whether to retain the Secretatary of Defence. It's the President's sole responsiblity.
4.20.2006 8:04pm
Bob Loblaw (www):

I don't think the last sentence is meant as sarcasm. Apparently this Bush critic found Bush's wording effective. He just didn't like the content.
December, you are kidding, right? Re-read the letter. The writer was pointing out that Bush was able to get "all the ill-advised, reckless, arrogant foolishness and tragedy of the Bush administration summed up in a single quotation." For that he gave him kudos for command of the English language. Yes, it was meant as sarcasm.
4.21.2006 3:23am
californio (mail):
Sigh. Enough of the BS. If ex-generals were criticising Clinton - the same persons who want to use this as "proof" of Rummy's incompetence would be screaming about violation of the tradition of military obedience and deference to civilian control. Sigh, again. Yep. The greatest threat to our safety is not Iranian nutjobs with nuke loaded rockets, but Bu$hCo Mc Chimpster. Sure, whatever. Just make sure your tinfoil hat is on nice and tight. Besides, the Iranians aren't a threat until they register as an independant candidate in a tight Democratic congressinal race. It is all about those evvvviiiiil republicans.....
4.21.2006 4:39am