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We Provide the Context, So Slate Doesn't Have To:

Here's today's Slate's Bushism of the Day:

"That's George Washington, the first president, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three -- three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting?" -- Showing German newspaper reporter Kai Diekmann the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2006

Now it strikes me as a little odd that Slate, one of the pioneers of online journalism, doesn't take advantage of one of the great advantages of online journalism over offline journalism -- the ability to link to the original sources (eithers ones that are already online or ones that are put up on the Web by the journal itself), so that readers can see the context for themselves.

Here is the context for that quote:

That's George Washington, the first President, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three -- three or four books about him last year. Isn't that interesting? People say, so what? Well, here's the "so what." You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you're gone. If they're still analyzing the presidency of George Washington -- (laughter.) So Presidents shouldn't worry about the history. You just can't. You do what you think is right, and if you're thinking big enough, that history will eventually prove you right or wrong. But you won't know in the short-term.

Without this context, Bush's quote seems mysteriously inarticulate, and understandable only as an unintentional self-parody of his own unintellectualism. Why would he say that it's interesting that he read three or four books about Washington this year? Mystifying.

But the rest of the quote explains the mystery, and makes what strikes me as a pretty sensible (though of course not earthshattering) point. It's true that as a logical matter the interesting point for Bush's argument is that there are three or four such books (presumably recent ones), not that Bush read them. But it's the sort of formally illogical but conveniently descriptive statement that ordinary speakers would, I think, often make, if they wanted to orally make the points that (1) there are (at least) three or four books on a subject, and at the same time that (2) they're interested in the subject enough to have read three or four such books on it.

In any case, analyze this how you will -- but it does seem to me that (A) the full quote seems a lot different from the brief excerpt that Slate provided, and (B) it would be nice if Slate made a habit of providing links so that readers can more easily check such things for themselves.

Allen Asch (mail) (www):
Maybe those books on George Washington were where GW Bush got the idea for all this electronic surveillance. (Just a reference to my favorite "Gonzales-ism" that "President Washington, President Lincoln, President Wilson, President Roosevelt have all authorized electronic surveillance of the enemy on a far broader scale" from the transcript here: Atty Gen. Gonzales testimony)
5.19.2006 3:29pm
Matthew in Denver:
The Bushishms have been frustrating to me because they are consistently taken out of context.

Back at Rice University, the undergrad paper (The Thresher) had a backpage feature which was essentially a big list of reader-submitted quotes that were funny purely because they were taken out of context. For example, "don't apply too much lubricant; we need a little friction to make this worthwhile" is less funny when heard in a MechEng machine shop. But it was good fun to see our professor's and fellow student's simple quotes being taken to mean things the speaker clearly did not intend them to mean at the time. Everyone understood the joke and no harm was done.

Jacob Weisberg's Bushisms are annoying because they are essentially the same thing as The Thresher's backpage, but without the clear understanding that with proper context, the quotes are quite mundane. Also, at least the Thresher's jokes typically involved sex. Maybe I would enjoy Weisberg's columns better if his Bush quotes were more suggestive...

-Matthew
5.19.2006 3:39pm
anonymous coward:
Slate should definitely provide the link to the Bushism. In this case, the interview is perhaps stranger than the somewhat out-of-context quote. Note, for example, how long it takes before the interviewer is able to ask a question.

This alleged Bushism ("Isn't that interesting?") jumped out at me as pretty funny when I read the entire interview (because of the unfairly maligned "seven-and-a-half pound large mouth bass on my lake" bit later on). So I can't agree context makes this read any better.
5.19.2006 3:39pm
McGehee (never been able to log in) (mail) (www):
How odd that it would be considered "unintellectual" to have only read "three or four books" about George Washington last year.

How many books about George Washington did the "Bushisms" editor read last year?
5.19.2006 3:44pm
Scott W. Somerville (mail) (www):
You've just earned every penny I paid the "Volokh Conspiracy Fund-athon" last time it came by our office. That's an ELEGANT example of the power and value of the blogosphere. Thank you!
5.19.2006 4:54pm
Davebo (mail):

history will eventually prove you right or wrong. But you won't know in the short-term.



George, you've got a 24% approval rating among independants. Trust me, history has spoken.
5.19.2006 4:57pm
Tinhorn (mail):
Nope, I don't buy it. I would buy it if Bush said that his reading 3 or 4 books last year about Washington was interesting -- then the context would let us drill down to see that he did not mean that his reading schedule was interest, but rather that the fact that there are still books about Washington is interesting.

But that's NOT what Bush said. Bush said that he was going to tell us something interesting about George Washington. Now, the fact that there are recent books about George Washington might tell us something interesting about writers, or about modern times, or about capitalism, but it does not tell us something interesting about George Washington. That, IMHO, is the "ism" behind the Bushism. He proposes to tell us something interesting about George Washington, but instead tells us something (perhaps interesting, perhaps not) not about George Washington.
5.19.2006 5:10pm
CJColucci:
Would that this rule had been in effect when Walter Mondale was roasted for saying that "the problem with Ronald Reagan is that I just don't think he's qualified to be President." It is just as true that RR's problem was not what WM thought of him as it is that what's interesting about GW is not that GWB read books about him. Bipartisan cheap shots are good clean fun, though, and I wouldn't want to spoil anyone's good times.
Does anyone know which books GWB was talking about?
5.19.2006 5:14pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
George, you've got a 24% approval rating among independants. Trust me, history has spoken.
Er, you've managed to miss the point entirely. That's not "history." That's the present.

Harry Truman had awful approval ratings also -- but now he's one of the most respected presidents.
5.19.2006 5:20pm
gramm:
Even in the full context, the sentence Slate quotes still reveals Mr. Bush's lack of eloquence and sloppy thinking. Mr. Bush said the interesting thing about George Washington is that Mr. Bush (might have) read all of the three or four books allegedly published about Mr. Washington last year. The sentence is funny because it implies that Mr. Washington is only interesting because of Mr. Bush's activities.

The additional context does not remedy the confusion the opening sentence creates. Perhaps a better introduction to the point Mr. Bush seems to have been trying to make would have been: "One might find it interesting to note that even though George Washington was our FIRST president, and served more than 200 years ago, there were three or four books published about him last year, and I might have read all of them."

In any event, I am sure Mr. Bush would appreciate your stern defense of his intellect, and his failing presidency.
5.19.2006 5:25pm
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
"(B) it would be nice if Slate made a habit of providing links so that readers can more easily check such things for themselves."

Of course, that misses the point -- Slate's writers have no desire that Slate readers will think or investigate for themselves. Slate is simply announcing today's line which readers are to accept blindly.
5.19.2006 5:38pm
eddie (mail):
Even with the context, this is a Bushism. It's irrelevant that Bush mentions that he read three books. Was he looking for an apple from the teacher?

If (as the context provided by the professor is meant to prove) all he was trying to say is the somewhat simple proposition "Only history will be the judge of greatness" then why bring up the folksy "Ya know I read three books about George Washington" [Hahaha]. Is he making fun of himself or history or reading? The Bushism is that he talks as if the audience were three years old and fails at conveying his point anyway. Its as if I were saying to the professor,"You know I read three or four Supreme Court decisions and by gosh I never once read the term Originalist in any of the opinions."

And hidden in all of this polite banter is his estimation that if you do something "big" enough, history will give you a positive review (meaning for Bush that even two hundred years later they'll be talking about you). Many complete failures are still remembered because of the extent of their failure.

Finally, I find it disingenuous that on the one hand Bush declares that he is not interested in the judgment of anyone (neither his contemporaries, the public or even history [see, e.g. his explanation of his low poll numbers as unsettledness over the "war"]) and yet has the hubris to be comparing himself to Washington.

And most importantly, are you really trying to make a case that this President is in the least bit articulate? Methinks thou dost protesteth too much.
5.19.2006 5:39pm
Frank Drackman (mail):
Thats not as bad as when Vice President Al Gore didn't
recognize the statue of George Washington at Mt Vernon.
5.19.2006 5:42pm
byrd (mail):
I think it's interesting that Bush made an obviously silly, navel gazing remark knowing it was such and used it as a platform to make a more interesting point. The Bushism depends entirely on the reader thinking Bush didn't know it was silly and so the quote was carefully edited by Weisberg to mislead his readers.

The people here defending Slate are going to have to try a lot harder. The assertion that it's a Bushism because the interesting thing was not actually about Washington is just stupid. You can't possibly believe that that is what Weisberg was getting at. If it were, he wrecked his own point through clipping the quote, no?
5.19.2006 5:44pm
gab (mail):
Does anybody, anybody really believe that Bush read 3 or 4 books about George Washington last year? Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?
5.19.2006 5:44pm
MnZ (mail):
My advice: One dare not be the slightest bit ironic or self-effacing these days, because certain other people will aways use it to their advantage.

Ignoring my advice: There must be people on this board much smarter than me. They know that, unlike George Washington, people will not debating the Bush presidency after he leaves office, because history has already judged it.
5.19.2006 5:52pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Bush was speaking, not writing. Read the passage again and (1) put the spoken emphasis on "three or four" instead of anywhere else and (2) don't go into it looking for more ammo against Bush. In conversational English, "I read" could easily stand in for "there were" when the speaker is actively putting the vocal emphasis on the number and not his personal reading accomplishments. Whether the turn of phrase was a lie is a different matter.

I'm no big fan of Bush, and don't believe he's particularly well-spoken - but finding smoking gun evidence on that point got rather old a couple of years ago. If people insist on continuing to do it, they should at least get better material than this.
5.19.2006 5:54pm
mls (mail):
The people here defending Slate are going to have to try a lot harder. The assertion that it's a Bushism because the interesting thing was not actually about Washington is just stupid.



Well, count me stupid. I read it as a "That's enough about me, let's talk about you -- what do you think of me?" kind of comment. "That's enough about me, let's talk about George Washington -- isn't it interesting that I was reading about George Washington the other day?"
5.19.2006 6:11pm
CJColucci:
MnZ
But why, oh why, would George Washington be debating the Bush presidency?
5.19.2006 6:20pm
CJColucci:
And with whom? James Buchanan?
5.19.2006 6:21pm
Christopher Cooke:
You guys are just a tad bit sensitive because a President whom you admire has a habit of mangling sentences into unintentionally funny statements. That is all "Bushisms" are: unintentionally funny statements by the President. I think you are sensitive to them because you worry that others will think of you as stupid, if you admire someone whose speech makes him appear to be stupid. Thus, you take great pains to put the Bushisms "in context" and to try to correct the President's sloppy grammar by explaining what he may have meant to say. Lighten up. I don't think Bush is stupid, I think he is just a sloppy speaker. I enjoy the Bushisms and the Kerryisms because they poke fun at important public figures.
5.19.2006 6:30pm
Bisch:
'k, I submit then that Jacob Weisberg use for his next entry, "If they're still analyzing the presidency of George Washington - " Get it?! Bush didn't finish his sentence. Yar har har!

By noting several books within the last year that analyze a 200 year old presidency, he makes a stronger point than just saying "History shall be the judge."
5.19.2006 6:39pm
Christopher Cooke:
I should add, it is obvious to me that President Bush meant to say that he "had read that there were 3 or 4 biographies of George Washington published last year" and mentioned these new biographies in his support of his broader, often repeated point that he doesn't worry how history will judge him or his Presidency, because he has no way of knowing what historians might say about him. I doubt that President Bush read 3 or 4 books last year, much less 3 or 4 on the same topic (Laura, the former librarian, probably read many books last year).
5.19.2006 6:41pm
Redman:
The spoken word is never as precise as the written word. Almost anything that is spoken and transcribed can later be picked to pieces.

There are a lot of lawyers on here. How many of us have read a depo, seen what we said, and found it hard to believe that the transcription was accurate?

I once listed to an oral argument in the 5th Circuit delivered by one of the smartest lawyers I ever knew. Throughout, he continually confused the "appellant" with the "appellee". I guess he was just an idiot, eh?
5.19.2006 6:53pm
Christopher Cooke:
Redman certainly makes a fair point. It is much easier to write something clearly than it is to say something clearly. I have often cringed while reading transcripts of my deposition questions or court appearances, either because my mistakes or those of the court reporter.
5.19.2006 7:05pm
BobN (mail):

So Presidents shouldn't worry about the history. You just can't. You do what you think is right, and if you're thinking big enough, that history will eventually prove you right or wrong. But you won't know in the short-term.


Uh... so the point is to "think big" and not worry that in the long-term you could be utterly wrong?

Gosh, that explains a lot.
5.19.2006 7:27pm
ForestGirl:
I don't like Slate's Bushisms either, but this one is cringe-worthy for its own reason. Bush should take note of a Peggy Noonan (former staunch Bush supporter) WSJ column from last month, in which she commented on presidents reading biographies:

"The president has taken, those around him say, great comfort in biographies of previous presidents. All presidents do this. They all take comfort in the fact that former presidents now seen as great were, in their time, derided, misunderstood, underestimated. No one took the measure of their greatness until later. This is all very moving, but: Message to all biography-reading presidents, past present and future: Just because they call you a jackass doesn't mean you're Lincoln."
5.19.2006 8:06pm
Ken Arromdee:
I don't think Bush is stupid, I think he is just a sloppy speaker.

But not all the people who quote Bushisms are you.
5.19.2006 8:08pm
randal (mail):
Eugene - your Bushism criticizms are my favorite line of entries from you. Rather than posting the context of the quote, Slate ought to post your reaction. Having the context there would, at best, make the quote seem slightly less funny (humor being the whole point of the series). But your analyses... man! They add a whole new dimension of humor.

The fact that you take something as trivial as Slate's Bushisms as seriously as you do (consistently!) is automatically funny. Your ability to totally ignore the humor in favor of spinning up a defense of your president is both cute and ridiculous - always a hilarious combination. Add to that the irony of your being a smart, objective person normally (and one who, being a law type, revels in language gaffes, usage, trends, and techniques), plus the reader's realization that you aren't in on the joke and probably think you're offering a counterpoint... oh my god, that is a winning series if I ever heard of one.
5.20.2006 3:12am
BGates (mail) (www):
Randal - You're thinking of the joke over at Slate. The joke over here is that there are people so desperate to preserve the idea of their own immense intellectual superiority over a man who managed to get elected leader of the free world twice, that they aren't content to laugh at the stuff Bush actually screws up and have to force additional humor by chopping up the president's paragraphs more than he does himself.

The fact that you consider Eugene's posts on the subject serious enough to write about at 2am on a weekend is automatically funny. Your ability to miss the fact that your point of view is being mocked in favor of spinning a view that you're much more perceptive on this point than a law professor who graduated college when he was 15 is both sad and ridiculous.
5.20.2006 4:16am
patrick (mail):
Allen Asch: I've seen that quote from the AG before and if you read the full transcript, it appears that the quote you give is a mis-statement by the AG. This quote is a reference back to his opening statement. In the AG's opening statement, he says:

General Washington, for example, instructed his army to intercept letters between British operatives, copy them and allow those communications to go on their way.

President Lincoln used the warrantless wiretapping of telegraph messages during the Civil War to discern the movements and intentions of opposing troops.



In context, it does appear that the AG merely made a mis-statment about Washington's use of non-electronic surveillance.
5.20.2006 12:08pm
Bob Loblaw (www):

They all take comfort in the fact that former presidents now seen as great were, in their time, derided, misunderstood, underestimated.

ForestGirl - don't you mean misunderestimated?
5.20.2006 3:17pm
CJColucci:
Graduated college at 15? That explains a lot.
5.20.2006 10:57pm
steve (mail):
"Well, here's the 'so what.' You never know what your history is going to be like until long after you're gone."

Perhaps that was the real Bushism.
5.21.2006 7:53am
Jacob (mail):
BGates

Randal - You're thinking of the joke over at Slate. The joke over here is that there are people so desperate to preserve the idea of their own immense intellectual superiority over a man who managed to get elected leader of the free world twice, that they aren't content to laugh at the stuff Bush actually screws up and have to force additional humor by chopping up the president's paragraphs more than he does himself.

Ah, voice of reason (on this one). My least favorite thing about Slate is Bushisms (and at the time, Kerryisms) for pretty much this very reason. I'm completely confident in the intellectual superiority of pretty much everyone who's ever been attached to Slate (as well as everyone I converse with on a regular basis) over our current President. I love that the wittiest, most clever people I know happen to share my leftist political beliefs, and it makes me sad that the type of base humor that is Bushisms gets so much play. That's something Republicans are supposed to laugh at, along with bad puns and Laura Bush's jokes at the Correspondents' Dinner.

That being said, I don't think Slate is really trying to raise the level of debate with Bushisms. It strikes me as something akin to The Daily Show, with the creative editing to make an interview more funny (but again, not as clever). Of course, Slate purports to be actual journalism, so there's less excuse. Maybe if it had a comics (or other lighthearted) section to which it could exile Bushisms I'd be more comfortable with them.
5.22.2006 12:17am
Pete Danko (mail):
Frank Drackman

Thats not as bad as when Vice President Al Gore didn't
recognize the statue of George Washington at Mt Vernon.


It was at Monticello. And the Franklin and Washington busts Gore was said not to recognize were not in Gore's line of vision when he made the remark ("Who are these people?"). Nearer were busts of John Paul Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette. And, looking it the video, it's highly plausible Gore was simply prompting the curator as the group entered the room.
5.22.2006 1:52am