Language is a circleous rout to making scents
You know what I’m enjoying more than I thought I would?
Hearing a president (OK, president-elect) speak in complete, clear sentences.
You remember sentences, those strings of words you used to hear arranged in logical sequence, with a noun, a verb and a . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?
Point, that’s it: a logical sequence of words with a noun, a verb and a point.
Our departing president isn’t long on those.
His sentences themselves often are long—sometimes they go on and on, deeper into the woods with every thought that strikes him. Often, though, a sentence lacks a point. Sometimes they go the other way, with so many points, some visible only to the speaker, that listeners give up, shake their heads and start counting the days.
Too much has been written about George W. Bush’s linguistic struggles. As his fans have maintained, foggy expression doesn’t necessarily indicate foggy thought, though in this case I think it did.
But it’s reassuring, isn’t it, to hear Barack Obama begin a sentence, navigate the treacherous middle and arrive at the end without having deviated from his original purpose? That he also doesn’t put verbs in disagreement with subjects, mispronounce words or invent his own when the generally accepted ones don’t suit him is a welcome bonus.
Call me a nitpicker, but I couldn’t develop much confidence in a leader who said, “Is our children learning?” or “There’s no question this [earthquake in China] is a major human disaster that requires a strong response from the Chinese government . . . but it also responds a compassionate response from nations to whom—that have got the blessings, good blessings of life, and that’s us.”
Or these, some famous, some obscure:
“They misunderestimated me.”
“And so in my State of the—my State of the Union—or state—my speech to the nation, whatever you want to call it, speech to the nation—I asked Americans to give 4,000 years—4,000 hours over the next—the rest of your life—of service to America. That’s what I asked—4,000 hours.”
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”
“Will the highways on the internet become more few?”
All of us make verbal mistakes; my radio show is a living, expanding monument to that. Those quotes, though, may tell us something about the president: They seem to indicate not just a tongue-trip, but a lack of understanding of the words coming out of his own mouth.
A once-common criticism you don’t hear much now that we’re used to him is still valid: When he gets off the script, he’s lost. Multiply these fumbles by hundreds, apply them even to common words and phrases, and you get—what?
That’s a puzzle. If I could travel 50 years into the future, one of the things I’d like to bring back is a historian’s biography: “Worst President Ever: The Mystifying Ascent of George W. Bush.” Since he first ran for governor in Texas, and an Austin-based friend tipped me to the hard-partying Yalie frat rat who dared to presume he could knock off Ann Richards, I’ve watched and listened to Bush with wonder, puzzlement, anger, disgust, frustration and near-utter despair at the thought that so many people could be fooled for so long.
Not much longer, though. Soon, when the president speaks, he won’t sound like a combination of Mrs. Malaprop, the Rev. William Spooner, Foghorn Leghorn and Yoda. Whoopee.