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Stereotypes run amok:
Slate's misleading "Bushisms" and "Kerryisms"

By Ben Fritz
June 15, 2004

George W. Bush has a habit of mangling his words. John Kerry tends to speak at length when simpler phrasing might suffice.

Both of these statements are true. There's plenty of evidence to back them up. But as Bush's verbal miscues and Kerry's longwindedness have become ongoing narratives in coverage of the two men, reporters have often misconstrued the candidates' statements in order to create more evidence that supposedly fits these stereotypes.

As critics such as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh have shown, that's the problem with Slate's series of "Bushisms," which the website describes as a compilation of "the President's accidental wit and wisdom," and "Kerryisms," in which "the Senator's caveats and curlicues" are "translated into plain English." "Bushisms," compiled by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, has highlighted plenty of grammatical errors by the President, some of which are humorous or noteworthy. However, the series has also frequently taken the President's words out of context to make reasonable statements seem nonsensical, grammatically incorrect or even offensive. In the short life of "Kerryisms," writer Will Saletan has revealed a similarly disturbing habit of turning the Massachusetts Senator's words into "plain English" by stripping out words that are key to his meaning. And while it would hardly excuse these distortions, neither series even provides links to let readers check the context of the quotes for themselves.

There's nothing inherently wrong with making fun of the candidates, but even while engaging in satire, political journalists still have a responsibility to not mislead their audience. A review of these two features shows that Weisberg and Saletan have unfairly distorted the words of Bush and Kerry in the search for evidence that fits their pre-established storylines.

Bogus "Bushisms"

The most recent example of an inaccurate "Bushism" shows how Weisberg frequently misconstrues the President's words. At a May 25 event with men who had been given prosthetic hands to replace the ones cut off by Saddam Hussein's regime, Bush said, "I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein." Since the men had prosthetic hands, it's clear what the President meant. But in a "Bushism", Weisberg presented the quote out of context, making it appear nonsensical. (Despite criticism by Spinsanity and many others, the item has not yet been corrected.)

A look back at "Bushisms" contained in Slate's online compendium and Weisberg's new book, The Deluxe Election-Edition Bushisms, shows the same bad habit at work again and again.

"Bushism": "I think if you know what you believe, it makes it a lot easier to answer questions. I can't answer your question."-In response to a question about whether he wished he could take back any of his answers in the first debate. Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Oct. 4, 2000

Context: As a National Public Radio report from the next day made clear, Bush first answered the question by joking, "I wasn't trying to reinvent or invent. I just tried to speak as plainly as I possibly could. Sometimes, you know, I might mangle a 'syl-a-bel' occasionally." He then made the statement quoted above. In context, it's clear that Bush's first sentence referred to his answers to questions at the debate, and that the second meant that he was confident in those answers and did not wish to take any of them back.

"Bushism": "First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren't necessarily killers. Just because you happen to be not rich doesn't mean you're willing to kill."-Washington, D.C., May 19, 2003

Context: Just reading Slate, it looks like Bush was making the obvious point that not all poor people are murderers. But his statement makes sense in the context of his May 2003 press conference with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal. The two leaders were talking about the threat of terrorism, which Macapagal had previously said was connected to poverty. Later, when a reporter asked Bush about "the poverty problem," the President explained that he doesn't believe ending poverty will end terrorism:

And the poverty problem - listen, this nation is committed to dealing with poverty. First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren't necessarily killers. Just because you happen to be not rich doesn't mean you're willing to kill. And so it's important to understand - people are susceptible to the requirement by these extremists, but I refuse to put a - put killers into a demographic category based upon income. After all, a lot of the top al-Qaida people were comfortable middle-class citizens. And so one of the things you've got to do is to make sure we distinguish between hate and poverty.

"Bushism": "And, yes, we're always interested in dealing with people who have harmed American citizens." -Washington, D.C., February 25, 2002 (in book only)

Context: This "Bushism" would only be illogical if the President meant "working with" when he said "dealing with." But it's very obvious that he didn't.

The quote comes from an event in which he was asked by a reporter about Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan: "Mr. President, are you satisfied with Pakistan's response in the Daniel Pearl case? And is the United States interested in pursuing or indicting the primary suspect that's now in custody there?" The President responded:

I am satisfied with the response of President Musharraf and the Pakistani government. I got a phone call from him when I was flying back from China, and I could tell from the tone of his voice how distraught he was, how disturbed he was that this barbaric act had taken place in his country. He knew full well that those killers did not represent the vast, vast majority of the people in his own country. And he vowed to me on the phone that he would do everything in his power to chase down the killers and bring them to justice. And, yes, we're always interested in dealing with people who have harmed American citizens.

The "Bushism," obviously came in response to the reporter's second question. And "dealing with" refers to "pursuing or indicting" the suspect, as the reporter said. The President actually meant the opposite of what Weisberg's "Bushism" implies.

Bushism: "Maybe she'll be able to join us in Florida. If not, she can clean out her room." - On the recovery of his daughter Jenna from an appendectomy, December 26, 2000 (in book only)

Context: While it's not clear exactly what the error is in this "Bushism," Weisberg appears to be implying that Bush was saying his daughter would be punished and have to clean her room if she couldn't recover quickly enough. But an Associated Press report from December 27 made clear that President Bush was simply telling a joke:

Jenna Bush was released from St. David's Medical Center late yesterday, Johndroe said. She left the hospital with her mother by her side.
It was possible she would join the family in Florida, Bush said.
"If not, she can clean out her room," he joked.

Bushism: "I do think we need for a troop to be able to house his family. That's an important part of building morale in the military."-Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, March 12, 2001

Context: On its own, this statement looks like another statement of the obvious. But in context, the President was discussing the need for more military housing.

While touring the home of Air Force Senior Airman Donnie Bryant, Bush was talking about a new initiative to help ensure that adequate housing for members of the military. "That's one of the reasons I've come to your house, to highlight my initiative that I look forward to working with the Air Force on and base commanders all around the country, to refurbish housing and build new housing. I do think we need for a troop to be able to house his family. That's an important part of building morale in the military." It seemed to make sense to Bryant, who responded, "Yes, sir, it is."

Bushism: "I'm thrilled to be here in the bread basket of America because it gives me a chance to remind our fellow citizens that we have an advantage here in America-we can feed ourselves."-Stockton, Calif., Aug. 23, 2002

Context: It's apparent from even this quote that Bush meant that the U.S. can produce enough food to feed all of its citizens, not that citizens are adults who can eat food without help.

The President's next sentences made this meaning even more clear: "And we've always got to be able to do that. It puts us in a -- it gives us a strategic advantage, a strategic edge. Imagine if we were going around the world asking for food. It would put the President in a pretty tough position. (Laughter.) They may want to bargain a little high. (Laughter)"

"Whoops!" Weisberg did it again

"The Deluxe Election-Edition Bushisms" also includes a series of original "whoops!" quotes in which Weisberg claims to catch Bush making factual errors. But several of them aren't evidence of dishonesty by the President. It's Weisberg who has his facts or his assumptions wrong.

For instance, he quotes the President saying of the national service program AmeriCorps in his 2002 State of the Union address, "These good works deserve our praise. "They deserve the assistance of the federal government." In a "reality check," Weisberg writes, "President Bush has not asked Congress for any new Americorps funding." However, Bush's phrasing did not imply that new funding was forthcoming. In addition, he actually signed into law an expansion of AmeriCorps as part of the 2004 omnibus appropriations bill and proposed a nine percent increase in funding for AmeriCorps' parent organization, the Corporate for National and Community Service, in his fiscal year 2005 budget, which was released in February of this year, two months before the release of Weisberg's book.

One "Whoops!" feature even admits that the Bush statement in question was accurate. Weisberg notes that Bush said in a Republican presidential primary debate on January 26 of 2000, "Our SAT scores have improved since I've been the governor. You need to get your researchers to do a better job." The author then counters that the mean SAT 1 score in Texas rose from 990 in 1994 to 993 in 1999, but points out that "relative to the rest of the country, Texas's SAT scores actually decreased" because the national average went up by 13 points. That's notable, but not proof that Bush was dishonest.

Similarly, Weisberg claims to refute a December 13, 1999 assertion by Bush that, "I've got a record not of rhetoric, but a record of results. In my state, I led our state to the two biggest tax cuts in the state's history." He admits that the tax cuts took place, pointing instead to an increase in the sales tax and other taxes Bush signed into law in 1997. This may be noteworthy, but it is not evidence that what Bush said was wrong.

There are also a number of "Whoops!" statements that are simple declarations of priorities or value judgments, not factual assertions that can be disproven. Among those for which Weisberg provides a "reality check" are "We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September 11," "[US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Charles] Pickering has got a very strong record on civil rights," and "My administration is promoting free and fair trade, to open up new markets for America's entrepreneurs and manufacturers and farmers, and to create jobs for America's workers."

"Kerryisms": more of the same

In his new "Kerryisms" feature, Will Saletan puts what he considers to be "caveats and pointless embellishments" by John Kerry into footnotes, thus supposedly translating his statements into "plain English." The Slate writer doesn't only remove unnecessary words and qualifiers, however. He often removes important details of answers that are more complex than his supposed translations lead readers to believe.

In a representative example from May 18, Saletan amends Kerry's words as follows (each bracketed footnote in the quote below marks a word, phrase or sentence that he has removed):

Question: "What is your position on Bush's fight to ban gay marriages?" Kerry: "I believe that the President[1] should not use the Constitution[2] for election purposes[3]. It's a document that we haven't touched[4] in years, and I don't think it should be used for the purpose of driving a political wedge through America. I think it's wrong.[5][6][7][8][9]"

As Volokh noted, footnotes 5-9 outline Kerry's full position on gay marriage, in which he says, "Now, that said, I personally have taken the position I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. That's my position, and I think that's the way you respect both traditional values. But you can allow civil unions, which protects the rights of people in America not to be discriminated against. And I think you can balance that, and I think it's appropriate to. But I do think that it ought to be left to the states." This is an important part of an answer to a question about how he views the President's actions on the issue. Cutting it out as a "caveat" or "pointless embellishment" is absurd.

The June 3 "Kerryism" had the same problem. Here's Saletan's footnoted edit:

Question: "Does the Kerry administration care if I want to take a trip to Cuba some time?" Kerry: "[1][2][3][4]I'm not for lifting the embargo. I think we ought to keep the embargo in place. I think we ought to continue to find ways to push Castro to change.[5]"-Portland, Ore., May 25, 2004

Volokh again showed that the footnotes change Kerry's meaning. Footnote 5 says, "But I am in favor of allowing cultural exchanges and travel." Given that the question was about taking a trip to Cuba, this is a direct response, not a verbal embellishment.

And on June 8, the edited "Kerryism" read:

Kerry: "[1][2][3]I think you ought to have a certain amount of time to collect your own recollections, write your own history[4], but I think it's basically the property of the American people, and it ought to fast be put available in a library[5]."
Question: "By the way, it makes me want to ask, I read-" Kerry: "[interjects] [6][7][8][9]."-C-SPAN interview, June 3, 2004, on public access to presidential records

Just what were footnotes 6-9? Kerry actually said: "With the exception, obviously, of national security pieces, or something that's critical to, you know, protect some source or method or something." It hardly seems extraneous to note that information important to national security shouldn't be released to the public as quickly as other parts of a president's records.

Many of the rest of the "Kerryisms" have the same problem. While they do remove unnecessary words, they also excise a number of points that are relevant to Kerry's specific meaning.

Those who live in glass houses...

These examples demonstrate that the magazine's efforts to mock Bush and Kerry for their supposed verbal missteps has led Slate to take quotes so far out of context as to essentially engage in outright dishonesty. Weisberg and Saletan seem so eager to find quotes that fit their established storylines that they don't pay enough attention to whether the examples are actually valid.

Given Slate's prestige and influence, these columns matter. Even more disturbingly, in the introduction to the new "Bushisms" book, Weisberg takes his collected quotes as evidence of the President doesn't know much and doesn't care to learn. "Bush may look like a well-meaning dolt," the Slate editor writes. "On consideration, he's something far more dangerous: a dedicated fool."

Those who live in glass houses shouldn't so casually toss around accusations of laziness and intellectual disinterest.

Update 6/17 9:53 AM EST: A shorter version of this column appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer today.

Update 6/22/04 9:34 PM EST: We didn't offer a possible interpretation of Slate's "Bushism" regarding the Bush quote, "I do think we need for a troop to be able to house his family. That's an important part of building morale in the military." As an alert reader noted, "troop" is properly plural, referring to a group of soldiers. Thus, the President's use of "his" and the singular "family" is a grammatical error, which Jacob Weisberg may have intended to point out in his "Bushism."

Clarification 6/23/04 3:30 PM EST: This article should have made more clear that Saletan provides Kerry's full quotation below the edited version or on a separate sidebar page. We should have also noted that he changed the instructions for reading a "Kerryism" from the original version, which claimed to translate the candidate's statements into "plain English," to this more limited version.

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Related links:
-Bush statement about amputee misconstrued (Brendan Nyhan, 6/2/04)
-The spread of a phony Bushism (Brendan Nyhan, 3/11/03)

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