The Truth, Mainly - 06/06/2005

Let's get off the President's back
by Leon Satterfield

Okay, I admit it: I'm beginning to feel sorry for President Bush.

The poor guy keeps wrestling with the English language—and losing. I feel sorry for him because in my dotage I too find myself wrestling with the language and losing. The difference is that I don't lose on national television, and nobody really expects a doddering old retired English teacher to make much sense anyway.

But we get antsy when our President—the guy in charge of pulling our national trigger—says things he can't possibly mean.

At a news conference last Tuesday, he said he isn't worried about Congress' reluctance to change Social Security because "Things don't happen instantly in Washington. I've been around here long enough now to tell you it's just—and tell the people listening—things just don't happen overnight."

And to show what he meant, he said this: "It's just like water cutting through a rock. It's just a matter of time. We're just going to keep working and working and working."

It makes you wonder if the President ever watched water cutting through a rock. It takes centuries. Can't happen in three and a half years.

Okay, so he's exaggerating a little.

But it's as if he doesn't know he's going to be quoted directly—or thinks Karl Rove can somehow edit his words after he's said them.

Or consider what he said a few minutes later about an Amnesty International charge that the Guantanamo Bay detention cages—where we send people without trial—constitute "the gulag of our times."

The President said the charge is "absurd." He said "It seemed like to me they based some of their decision on the word of and allegations by people that were held in detention, people who hate America, people that have been trained in some instances to disassemble. That means not to tell the truth."

But the poor guy got it wrong. "Disassemble" is the opposite of "assemble" and it means to take things apart. He meant "dissemble"—which does mean not to tell the truth.

It's the kind of mistake you might expect from a college freshman or a senile retired English teacher. But the President is in his 50s—his intellectual prime—and holds degrees from Yale and Harvard. So he gets ridiculed, not just for using the wrong word but for being condescending to the reporters by telling them what the word would have meant had he said the word he meant to say.

And others ridicule him for finding the Amnesty International charge "absurd" to begin with.

Given the photos of how some inmates were treated at Abu Ghraib—you remember the naked pyramids, the dog leashes—why, the critics ask, would the President find it "absurd" for some people to believe the Guantanamo inmates were also mistreated?

The poor guy just can't win.

Vice-President Cheney has tried to help. He told Larry King last week that "Frankly, I was offended…. For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don't take them seriously."

And Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said the A.I. charge was "absolutely irresponsible."

So you'd think that if the Vice President and the General don't take the A.I. charge seriously, none of the rest of us should either.

But the generally conservative blogger, Andrew Sullivan, wrote last week that "the evidence of abuse…is now simply indisputable…the administration's essential defense now is that all the abuse was a result of military insubordination, i.e. that it was not in control of its own soldiers. So you get to pick between a deliberate legal choice of abuse or incompetence on an epic scale. But if it was incompetence, why have none of the architects been fired? In fact, they've been rewarded…. The next time a U.S. soldier is captured and tortured, we will have very little credibility in complaining."

Even more seriously, the President's approval rating has fallen to only 43 percent in the Pew Research Center poll and to 46 percent in the CBS poll.

But please—don't conclude from all this that the President lacks compassion. He's come to the defense of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, who was convicted last month of fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to nine years in prison.

"It looked," the President said, "like he had been judged guilty prior to having a fair trial."

So how's that as an example of Christian compassion? And don't give me that left-wing line that the Bush compassion follows only the money and the oil.

Just lay off. Okay?


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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