The Bush Dyslexicon:

Observations on a National Disorder

by Mark Crispin Miller


Published by: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Current Events/Politics
Publication Date: June 2002
Page Count: 370 pages (paperback)
ISBN: 0-393-32296-3
Reviewed: August 2002

        I picked up The Bush Dyslexicon solely because of its witty title, expecting a book on political humor. It turned out to be much more than that. While it is often hilarious, at its heart, this intriguing, controversial book is dead serious. It's not just an anti-Bush book. Rather, Miller uses the example of the 43rd President of the United States to illustrate his main point: that democracy in the United States is in fundamental danger, if it isn't lost already. He places the blame not with a "vast right-wing conspiracy," but with the media, especially television.

        The Bush Dyslexicon first appeared in hardcover in May of 2001. The paperback version has a new preface and postscript, added by Miller in the aftermath of 9/11. The cover advertises "substantial new material," and there is; over a hundred pages in this book are previously unpublished.

        The book's first section, "Look Who's Talking," is a brief history of the Presidency, television and politics. Bush II is placed in historical context, as the most illiterate of our Presidents. Miller claims that four Presidents were masters of television: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton. The camera loved them, and love is blind. But Bush II lacks this ease with television, as did his literal and political forebears, George H. W. Bush and Richard Nixon. As a result, he often reveals things he doesn't intend to reveal.

        Miller argues, convincingly, that Bush, like most of us, is uncomfortable lying. When he says things he doesn't really feel, it shows, in both his body language and in his mangling of English. The truth tends to slip out unintentionally - for example, saying "Education is not my top priority," when he meant to say that it was. But when he talks about something he truly cares about - baseball, his ranch in Crawford, executing criminals - he's perfectly articulate, even a bit poetic. This is a fascinating observation, and the key Miller uses to analyze Bush in the rest of the book.

        The next section, "The Madness of King George," is largely made up of quotes from Bush Sr. Miller argues that father and son share a tendency toward verbal gaffes, and that it was only Dan Quayle's even greater illiteracy that saved Bush Sr. from a reputation like his son's. He also argues that Bush Jr.'s personality is much like his dad's, as is unintentionally revealed by their own words.

        The bulk of the book is the third section, "The Young Pretender." It's largely comprised of quotes from Bush the Younger on a variety of topics: religion, abortion, foreign policy, education, and more. Most are notable for their sheer meaninglessness. (For example, when asked during the campaign about the threat of foreign terrorism, Bush promised he would "use our technology to enhance our uncertainties abroad.") Miller analyzes these, and the media response to them, and comes up with a picture of a man who is far different from the good-natured fool the press has shown us, and a media watchdog that is more like a lapdog.

        George W. Bush, he claims, is as thin-skinned, vengeful, and unfeeling as his real father, Bush Sr., and his political father, Richard Nixon. And he is most certainly not a fool. He is ignorant, despite his expensive Ivy League education, and, even worse, doesn't care that he's ignorant. But he's far from stupid.

        So how did a man who thought the Taliban was a band become President? By using TV to advantage. Miller scoffs at the notion of the media having a "liberal bias," claiming that the high salaries of TV talking heads and the fact that television is increasingly dominated by huge corporations has actually made the media more conservative than the average viewer, at least on fiscal matters. But he also argues that there's little space between the positions of Democrats and Republicans these days. The media isn't biased in favor of Republicans, at least not grossly so. Rather, it's biased in favor of the shallow, quick story. Today's media conglomerates care more about ratings and the bottom line than they do about public service or truth. TV journalists, Miller says, are so caught up in their superficial world that they are blind to how very superficial it is. Hence, the televised Presidential debates were decided not on the issues, nor on the arguments presented, but on who appeared to be more likable. A shallow candidate like Bush was a natural match for a superficial medium like television.

        And in case you're wondering if Miller has changed his mind since 9/11 - no, he has not. The new 30- page preface, entitled "Now More Than Ever," argues that the attacks did not transform Bush, nor did they reveal anything new about him. Miller concedes that Bush was a bit more articulate once the "war on terrorism" was launched, but he reminds us that Bush always expressed himself clearly when the subject was anger or vengeance. (Unlike Clinton or even Giuliani, Bush seemed unable to express sorrow or compassion, but he was convincing when it came to anger.) Miller argues that Bush's "transformation" after 9/11 was yet another media creation. It's natural to rally around the President in a time of crisis, and we so wanted Bush to be a good leader that we saw him as one, even though he was mediocre at best. And the media gave us what we wanted, depicting Bush as the second coming of Winston Churchill, and ignoring his usual gaffes.

        But gaffes there were, and Miller documents them in the last section of the book, the "Year One" postscript. The 70-plus pages of new Bush quotes here show that Bush post-9/11 was indeed the same as Bush pre-9/11. (Perhaps most flabbergasting is the last quote in the book, dated December 21, 2001, where Bush says, "But all in all, it's been a fabulous year for Laura and me.")

        Miller is not unbiased, but then, he doesn't pretend to be. He admits to voting for Nader in the 2000 election, and it's clear that this book was written quickly, while his outrage over what happened in Florida was burning hot. It might have been more effective if he'd taken a little more time, and toned it down a bit. But his analysis is intelligent and careful, occasionally even brilliant, and the quotes are complete, accurate, and thoroughly documented.

        Miller obviously loves the written word, and uses it thoughtfully and well. His prose is eloquent, entertaining, and often quite witty. He has a knack for topical and expressive metaphors. (For example, he compares Dick Cheney, hovering in the background of Bush's press conferences, with Britney Spears' mom, and a White House that espouses values it doesn't live by with Enron.)

        Bush fans aren't going to like this book. Nevertheless, every American should read it. Having a press that only tells us what we want to hear is as alarming as having no free press at all. As Miller says, "Regardless of your views - on Bush or Clinton, Gore or Nader, Republicans or Democrats, or none of the above - some things are true, and some are not, and any nation that can't tell the difference is in big trouble."

Related Link:

Brain Drain (an essay in which Miller comments on reaction to The Bush Dyslexicon)