George W. Bush had no trouble naming names when he berated dictators in Burma, Iran and Cuba during his speech on Sept. 25 before the U.N. General Assembly, but when it came time to praise countries like Kyrgyzstan and Mauritania for making strides toward liberty, the president needed help with his pronunciation.
In a copy of the president’s speech that the White House released by mistake, and which appeared briefly on the United Nations web page, Mr. Bush’s speechwriters provided the president with phonetic transcriptions of the hard words KEYRgeez-stan and moor-EH-tain-ee-a, along with cues to help him denounce Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (moo-GAHbee), and the Harare (hah-RAR-ray) government.
George Bush, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 25, 2007, needed help with pronouncing the hard words
It’s not unusual for public speakers to mark up their text with cues to aid their delivery. But our politicians are so convinced that the linguistic transformation of Eliza Doolittle from inarticulate flower girl to “rain-in-Spain-falls-mainly-on-the-plain” socialite in “My Fair Lady” will help them in their own efforts to morph from prairie oysters (TERD blahsumz) into master orators, that they line the waiting rooms of the descendants of poor professor Higgins (EN-ree IG-inz), seeking dialect transplants that their health insurance still considers experimental.
Nor is it surprising that the president got help with his U.N. speech. Bush has a history of mangling his English. He trips over difficult names like Abu Ghraib, says OPEC at an APEC meeting, and coins new catch phrases like “I’m the decider.”
To compensate, the president's coaches have encouraged him to talk in short bursts of three or four words, leaving plenty of time between phrases to breathe, read the teleprompter, or rehearse the lines his handlers transmit to his earpiece. But that doesn't always work. Just two days after the U.N. speech, Bush celebrated the success of his No Child Left Behind initiative by telling a group of New York City teachers, "childrens do learn." The official transcript of the talk that was released by the White House cleaned up the text, but unlike the U.N. speech, it was later restored to preserve an accurate record of the president's remarks.
Critics charged that the rectangular bulge in George Bush’s suit during this 2004 debate with Democratic rival John Kerrey was evidence that the president was wearing a wire and being fed his lines by an advisor
The endless stream of Bushisms has been welcome fodder for TV comedians. But now that support for the president’s Middle East policies is waning dramatically, he hopes to declare “mission accomplished” on the linguistic front.
We know from No Child Left Behind that George Bush is hooked on phonics, and sprinkling his U.N. speech with pronunciation cues shows that the president is trying to improve his own reading skills using the method endorsed by his Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings.
But as reading teachers know, while phonics may help children negotiate new and unfamiliar words, that method is no substitute for understanding what those words mean in context. Perfecting his articulation of difficult words won’t help the president to understand the big picture.
The inadequacies of phonics aren’t really at issue, because it turns out that Pres. Bush is not totally committed to the phonics method. Not all the difficult words in his speech were phoneticized for him, only a few of them. This suggests that the president only wants to pronounce some words right, not all of them.
That’s why he continues to say EYE-rack, why he echoes his father’s pronunciation of sa-DAMM, and why in his speech at the U.N he repeatedly referred to human rights violations in Burma, not Myanmar, the official name of the country since 1989. Although Bush mentioned EYE-ran in his examples of brutally repressive regimes, his speechwriters wisely left out Ahmadinejad, a pronunciation hurdle that even the president’s critics haven’t been able to get past.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also addressed the opening session of the U.N. Although “democratically-elected” by the ayatollahs, the president of Iran (EEE-ron, not EYE-ran) was castigated at an earlier speaking engagement by Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, for wanting to remove words like Israel and Holocaust from dictionaries, geographies, and history books, not to mention redefining homosexuality out of Iran.
Once the White House discovered they had put the wrong speech on line, the annotated version was taken down and replaced with a sanitized one. But it was too late to rescue the president’s linguistic reputation. Reporters and bloggers were already asking why, after palling around Kennebunkport with his new best friend, Nicholas Sarkozy, only a month before, Mr. Bush had to be reminded to call the current president of France “sar-KOzee” instead of one of the nicknames that Bush is known to favor, like “Nicky Truffles,” “Freedom Fries,” or “Frogman.”