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October 17, 2004 - Bush's Brain and all that....

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Percolating all over the political commentary sites and in the magazines of that ilk over the last several weeks?  Explaining the president.  James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly (see below) started it off with a discussion of the relative debating skills of the president and his opponent, John Kerry.  After the first two debates it was clear Bush wasn’t very good at it – stumbling through sentences, offering incomplete thoughts, drifting off topic then getting oddly angry.  What’s up with that?


Fallows points out that looking at old tapes of Bush ten years ago show he wasn’t like that at all.  He was coherent and forceful, and in command of the facts at hand.


Something changed?


Brad DeLong – the noted economist at UC Berkeley – reviews what folks are saying to explain this -

As you may remember, I advanced four theories to explain what James Fallows reported as a striking deterioration in George W. Bush's speaking skills:  

    1. George Lakoff's theory: it's deliberate--these days George W. Bush wants to sound more like John Wayne.
    2. Kate O'Beirne's theory: George W. Bush is out of practice, because nobody has dared contradict him to his face for four years.
    3. The "worried man" theory: George W. Bush knows he has messed up badly, and is scared, and it shows.
    4. The "organic brain damage" theory: something is going badly wrong inside George W. Bush's brain--perhaps the result of lots of substance abuse in his youth.

Now we have a short sample of George W. Bush then and now. Based on this sample theories (1) and (2) seem impossible: nobody would undertake such a shift deliberately, and it's much more than just being out of practice.


That leaves (3) and (4).  Three (3) is, I think, most probable. It's monkey pack dominance politics. A monkey that knows it has messed up acts submissive. George W. Bush knows that he has messed up badly. He's not a good enough actor to hide all the cues of the submissiveness that this realization generates. And the result is what we see.


Four (4) however does remain a possibility. Ann Marie is terrorizing the Eleven-Year-Old and the Fourteen-Year-Old, saying that people who drink themselves skunk-blind and snort enough cocaine to elevate the Queen Mary wind up like George W. Bush in their 50s. I'm told that Chris Rock used to have a routine about how hard it was to raise teenagers in DC when Marion Barry was mayor: "You tell your kids, 'You smoke crack, you don't study, you spend all your time chasing women, and what can you do?' 'Well, I could be mayor!'" This is very much the same: it's really embarrassing answering their questions about why anyone would vote for this guy to be president.

So what is this fourth theory?  See this: 


September 18, 2004—In a letter to the editor of Atlantic Monthly, October 2004, Joseph M. Price, M.D. of Carsonville, Michigan, comments that James Fallows' July/August Atlantic article on John Kerry's debating skills ("When George Meets John"), "was interesting, but most remarkable was Fallows's documentation of President [sic] Bush's mostly overlooked changes over the past decade—specifically 'the striking decline in his sentence-by-sentence speaking skills.'" Dr. Price understands Fallows' initial "speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President's [sic] peculiar mode of speech, a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder."


Quoting Fallows, Dr. Carson also agrees with him that "The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate." Yet, Dr. Carson stated he felt "that something organic was wrong with President [sic] Bush, most probably dyslexia, but . . . was unaware of what Fallows pointed out so clearly: that Bush's problems have been developing slowly, and that just a decade ago he was an articulate debater." He was as Fallows said, "artful indeed in steering questions and challenges to his desired subjects . . . [one] who did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones." As Dr. Carson suggests, "Consider, in contrast, the present: 'the informal Q&A he has tried to avoid,' 'Bush's recent faltering performances,' 'his stalling, defensive pose when put on the spot,' 'speaking more slowly and less gracefully.'"


Dr. Price suggests that "not being a professional medical researcher and clinician, Fallows cannot be faulted for not putting two and two together. But he was 100 percent correct in suggesting that Bush's problem cannot be 'a learning disability, a reading problem, [or] dyslexia,' because patients with those problems have always had them." The doctor. goes on to say, "Slowly developing cognitive deficits, as demonstrated so clearly by the President [sic], can represent only one diagnosis, and that is 'presenile dementia'! Presenile dementia is best described to nonmedical persons as a fairly typical Alzheimer's situation that develops significantly earlier in life, well before what is usually considered old age."


Dr. Carson adds, "It [presenile dementia] runs about the same course as typical senile dementias, such as classical Alzheimer's—to incapacitation and, eventually, death, as with President Ronald Reagan, but at a relatively earlier age." Dr. Carson adds, " President [sic] Bush's 'mangled' words are a demonstration of what physicians call 'confabulation,' and are almost specific to diagnosis of a true dementia." His advice: "Bush should immediately be given the advantage of a considered professional diagnosis, and started on drugs that offer the possibility of retarding the slow but inexorable course of the disease."


As the son of an Alzheimer's victim who passed at 80, I might add that my father exhibited some of Bush's recently reported explosive behaviors, starting at least 15 years earlier. This along with an inflexibility of opinion and attitude, a kind of relentless insistence that he was on the right side (not just the Republican right) of every issue we discussed. It was a set of behaviors that eventually made it almost impossible to speak with him, and led to his wife [my stepmother] leaving him, leaving myself as his sole caregiver. Ironically, it was only in this state of aloneness and incapacitation that he had some recognition of a very deep problem and that his survival depended on accepting medical care, accepting the medication that ameliorated some of his behaviors, and accepting me as a friend not the enemy.


As a layman and admittedly a liberal, I see in Bush, and in the Republican will to dominance, i.e. "new world order", an eerie echo of my own father's behavior.  As a writer, not a psychologist or psychiatrist, I see in each case the need to control, generated by some deeper fear, anxiety or insecurity. In my father's case that need was generated largely by my father's father, who was an alcoholic, and kept the family in a state of agitated imbalance for decades. Even years after my grandfather was deposed by his sons as the head of the family, he remained an alcoholic and a disturbing presence for all. It's not surprising that my grandmother, a gentle, accepting woman, passed some 13 years before my grandfather did, at the age of 65, of her first and only heart attack, simply worn out.


I offer this information, painful as it is to remember, for whatever light the personal life can shed on political life.  And I might add, in the anger, the sheer hate and viciousness of the Grand Old Party's behavior, I see hardly anything grand, but rather obsessively self-aggrandizing to the point of pathology. I am fully aware there are those who would say this is what it takes to survive in politics and in the world. I see it as a giant step back in our development, both as a nation and a species. It would be wonderful to move forward in a somewhat more humane atmosphere, one that would mitigate the contagion of anger and hate that has spread to the world. With all our differences, we are still one human family, sharing a physiology, consciousness, a need for love and safety, the need to procreate and protect our young, and to relish the joys of the immediate as well as the extended family, our brothers and sisters of the world.


If this seems like a foolish optimism, a soft-toothed liberal pipedream, consider the alternatives, which we are living every day. The proliferation of war, of weapons of mass destruction, of divisive fundamentalism (east and west), of aggressive unilateralism as opposed to a binding multilateralism. The end game on this Grand Chessboard is not a Pax Americana (an American Empire) as envisioned first by Zbigniew Brzezinski and now by PNAC (the Project for the New American Century), but a world in shambles, pocked by pocket wars, decimated by regional and national poverty and disease, a world of haves and have-nots, walled in or walled out by mutual fear and disrespect. Rather than crossing the human divides, we are widening them, like so many tribes stranded on ice floes in a roiling ocean. If we are to survive as a species we need to reach a common higher ground. The right choice, like voting or not, like which candidate is the sane one to vote for, is ours, and at this point not just a privilege, but an existential necessity.


I don’t know nothing about no existential necessity, but the theory has its appeal –


Here is some of what Fallows says in The Atlantic Online, July/August 2004, When George Meets John -


The Bush on this [1994] tape was almost unrecognizable—and not just because he looked different from the figure we are accustomed to in the White House.... This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled... fewer words than most people would in an hour's debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. "To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so," he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles....


Bush calmly said, "I think this is a diversion away from talking about the issues that face Texas"—which led him right back to the items on his stump speech ("I want to discuss welfare, education. I want to discuss the juvenile-justice system..."). When talking about schools he said, "I think the mission in education ought to be excellence in literature, math, science, and social science"—an ordinary enough thought, but one delivered with an offhand fluency I do not remember his ever showing at a presidential press conference. When Richards was asked about permitting casino gambling, she replied with a convoluted, minutes-long answer with details about Indian tribal rights. Bush, when asked the same question, had simply said, "I'm against casino gambling"—and when asked, after Richards's discourse, if he wanted to elaborate, said, "Not really."... The man on the debate platform looked and sounded smart and in control....


I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape—but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley.... Lakoff confirmed that everything about Bush's surface style was different. His choice of words, the pace of his speech, the length and completeness of his sentences, all made him sound like another person. Even his body language was surprising. When he was younger, Bush leaned toward the camera and did not fidget or shift his weight. He arched his eyebrows and positioned his mouth in a way that, according to Lakoff, signifies in all languages an intense, engaged form of speech. Lakoff also emphasized that what had changed in Bush's style was less important than what had remained the same. Bush's ways of appealing to his electoral base, of demonstrating resolve and strength, of deflecting rather than rebutting criticism... have been constants in his rhetorical presentation of himself over the years, despite the striking decline in his sentence-by-sentence speaking skills, and they have been consistently and devastatingly effective...


Okay, the general methods have not changed.  Just the skills have gone south.


Or is this just the fulminations of frustrated progressives who don’t want Bush to win?


Phillip in Atlanta, who sometimes supervises stonemasons, comments:


The level of frustration on the left is really high.  My over-educated laborer is spending evenings at the library doing anti-Bush research tying links to Bush family money and defense contracts.  I fear if Bush wins, Tony's skull will explode.  Such are the perils of an activist.


I hope the gang caught Frontline last night.  It was a biography on Kerry and Bush.  I have always admired Frontline’s methods of reporting, but this episode was particularly well done and filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of their past.  This is truly a contest between the shirts and the skins. And the candidates truly represent the right and the left ideologies.


Nope, as one of the gang he mentions, I missed that, but see there’s something odd here.


Last week - see October 10, 2004 - George Bush's suits from Georges de Paris... And is told what to say by whom? - I mentioned a website devote to the topic of whether Bush had been wearing a hidden earpiece to receive the words he was supposed to say in the debates – as he now really needs help - and that suspicion was covered everywhere from SALON.COM to the New York Times.


Rick the News Guy in Atlanta stirs the pot with this –


How very strange!


Was I the only one who noticed that Bush seemed to have drop of spit at the corner of his mouth during much the debate?  And will someone now launch a site called "http://wasthatreallyspit.com"?  It's a whole new world!


I forgot to pass this along last week.  I was busy.  An editorial from the local newspaper here just before the second Bush-Kerry debate – with a more simple theory -


Is He a Dope?

October 7, 2004 - Los Angeles Times


Key excerpts -

Although neither group likes to say so, some Americans who support President Bush and many who don't support him have concluded over four years that he may not be very bright. This suspicion was not allayed by Bush's answers in the first presidential debate a week ago.

Even Bush's most engaged critics shy away from publicly challenging his intelligence for many reasons, most of them good. To raise the issue seems snooty and elitist. This is an image no American wants because seeming snooty is even worse than seeming stupid. Just ask Bush's opponent, Sen. John Kerry. Furthermore, the concept of brainpower or IQ as a single, measurable trait is generally, though not universally, rejected by scientists. And the obsession with IQ has been responsible for all sorts of political mischief.

… Actually, we would not frame the question as one of abstract brainpower, a dubious concept. You don't go through America's top schools, serve as governor of a major state and occupy the presidency with even mixed results if you're not reasonably smart, no matter how thoroughly your way is eased by others.

The issue might better be described as one of mental laziness.

Does this man think through his beliefs before they harden into unwavering principles? Is he open to countervailing evidence? Does he test his beliefs against new evidence and outside argument? Does his understanding of a subject go any deeper than the minimum amount needed for public display? Is he intellectually curious? Does he try to reconcile his beliefs on one subject with his beliefs on another?

It's bad if a president is incapable of the abstract thought necessary for these mental exercises. If he is capable and isn't even trying, that's worse. It becomes a question of character. When a president sends thousands of young Americans to kill and die halfway around the world, thinking about it as hard and as honestly as possible is the least he can do.

… We state boldly that thinking hard is a good thing, not a bad thing, even in a president. If that sounds snooty, so be it. And maybe George W. Bush will reassure us by his performance Friday night that he is thinking as hard as he should about the issues the president will face in the next four years. Especially the issues resulting from his own failure to think hard during the last four.

I guess we see who my local paper will eventually endorse.

And yes, it is a whole new world.  Major publications are arguing the president may be dumb as a post, or alternatively, suffering from some sort of organic brain damage and deteriorating fast, or overwhelmed to the point of unstable, incoherent defensiveness.


Is this just the left name-calling and being defensive itself.


All you can do is watch the man.  Ah, if Bush only had the charm, such as it was, of the slipping Ronald Reagan in Reagan’s second term.  But combine being dense and prematurely senile, and defensive, with mean-spiritedness?  That’s harder to swallow.


Another view?


Ron Suskind in the October 17 New York Times has another view -


He opens with this –


Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ''if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.'' The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.


''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. …


''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''


God doesn’t want him to be coherent?  Guess not.  Fact?  Evidence?  Irrelevant.


And when Bush stumbles through the debates?  His followers like it.


There were Bush's periodic stumbles and gaffes, but for the followers of the faith-based president, that was just fine. They got it -- and ''it'' was the faith.


And for those who don't get it?  That was explained to me in late 2002 by Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. ''You think he's an idiot, don't you?'' I said, no, I didn't. ''No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!'' In this instance, the final ''you,'' of course, meant the entire reality-based community.


So then Bush may be losing it – but losing it to God, and folks are okay with that.  Coherence and realism – in fact a connection to actual facts and events – show how un-Godly we who live on the coasts and follow the news have become.


This sure is an interesting election.  It has come down to faith versus analysis as a basic for dealing with the world.


Or really, there is another way of looking at this.  This is a plebiscite on whether we choose a leader for this world – with uncomfortable events and facts that are equally uncomfortable – or a leader connected to the next world, the world of Jesus returning and The Rapture.  Reality or faith – do we choose to become an Evangelical Christian Theocracy honoring God, or do we work on the problems in the here and now?  Time to choose.


Cool.  I see where this is heading.  Time to leave.



Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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