"'Curiouser and curiouser!' cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)." - "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Lewis Carroll
Bush-bashing for sport has never lacked fans in the blogosphere, but questioning the president's intelligence lately has gone mainstream.
Joe Scarborough, former Republican congressman and host of MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," recently tossed his beanie into the ring, running a 10-minute segment titled: "Is Bush an 'Idiot'?"
Scarborough wasn't calling Bush an idiot, mind you. He was just quoting that renowned American intellectual, Linda Ronstadt. Recently, Ronstadt had commented on the president's performance while attending an international summit of heads of state.
No wait, my mistake, she made those comments to reporters and audiences while touring in Canada. But never mind. When Ronstadt talks, people listen. Citing other leading American intellectuals - The Dixie Chicks, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Joan Baez - Ronstadt said: "I'm embarrassed George Bush is from the United States. ... He's an idiot. He's enormously incompetent on both the domestic and international scenes."
Scarborough said he felt compelled to explore whether the president is sufficiently intellectually curious, not just because of Ronstadt, but because there have been no shark attacks all summer. No, sorry again, I said that. What Scarborough said was that even conservatives had been making comments similar to Ronstadt's, as reported last week in The Washington Post.
To debate the topic, Scarborough rounded up two intellectually curious commentators - John Fund of The Wall Street Journal and Lawrence O'Donnell, MSNBC senior political analyst. He also provided a video collection of Bushisms in which the president repeatedly trips over his own tongue and otherwise appears to be playing himself on "Saturday Night Live."
Fund said that Bush is not dumb, just inarticulate, while O'Donnell suggested that Bush is out of his league. They both may be right, but I'd like to submit an alternative explanation for Bush's linguistic deficit.
This theory occurred to me not long ago at an off-the-record luncheon with Bush and a hundred or so of his supporters. I was the guest of a guest, and welcomed the opportunity to observe the president in his natural habitat.
What I witnessed was revealing. Not only was the man fluent in the English language and intellectually agile, he was knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects raised during a 90-minute Q&A. Someone apparently had been slipping intellectual-curiosity tablets into Bush's cola.
Toward the end, one of the guests said, "Mr. President, I think if Americans could hear you speak the way you have today, you'd have a 95 percent approval rating."
I think that's almost true. Not 95 percent, obviously, but he'd surely have a higher than 30 percent approval rating were he better able to explain what he's thinking. Bush does know; he just can't seem to say.
The question is why?
My theory dovetails with something one of his most acerbic critics, columnist Molly Ivins, once wrote: "George W. Bush sounds like English is his second language." That's because it's true. "Washington English" is a second language for Bush; "Texas English" is his first.
When he tries to speak Washington English, which is the way Bush thinks presidents are supposed to speak - over-enunciating and sprinkling his comments with awkward aphorisms - he fumbles. He forgets what he's saying because the thoughts and words are not his own.
This is also when his annoying sibilance kicks in. The "terroristsssssss," he says when "terrorists" would do. My guess is he over-enunciates to cover his prairie accent, but the effect is, well, sssssstrange.
Tapes of Bush as governor of Texas reveal none of the malapropisms for which he is now infamous. That's because in Texas, he speaks his native tongue - dropping syllables and esses without fear of criticism or embarrassment. That kind of freedom seems to liberate the man's mind and his mouth.
Anyone who speaks before cameras knows the taste of humility and can relate to the agony of being George Bush.
Even, perhaps, Joe Scarborough, who wrapped up his idiot segment, saying: "And that is a big question, whether George W. Bush has the intellectual curiousness - if that's a word - to continue leading this country over the next couple of years."
My dictionary confirms that "curiousness" is a word (just barely), though Joe's expression suggested it wasn't the one he meant to use. No worries. Sometimes in the excitement of a moment, even the curiouser and curiouser quite forget how to speak good English.