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Our national deer caught in the national headlights

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For one of the productions of a play I co-wrote, Bat Boy: The Musical, there was a performer who got an audition as a courtesy–he was connected to a potential investor, and he wanted to be an actor, so he was allowed to come in at the last stage of auditions to “see what it is like” to audition for a play. And he sang. And he was tone deaf. And he didn’t know it. And we all sat there, listening to this man embarrass himself in front of us. For one whole song. And then the second song–a ballad.

The experience was painful. For me, being embarrassed for someone is a very physical sensation. My gut clenches a bit. No doubt my heartbeat increases somewhat. I have to consciously stop my face muscles from wincing. For some reason, I reflexively bring my hand up to my chin and rest my head on it–kind of like the “Thinker” pose. My legs cross, too.

It’s a very unpleasant sensation that fills my entire body.

And this is what happens to me almost every time I see President Bush on video. He starts his awkward stumble through whatever it is he is trying to say, and I feel those same physical sensations, and I just can’t stand it. I can’t even listen to his words, because his utter failure to convincingly play his role–competent leader of the free world–is too distracting.

This happens a lot: I go to watch a video clip of President Bush delivering a speech or conducting a press conference, and within one minute I have to turn it off, because I truly can’t stand the feeling of being embarrassed for him.

In these moments, I don’t feel hate for the man, any more than I feel hate for an unskilled actor at an audition. In fact, the visceral response would seem to require sympathy at a certain level–and that’s definitely what it feels like. You don’t have to like or even know someone to feel sympathy for him. It’s like watching someone get hit by a car–Oh my God, that could be me, and that would be horrible.

I know this feeling I get is not a result of my disagreement with the President on his policies. I didn’t get this feeling when I watched his father on television. Or Reagan, from what I remember. I don’t get this feeling from watching Cheney or Rumsfeld, two men whose political views I find appalling. I don’t get this feeling from any other politician I can think of.

No, I only get the feeling of being embarrassed for someone from George W. Bush. Watching President Bush deliver a speech is like watching a child who has forgotten his lines in the Christmas pageant. It’s so painful that I just can’t do it. I’d rather read a summary or a transcript of what he said.

I am aware that I am out of step with much of the rest of the nation on this. The speech the President gave to Congress after 9-11 apparently gave many Americans greater confidence in him. I saw roughly one minute of that speech and became more scared of him than I have ever been. This was around the time I stopped watching TV for good.

A writer recently described President Bush as “our national deer caught in the national headlights.” It was the most apt description of him I have ever read, and I wish I could remember who wrote it.

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About Brian Flemming

  • Joe

    Have you considered Paxil or Zoloft?

  • Eric Olsen

    Brian, the guy is not a facile speaker, nor eloquent, nor clever, and his tone is often way off. I have a hard time watching him also.

    But as long as he stays focused on what he really cares about, the War on Terror, I believe he is sincere, right, and unlike others who are more “intelligent” or glib, he has grasped that this is the key issue of our time. So far so good.

  • I empathize with him, being a horrible public speaker myself – both in formal situations and informal. I think anyone who lays him out solely for his misuse and mispronunciation of words is simply taking potshots. It’s impossible to estimate a person’s intelligence based on how they present themselves in public, but I very often feel suspicious of those who do talk so eloquently – as Clinton did – because it’s impossible to gauge their actual feelings. With Bush, I’ve never doubted what he says about the current war situations is what he truly feels. Maybe he stumbles and falters, but he’s definitely sincere about it.

  • Related to Mr. Johnson’s take, Bush’s sometimes lack of acting skills helps keep him honest. Besides any personal morals, he knows that he can’t go out and lie to our faces like Clinton. He just can’t pull it off.

    The worst dishonesty I’ve seen from him came in trying to distance himself from Ken Lay. He didn’t exactly lie, but he was spinning real hard, near to the breaking point trying to claim that he had barely known the guy.

    I’m glad to say that he looked HORRIBLE even to me- and I know that I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. My nephews lie better than this.

    Bush can’t lie for shit. This is definitely a good thing.

  • sallie

    “For me, being embarrassed for someone is a very physical sensation. My gut clenches a bit. No doubt my heartbeat increases somewhat. I have to consciously stop my face muscles from wincing.”

    I’ve actually seen Condoleeza Rice in the background while Bush is speaking looking like she is experiencing exactly this.

  • Sallie and Brian, I think you’re both deluding yourselves here. Bush isn’t THE greatest public speaker, but he’s more than adequate. He’s perfectly intelligent, and often speaks eloquently.

    He’s no silver-tongued devil. He occassionally trips over his syntax a bit, but he is generally quite effective at communicating his message. His very lack of slickness contributes to the effectiveness of his communication in many cases.

  • Actually I find he gets less articulate the more deceitful he gets.

    The following excerpt from tonight’s Diane Sawyer interview shows what he sounds like when he’s telling a lie.

    Clearly, the treatment of Saddam by the U.S.–showing his medical examination on TV–was designed to humiliate him. Without taking issue with the tactic (it may, in fact, have been useful in demoralizing the insurgents who are killing coalition troops), answering “no” to the question, “Was this treatment designed to humiliate him?” is, by any reasonable definition, a lie.

    And here’s what happens to Bush when he lies:

    MS. SAWYER: Was [Saddam] sedated? And was it [televised medical examination] designed to humiliate him?

    PRESIDENT BUSH: No, I don’t–first of all, I don’t know if he was sedated or not. I mean, that’s a question you’d ask the folks in the field.

    Secondly, it was designed to reflect the truth and to show–and to show the world that this barbaric person was found in a hole, hiding, cowering, that–it’s also interesting that he’s going to receive the justice that he never gave others. And it’s–it’s a dramatic moment. And I can understand a daughter being concerned about her dad. I mean, presumably somewhere in this hard, barbaric heart there was some love for his child. And–but he showed no love for the Iraqi people, particularly those that dared express an opinion other than his.

    And he sounds like this a lot. Stumbling like crazy until he finds his way to the scripted sentences he clearly memorized before the interview.

    Personally, my confidence is lowered by his inability to engage in conversation. The truth, naturally, is the first thing that leaps to anybody’s mind in a conversation. So…why is he always grasping?

    At this point in his father’s administration, the senior Bush had held 70 news conferences. His son has had 11.

    It’s not just that he has trouble with words. The man has a problem with the truth.

  • Joe

    Did you get the letter Orson Scott Card wrote you?

  • JR

    “Clearly, the treatment of Saddam by the U.S.–showing his medical examination on TV–was designed to humiliate him.”

    I think any footage of Saddam before they cleaned him up would tend to humiliate him. It would also be accurate reporting.

    “Personally, my confidence is lowered by his (Bush’s) inability to engage in conversation.”

    I’m with you there.

    “The truth, naturally, is the first thing that leaps to anybody’s mind in a conversation. So…why is he always grasping?”

    That doesn’t quite prove that he’s lying. My interpretation is just that Bush is at best woefully underprepared when he gives interviews and press conferences. At worst he’s just dumb.

    I think his communication skills, or lack thereof, are a legitimate issue. This guy is supposed to be representing U.S. policy at home and abroad. He should be able to make his case persuasively; ideally he should be able to change peoples’ minds. When I see him speak in public, I don’t see that ability. So I have to wonder whether he has it in private, more so when I see that some of our traditional allies aren’t behind us on an issue like removing Saddam Hussein. Maybe they could be persuaded, maybe they couldn’t. But I just don’t feel like we had the best advocate in our corner.

  • People in the know do say, pretty much universally, across the ideological spectrum, that Bush is a different person in person. He’s charming, a regular guy, blah blah blah.

    Whatever. [Fill in outrageous yet accurate example here] was a charismatic guy, too, but that doesn’t mean he should be president.

    I agree that he doesn’t represent the U.S. to the world very well, and it’s not just his apparent low-wattage.


    “Wanted: Dead or alive.”

    “Bring ’em on.”

    This is not a president.

  • Bill

    apparent low wattage? he has degrees from yale and harvard. where did you get your degrees? they didn’t teach you the definition of “lie.”

  • Bill

    this story has way too many uses of “I” and “me” and “my” so the writer is probably projecting onto an easy target.

  • bhw

    W’s connections — a.k.a., his father — got him into Phillips Academy and Yale [not sure about Harvard]. It’s called being a legacy. He didn’t distinguish himself as a student; had he not been H’s son, he probably would not have been admitted to any of those prestigious schools.

    I have to admit that I have a strong bias against people who can’t speak clearly when part of their job is to do just that. It’s my bias, and I know it, but I equate the ability to speak extemporaneously with a certain level of intelligence.

    When I hear Bush speak — even when reading a speech — I don’t hear a man in command of the policies, facts, ideas, etc. about which he speaks.

  • Bill

    I didn’t cite his admission to Harvard and Yale or his distinction while in either place–I cited his graduation from those schools. What part of “has degrees” was so ambiguous?

    The fact remains that Bush got an MBA from Harvard while Ted K and Gore (equally the product of family influence) got tossed from Harvard and flunked out of two grad programs, respectively.

    Perhaps the writer of this post will tell us whether/where he got his degree.

    It’s funny how hard Bush haters cling to the moron talking point even when it makes them look moronic. Bush is not a polished speaker, which made his 9/20/01 speech all the more remarkable.

    And even the poster, a Bush hater, finds a lot of Bush remarks memorable.

  • Joe

    So much hate, so much hate.

    (Shakes head sadly.)

  • Bill,

    I tried to write a comment about my college education but couldn’t figure out how to do it without using “I” or “me” or “my.”


  • bhw

    Gore got a BA with honors from Harvard.

    Then he enlisted and went to Vietnam.

    Then he went to divinity school. I don’t have his transcripts. Doesn’t appear that he graduated, however. I’ve read that he was too busy smoking pot to care too much about grades. Can’t say I blame him, post-Vietnam.

    Then he enrolled in law school. While in law school, he also worked as a journalist and then was elected to the House of Representatives. So did he flunk out of law school, or did he leave school to take office? Where are the transcripts?

    Teddy was suspsended [not tossed] from Harvard for one year for cheating on a Spanish test. During his suspension, he enlisted in the Army. Then he came back to Harvard and got his undergraduate degree. He also completed law school and passed the bar [hey, Kennedy never passed a bar in his life! ba-dum-bum!].

    It sounds to me like none of them — Teddy, Gore, and Bush — were very good students, at least not consistently. Bush has an MBA, Kennedy a JD. Gore a BA and some graduate school/law school, but I’m not sure he flunked out of two graduate programs.

    “Bush is not a polished speaker”: understatement of the day.

    Bush does not speak authoritatively, and to me, that makes him sound less intelligent than guys like Gore and Kennedy. Sorry, that’s how it goes. Speak clearly, be precise, give details, and we’ll talk, W.

  • Joe

    I was talking to the dean of a business school about GPA’s and his observation was that, generally, the A students were very technically proficient but that the B and C students had better leadership capabilities, people skills, and could deal with setbacks better.

    As to the stylistic points, sure style matters, but Patton, for instance, spoke in a high pitched whine (contrary to George C. Scott’s portrayal) and seemed to do just fine. And MacArthur was an eloquent son of a bitch, but a son of a bitch nonetheless.

  • Eric Olsen

    Brian, The evidence you cite for Bush “not being a president”: “Crusade.”

    “Wanted: Dead or alive.”

    “Bring ’em on,”

    are exactly when he is most effective and emblematic. You may not like the emblem, but these kinds of simple slogans – that are not empty of meaning by any means – are exactly what people respond to either way. You have never seemed to understand that pissing off your “allies,” challenging your enemies, shaming the neutral, are sometimes exactly the right thing to do.

  • bhw

    Some of Bush’s words are written by speechwriters. But when he speaks extemporaneously, they’re alllllll his.

    I personally think “bring ’em on” was ill-advised and showed a complete disregard for the risk to our soldiers’ lives via the very real — and proven — dangers of the insurgents’ actually bringing it on, but also a complete lack of understanding of whether or not we really *want* combat of any kind: it’s supposed to be the last resort. I’d be surprised to hear too many soldiers inviting the insurgents to bring it on, since they’re the ones whose lives are at stake. But hey, their commander in chief invited them, so ….

    He was trying to be Ahnuld and it didn’t work.

    Note to W.: Think first. Then think again. Then speak.

  • Joe

    I asked a couple of guys I know in the service what they thought about “bring ’em on” and they were pleased that Bush would express that kind of confidence in them.

  • Come on, I think “bring em on” was more FOR THE TROOPS. How do you think the troops talk? This just in. It’s not all about you.

  • bhw

    I think “bring ’em on” was just what came to mind and wasn’t “for” anyone. Some people like it and others don’t. I don’t.

    Call me kooky, but I don’t want suicide bombers accepting the bravado invitation to blow up our troops, which is what they’ve been doing.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Joe, this brings up an important point: a fair amount of anti-war rhetoric is couched in terms of concern for our troops. I’m sure it is sincere, but what IS the opinion of the troops? Which presidential candidate do they support? My guess is that it is for Bush in the 75% range, but I would very much like to see real figures.

  • bhw

    Eric, you’re right, I *am* concerned for the troops — I have family in the military, although none are in Iraq or the region at the moment.

    Ironically, I’m concerned that we don’t have enough troops over there right now to defend themselves adequately from some of these attacks. I get very nervous when I hear of plans to reduce our presence while we’re still taking such hits.

    I would tend to agree, though, that more folks in the military would vote for Bush than a Dem in the next election. Another question is: is there another Republican they like better?

  • Eric Olsen

    I agree entirely about troop reduction – too much too soon would be a disaster. The more the better as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t have to go over there, either, so it’s easy for me to talk.

  • bhw

    Same here.

  • cjones

    If George W Bush is the best that Republicans have to offer and the Democratic candidates I have seen are the best the Democrats have to offer then terrorism is not the biggest problem America faces. It’s lack of leadership.

  • Eric Olsen

    Whether Bush is the “best” Republican or not, he is the sitting president and no one is going to challenge him for reelection. We’ll have to see if any of the Democrat grow into the candidacy, which for now looks like Dean.