Reading and listening to coverage of the death of George Bush, my thoughts turned, naturally, to his use of language. Most notably, for a one-term president, he was responsible for (I would say) far more than the average number of memorable turns of phrase, starting with the one from his unsuccessful 1980 campaign that you can hear in the clip at the top of this post: calling Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down ideas “voodoo economic policy.” (It’s now more frequently rendered as “voodoo economics.”) Later came “Oh, the vision thing"; “This will not stand"; “a new world order"; “a kinder and gentler nation"; “a thousand points of light"; and “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
The last three were spoken in Bush’s 1988 speech accepting the Republican nomination, and are credited to Peggy Noonan. For the tax line (which of course came back to bite Bush), Noonan smartly appropriated a phrase that was in the air. Allmusic.com lists 108 songs called “Read My Lips,” relevant recordings being those by Melba Moore (1985) and Marie Osmond (1986). And the New York Times language columnist William Safire noted in 1988 that “the heavyweight boxer Michael Spinks, before being knocked out by champion Mike Tyson, predicted he would retire after the fight, whatever the outcome: ''I’ll say, ‘Read my lips. I quit. Bye-bye. Forever. In other words, see ya.’ ''
Like the “voodoo” quote, the “kinder” one has been edited by the public, which has removed the “and” to arrive at “kinder, gentler nation"; the revised version has more than twice as many Google hits as the original. @TheLloydGrove pointed out on Twitter that it’s commonly mangled in pronunciation, with people saying “kindler, gentler ...” A Google search reveals that “kindler” -- not a word, people -- has also been frequently used in print:
The famous gaffes of his son have obscured the fact that, in his day, Bush 41 was capable of some pretty fair language-mangling. The website ThoughtCo.com has a lengthy list of “Bushisms,” including:
“I don’t want to get, you know, here we are close to the election — sounding a knell of overconfidence that I don’t feel.” —in 1988
“Ozone Man, Ozone. He’s crazy, way out, far out, man.” — speaking about Al Gore during the 1992 presidential campaign
“Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?” — during a tour of Auschwitz in 1989
“I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.” — in 1988
“I’m for Mr. Reagan, blindly.” — in 1984
It wasn’t exactly a gaffe, but the Bush line I’ll always remember occurred during the ’88 campaign, when a New Hampshire truck-stop waitress asked him if he wanted more coffee. The then-vice president said he would have a “splash.” The word summed up his to-the-bone preppyism so perfectly that The New York Times included it in his obituary.
As for the way Bush spoke, Dana Carvey’s “wouldn’t be prudent” impersonation was so strong that it’s hard to separate out where Bush ended and Carvey began. Remarkably, Carvey eventually developed a warm friendship with Bush. (Try to imagine Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump taking that road.) In 1992, at Bush’s invitation, the comedian made a surprise appearance at the White House staffers’ Christmas party and explained how he nailed their boss’s pronoun-eliding syntax and slightly mincing cadence: “The way to do the president is to start out with Mister Rogers. Then you add a little John Wayne … you put ’em together, you’ve got George Herbert Walker Bush.” Graciously, Carvey didn’t mention the whiny tone Bush tended to adopt when dealing with criticism.
A few other Bush vocal trademarks can be heard in his 1991 televised remarks announcing the Gulf War. At the 1:22 mark he says the old-fashioned “an historic” rather than “a historic.” And throughout (for example, on when at the 5:22 mark), he uses the equally old-fashioned voiceless labialized velar approximant for wh-starting consonants -- the blow-out-the candles way of pronouncing them which brings me back to my third-grade classroom. Less attractively, he consistently mispronounces the Saddam in “Saddam Hussein” to rhyme with “had ‘em” or “macadam.” Presumably, with his long career in foreign relations, he knew better, but he also knew (or his advisers told him) that the Amurricanized version would go over better with what was not yet called “the base.”
Over the past week, commentators and colleagues of Bush have almost all noted his essential decency in his dealings with people in general, and his family and friends in particular. He was famous for writing gracious thank-you notes and letters of all kinds, which comes off as admirable and almost unbelievable in the Twitter age. That habit, his self-effacement, and his essential civility suggest all sorts of comparisons with the current occupant of the White House, a can of worms I will endeavor not to open. Instead, I’ll close with one of Bush’s most famous letters, which he left in the Oval Office for his successor, Bill Clinton. It’s got a simple eloquence and grace, and a semi-colon, no less; but no quotation marks, exclamation points, or strange capitalization. Read it and I dare you not to think, “Those were the days!”