"Analyzating" Bush's Grey Matter


By Stan Crock Ever wonder why President Bush says "nuculer" when he means "nuclear" or "subliminate" when he means "subliminal?" Or why he mixes up perseverance and preservation? Why does he mangle the English language often enough for Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg to produce three books of Bushisms such as "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."

Are you still puzzled that Bush:

Was a "C" student and class clown, yet became President?

Doles out odd nicknames with abandon?

Has held only 12 Presidential news conferences, the lowest frequency for a President since Richard Nixon's scandal-plagued second term?

Chose to go one-on-one with Meet the Press's Tim Russert, one of the roughest interviewers in the business during one of the toughest times in his Presidency?

Stunned former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill by barely responding in their first hour-long briefing at the White House?

Doesn't "do nuance," as the President himself puts it?

"SUBTLE DISORDER." To some learning-disability experts, the signs are clear: Bush might want to pay them a visit. These experts haven't tested the President, so they caution that they can't be certain of the diagnosis. Yet, ample signs indicate that something unusual is going on in the left side of his brain, where language and hearing are processed.

The possibility is high that there's some dysfunction in the way he hears words, the way he processes what he hears, or the way he retrieves words when he tries to speak. When someone uses the wrong word or malapropisms and has difficulty with grammatical sentences, experts on learning disabilities "typically suspect at least a subtle language disorder," says William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist in Silver Spring, Md.

Some voters infer from Bush's syntax and behavior that he isn't the sharpest saw in the tool box. Yet, learning and processing disorders aren't indicators of native intelligence. If anything, a learning disability would better explain how Bush has accomplished so much, with his critics underestimating him every step of the way.

ALL IN THE FAMILY? Those with learning disabilities can become stellar achievers precisely because they develop compensating mechanisms to overcome their syndromes -- often using their own intuition and smarts. The SchwabLearning.org Web site, which bills itself as a guide for parents of learning-impaired kids, lists more than 50 luminaries with disabilities, including athletes Bruce Jenner and Magic Johnson, actors Henry Winkler and Whoopi Goldberg, and business executives Richard Branson and Charles Schwab.

Such disorders often are genetic, and the Bush family has a history of them -- Bush's brother, Neil, has been diagnosed with dyslexia. Bush's other brother, Marvin, has a son in a Washington school for children with learning disabilities. Perhaps as a result, the President's mother and First Lady Laura Bush have both been big advocates of improving reading skills.

Journalists have tried in the past to explain Bush's peculiar speech and processing patterns. In May, 2000, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post suggested that Bush's speech patterns reflect the patois in Midland, Tex., which Eastern elites disdain. Maybe it was something he learned or inherited from his dad, for whom uttering a complete, syntactically correct sentence often was a challenge.

Another possibility Milbank cited, which was suggested by a Bush aide: The President's agile brain works faster than his mouth. Milbank also quoted an expert who opined that the symptoms resemble apraxia, an inability to position the lips, jaw, and tongue properly when speaking. In a Bush profile in the October, 2000, Vanity Fair, Gail Sheehy postulated that Bush, like his brother, has dyslexia, which is commonly seen as a reading disability.

DIGGING DEEPER. Weisberg says in the introduction to his first volume of Bushisms that he doesn't buy these theories. He notes, as Milbank did, that apraxia usually produces shortened words, while Bush sometimes elongates them, as when he says "analyzation" instead of analysis. And if Bush had dyslexia, he wouldn't be able to read a TelePrompTer so well, Weisberg postulates. But with sufficient practice, someone with the disorder could read a speech adequately, says Kathy Hosty, a Washington, D.C., speech-language pathologist.

Bush has denied in the past that he has dyslexia. Asked for this column if the President has a language disorder, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan dismissed the idea, without flatly denying it. She told BusinessWeek Online Bush's medical records have been scrutinized for 15 years. "The American people know more about the President's health than just about anyone's," she added.

I started to look for a more satisfactory explanation for Bush's demeanor for several reasons. Frankly, I've long been mystified by the way Bush expresses himself off-the-cuff. Secondly, the President's way of expressing himself clearly throws foreigners, especially diplomats, for a loop. They're appalled, since they view his mastery of language as critical to persuading others of the correctness of America's course in world affairs. A third reason is that a friend of mine has a son who doctors suspect has something called central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). My friend says whenever she sees the President, she sees her son's traits.

"OTHER KINDS OF INTELLIGENCE." That led me to do some Web research and talk to some experts on the subject to see what they think. I'm no doctor. I'm a journalist. But it turns out there's an intriguing consensus afoot, and I'm here to report it.

According to an article on the Internet by Judith W. Paton, a San Mateo (Calif.) audiologist, CAPD is a physical hearing impairment that doesn't show up as hearing loss but rather affects hearing beyond the ear. In effect, the auditory nerves don't handle the raw data from the ear properly. It's usually found with a cluster of other symptoms. Among the tell-tale signs she cites: Confusion of similar sounding words, terse communications, better hearing when watching the speaker, and trouble hearing when it's noisy.

This syndrome, like dyslexia, probably wouldn't have been diagnosed when Bush was growing up. It could explain why, undiagnosed, he was a lackluster student, Paton said in an interview. "A lot of his IQ points were in political intelligence and other kinds of intelligence," she notes.

A CLOWN'S MASK. CAPD isn't recognized as a formal diagnosis yet, partly because not enough research has been done on it. "It's a pattern of deficits that has been described by a large body of clinicians, but it hasn't undergone the rigors of scientific verification," says Fresno (Calif.) neuropsychologist Howard Glidden. Some experts also consider it a vague, umbrella term for a lot of traits.

What all the experts seem to agree on is that Bush exhibits "phonological" problems, that is, he has trouble breaking apart and putting together the discrete sounds that make up words. That could explain why the President tortures the language so often. And his clowning around could have been a way to compensate.

Such a syndrome also could explain other characteristics. The nicknames -- he dubbed ex-Treasury Secretary O'Neill "Pablo", for example -- could be a device to help with name retrieval. The infrequency of news conferences could reflect the difficulty someone with CAPD would have in a press-conference setting. While it would be possible to bone up for a quieter one-on-one grilling by Tim Russert, the noise and distractions of a news conference would make the kind of focus Bush may need very difficult. "A news conference would be his worst nightmare," says Hosty. "You can't control the barrage of different communications styles."

ONE OF THE GUYS. Bush's penchant for talking about good and evil and for saying countries are either with us or against us in the war on terrorism may also reflect a learning disorder. His professed distaste for nuance could stem from an inability to process the complex sides of an issue. "To analyze that, you have to analyze the language," says Bonnie Rattner, a speech and language pathologist in San Mateo, Calif.

One solution: Hire good people to fill the gaps. A business executive with great vision and creativity may not be organized, so the exec would have to employ someone with good executive functions, notes Robert L. Mapou, a Silver Spring (Md.) Ph.D. in clinical psychology who specializes in the neuropsychology of adult learning disabilities.

Yes, all of these examples of Bush's behavior have alternate explanations. A lack of focus during a privileged upbringing could explain the President's grades in college. The nicknames could be an attempt to control relationships or be one of the guys. The infrequent press conferences could result from the Administration's penchant for secretiveness and general disdain for the media.

COHERENT APPROACH. Likewise, Bush's black-and-white approach can be seen as moral clarity stemming from his religious beliefs or the candor supporters argue is needed relief from diplomatic niceties in perilous times.

All these separate explanations are plausible -- but taken together, they present quite a coincidence. The language-disorder explanation would cover them all. And if it's right, it should give pause to late-night comedians Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart. The President's twisting of the English language may be a phenomenon that's far more complicated than comic. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online


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