Bush Should Have Paid Attention In Grammar Class

Eugene Volokh posted a legitimate complaint about Presidential gaffes and the tendency of the media to quote (or manipulate) them out of context. The particular quote comes from yesterday's rare press conference with President Bush. At the end of a rough Q&A, Bush responded to a question about his fundraising activities and said:

And as you know, these are open forums, you're able to come and listen to what I have to say.

This became today's new Bushism at Slate, prompting Volokh to respond:

This isn't just misplaced humor -- it's plain bad journalism. Whether you're trying to be funny or serious, stripping a quote free of its context (context that most readers have no way of knowing), and trying to making the speaker look foolish when including the context would show that he's making perfect sense, is wrong.

I absolutely agree with this point. Media critics have long made similar observations, and political watchers have seen Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton quoted out of context for years. However, I don't think that today's new Bushism is a case quoting out of context. It is a case of Bush making a statement that he seemingly encourages and participates in open forums. Let's briefly look at Bush's statement and the context in which we can evaluate Bush's idea of an open forum in contrast to a definition of a regular forum.

THE PRESIDENT: Ed, and then Bob, and then I'm going to go eat lunch.

Q Are we invited? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: It depends on your question.

Q Fair enough. Mr. President, you talked about politics. For weeks, if not months now, when questions have been posed to members of your team, those questions have been dismissed as politics, and a time will come later to address those questions. You, indeed, have said that, yourself. How can the public differentiate between reality and politics, when you and your campaign have raised over $80 million and you're saying that the season has not started?

THE PRESIDENT: You're not invited to lunch. (Laughter.)

Look, we are -- we're arming, raising money to wage a campaign. And there will be an appropriate time for me to engage politically; that is, in the public forum. Right now, I'm -- yes, no question, I'm going out to our friends and supporters and saying, would you mind contributing to the campaign for the year '04? To me, that's -- and that's a part of politics, no question about it. And as you know, these are open forums, you're able to come and listen to what I have to say.

To make things simple, I am going to rely on the applicable Dictionary.com definition of forum:

A public meeting place for open discussion.
A medium of open discussion or voicing of ideas, such as a newspaper or a radio or television program.
A public meeting or presentation involving a discussion usually among experts and often including audience participation.

If Bush is applying the qualifier "open", then we can hope that he isn't referring to fundraising activities that are "invite only" to campaign contributors. He must be referring to a fundraising event that can be attended by members of the public body who meet some type of qualification to attend the event. For most politicians, $500 or more will instantly qualify you a seat at the fundraiser. Howard Dean had a fundraising rally in Austin this summer, and it was free to the public. Dean gave a brief, well-received speech and left. Even though all of the attendees were free to have a public discussion about issues in a public forum, they didn't. Like Bush's fundraising events, there is no organized forum discussion of the issues with or without the the candidate in attendance.

So let's consider applying the concept of "a public meeting that encourages a discourse among its participants" as an open forum to Bush's upcoming trip to San Antonio tomorrow for fundraising activities. (I mention San Antonio because it is less than a hundred miles from my home, and as a member of the public body with money to spend on a fundraising meal I should be able to participate in an "open forum".)

An open forum should at least need to be advertised to the public body, whereas a closed or private forum would not. The George W. Bush Official Campaign Calendar does not list any type of forum, open or closed, on the calendar. The Texas GOP Website does not list any type of forum meeting tomorrow. CNN certainly believes that Bush will be in San Antonio tomorrow for a fundraisier, but not specifically an "open forum" that Bush is advertising. In fact, I had to check the NBAA TFR page to see if any flight restrictions in the San Antonio area could offer any type of confirmation that a VIP of Bush's level would be in the area. The site indeed indicates that a TFR for the San Antonio area should be anticipated tomorrow.

So is it possible that Bush could still participate in an "open forum" when most of the fundraising activities are seemingly focused on large money contributors instead of earnest public discourse? I find it unlikely that anybody who is paying $800-$2000 for hot dogs and nachos are invited to sit and participate in a panel discussion with the President. I find it unlikely that Bush simply introduces a topic and encourages the audience to offer their comments or criticism. These are fundraising activities where the majority in attendance are there to toast champagne and clap each other on the back. These are private forums in which attendants listen to the President speak, and then perhaps discuss the issues among themselves. So it is a forum, but not one in which the President is an active participant. To think that Bush's loyal base is going to stand up and debate issues with him is almost absurd. He indicates in the press conference that he isn't interested in eating lunch with somebody that asks questions that he doesn't like. In fact, I find it more likely that the only topics of real debate at these fundraisers are The Texas Rangers, The Dallas Cowboys, The Dallas Mavericks.

Bush isn't interested in participating in true oral discourse with the American people. The fact that he has conducted less than a dozen press conferences is more than enough proof of his unwillingness to personally discuss the issues that concern Americans. He engages the American public in the same way that he conducts his fundraising activities. He does not discuss specifics, he does not answer questions in specific terms, he does not show a willingness to listen to a "negative" question. How can one participate in a true open forum with Bush if you are limited to a small script of questions? Do you think Bush is interested in participating in a public forum with Helen Thomas or Paul Krugman? No, I'm sure that he'd rather select the people and questions to be involved with his open forums.

I believe that Bush's latest gaffe has earned its place in the hall of Slate's Bushisms. The joke is quite clear to some people here. Bush doesn't participate in open forums, and probably couldn't delineate the difference between a forum and a debate. That is the joke here. He uses words that he doesn't necessarily understand or doesn't see as ironic when used in reference to his political style. I won't say that this is a new low for Bush's contempt for the English language, because he honestly can't get any lower. If I wanted to point at Bush's inadequacy as a public speaker, I would point to a different quote from yesterday's press conference. I will list the full statement from the President, because we must know the context of this gaffe:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. You recently put Condoleezza Rice, your National Security Advisor, in charge of the management of the administration's Iraq policy. What has effectively changed since she's been in charge? And the second question, can you promise a year from now that you will have reduced the number of troops in Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: The second question is a trick question, so I won't answer it. The first question was Condoleezza Rice. Her job is to coordinate interagency. She's doing a fine job of coordinating interagency. She's doing -- the role of the National Security Advisor is to not only provide good advice to the President, which she does on a regular basis -- I value her judgment and her intelligence -- but her job is also to deal interagency and to help unstick things that may get stuck, is the best way to put it. She's an unsticker. And -- is she listening? Okay, well, she's doing a fine job.

I hope that I have supplied enough context here. A national leader, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, can only best describe his national security advisor as "an unsticker". So either we have unsticky rice, or he is describing her with a word that isn't a part of the recognized English language. That should be enough for a "Bushism", but it does lack the delicious irony of the open forum quote. Bush doesn't actively participate in true open forums or public debates. If I was Karl Rove, I'd make damn sure that Bush never does.

(And yes, I realize the irony of saying that he doesn't participate in public debates and then post a link to the 2000 debates. I said above that Bush doesn't actively participate in debates. In the 2000 debates, he responded to questions with rhetoric and hyperbole. He did not want to get into a detailed discourse with Gore. Like most of the frat boys that I knew in college, Bush only attended the debates that he just could not avoid. And he seemed about as prepared for the debate as most of the guys in speech class who tried cramming ideas a couple days before the "big" day.)


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