Interview With Mark Crispin Miller
May 30, 2002
May 29, 2002, Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon,
took part in an exclusive online discussion at Democratic
Underground, answering questions from members of our message
is the transcript of that discussion. The original discussion
thread can be found here.
Skinner: The staff of Democratic Underground is
pleased to welcome Mark Crispin Miller to our message board
for this online discussion.
Mark is the author of The Bush Dyslexicon, a funny,
razor-sharp critique of George W. Bush and his treatment by
an increasingly superficial and conservative newsmedia. Published
in hardback in summer 2001, The Bush Dyslexicon has
been recently released in paperback and has been substantially
updated to include new developments since 9/11. The paperback
edition, which includes approximately 100 pages of new material,
is available here
Mark is a professor of media ecology at New York University,
where he also directs the Project
on Media Ownership (PrOMO). He is well known for his writings
on all aspects of the media and for his activism on behalf
of democratic media reform. His books include Boxed In:
The Culture of TV and Seeing Through Movies.
Mark, tell us about your book.
Crispin Miller: This is a new edition of The
Bush Dyslexicon, including about 100 pages of new material
concerning W's first year in office, with particular attention
to 9/11 and the myth of his extraordinary transformation at
In the first edition, I argued that Bush's broken language
is not really laughable, because it actually reveals a lot
about him (and, as well, a lot about the media system that
keeps sucking up to him). Sad to say, the horrors of 9/11
and the "war on terrorism" have only reconfirmed the points
I made about the man a year ago. Far from bringing on a marvelous
change in character, this crisis has just reconfirmed that
Bush is still the same man that he always has been—shallow,
ignorant, unscrupulous, thin-skinned and mean. And the media
continues to be just as bad as ever.
Jack Rabbit: Welcome to DU, Dr. Miller. From The
Bush Dyslexicon, pp.51-53: "Bush, despite his many
howlers, is not always inarticulate. There are in fact two
kinds of speech at which he does quite well. First, he can
be good at talking policy, albeit not at length. When he is
entirely confident about his subject and wholly comfortable
with those around him, he can be just as clear and well-informed
as any other politician . . . . Secondlyand more commonlyBush
is almost always clear when he's speaking cruelly. For example,
when the subject is punitive infliction of great pain, there
is no problem with his syntax, grammar, or vocabulary, even
if he happens to be lying . . . . Like all the rest of us,
however well or badly educated, Bush can talk quite clearly
on the subjects that most interest him: baseball, football,
campaign tactics, putting men to death."
Since September 11, Mr. Bush has styled himself a wartime
leader. In addition to inflicting casualties on civilians
in Afghanistan, many of his actions have taken on a cruel
and even sadistic character, for example, holding detainees
from the battlefield in Afghanistan in what might be described
as kennels at the Guantanamo Navel Base.
To what extent is Mr. Bush's ability to be articulate when
cruel account for his present popularity? To phrase the question
another way, are average Americans who had doubts about him
before putting aside these doubts because he seems more sure
of himself in a time of violence?
To what extent do you believe that naturally sadistic tendencies
in Bush account for his ability to be articulate when cruel?
Do you know of any psychological studies on Bush that address
this subject and are available to the public?
Mark Crispin Miller: This is an excellent question.
That Bush speaks clearly when he speaks maliciously is surely
pertinent to his success last fall. (I'm referring to his
success post-9/13. Before then, as I'm sure you will recall,
he did a pretty rotten job behind that bully pulpit.) It was
not so much that he spoke clearly in his ad-libbed statements
on the threat of terrorism—he was often incoherent even then,
as my new book makes clear. Rather, it was his bearing
that was strikingly improved by his new role as Kick-Ass President.
In promising terrific payback far and wide, Bush was speaking
from the heart, and so he radiated an unusual assurance. It
was that quality in his demeanor that so thrilled the national
audience, whose members were in desperate need, back then,
of a strong father-figure, and took from him what they could
get. Although Bush was never as popular as Rudy Giuliani (or,
for that, Tony Blair), he still stood taller in the public's
estimation than he ever had before, and that had everything
to do with the improvement in his style, which was a consequence
of his intense enjoyment of his role as God's Appointed Punisher.
And yet often Bush still tended to speak incoherently—especially
when trying to talk about our history, or foreign policy,
or any other serious subject. When he was simply making threats,
or saying no, on the other hand, he was always pretty clear.
And he's continued to speak clearly when he's spoken straight
from his choleric heart. Just the other day, for example,
when he made that resentful crack about NBC's David Gregory,
who had spoken to Chirac in French, Bush spoke perfect English.
That's typical. It's mainly when he tries to feign idealism
or compassion that the man stops speaking his own native language.
There's fresh proof of this tendency of his nearly every day,
Lithos: Do you think the press is capable of accurately
serving as an impartial judge of Bush? How much critical analysis
is being shunted aside by the press?
Crispin Miller: Obviously not—and they never were.
And if I were to do your second question justice, we'd both
be here for many hours.
There is a world—a universe—of major revelation re: Bush/Cheney—revelation
that the US journalists, with few exceptions, just refuse
to make. The same folks who went nuts, day in day out, hyping
(or concocting) Clinton's crimes say nothing whatsoever about
Bush's big-time sins. The double standard is breath-taking.
trumad: Do you think Bush is stupid, or playing
stupid as some sort of political strategy?
Crispin Miller: Bush is no Dan Quayle, who is a
genuinely stupid man, but something else entirely. On the
one hand, he is every bit as ignorant as he appears—that is
no act, although such emptiness of head is often something
of a plus for him with quite a few of his supporters. So while
Bush's ignorance is real, his knack for flaunting it as if
it were a sign that he's just folks is pretty artful. And
as Bush knows very little about anything (except baseball),
neither is he capable of reasoning in any complicated way.
Despite those limitations, however, Bush is not an idiot—and
it's a grave mistake to write him off as one. He has very
sharp political instincts (unlike the hapless Quayle). To
laugh at him for his stupidity is actually to do him a big
favor, since it helps him with that pose of commonness. (It
helps him here, in the United States, with that plurality
who voted for him. It doesn't do him any good at all beyond
Bush's problem—or rather, our problem with Bush—is not so
much that he's an idiot as that he is contemptuous of thought,
complexity, ambiguity. He's proud of his closed mind. That
makes him far more dangerous than he'd be if he were merely
Which malapropism do you think best reflects the
"true" Dubya? Have you had any problems with threats from
right-wingnuts since publishing your book?
Crispin Miller: "I know how hard it is for your
to put food on your family."
That one, which he said on the campaign trail up in New Hampshire,
is quintessential Bush—a perfect example of his inability
to sound as if cares about the have-nots in this world.
(There are a lot of new ones in the new edition. When he's
tried to sound the note altruism vis-à-vis his war
on terrorism, for example, he's offered up some howlers. In
January, e.g., he said, about Afghanistan: "We helped save
women and children from incredible impression!")
I'm not making that up.
As for the bilious right, I've heard from quite a few of
them. I wrote an essay on that very subject: "Brain Drain,"
which you can find on-line.
Great book! You are on the mark with that "cruelty"
comment...it was about this time last year when Dubya actually
giggled aloud at a press conference while a reporter was asking
about children being killed in the Middle East.
This may be outside the bounds of your expertise, but I'd
like to hear what you have to say about Bush's body language
and facial expressions. It is noticeable that he is always
hanging on to the podium for dear life at press conferences.
He also is a man whom the camera detests...even the AP and
Reuters seem to have given up trying to publish pictures of
him composed. He tends to smirk, glare, and otherwise look
either out of touch or dangerously demented.
Crispin Miller: I've heard from a number of professionals—shrinks
and others who have dealt extensively with addicts—and all
of them have told me that, in Bush, they see a man who's barely
keeping it together. Two of them have told me that Bush fits
the profile of the "dry drunk"—the alcoholic who's too macho
to go through the 12-step program, and who thinks that he
can keep from drinking through sheer willpower. The problem
with that approach is that such drinkers have to dedicate
their every ounce of energy, and all their waking moments,
to not drinking.
That diagnosis would, perhaps, help to explain not only Bush's
frequent public stiltedness, but the fact that he is always
in the gym or out there jogging.
Dr. Miller, any thoughts on what allows such a
large section of the American people to be so deceived by
Bush, or politicians like him. Just bad judges of character?
Crispin Miller: All skillful politicians know exactly
how to get around a certain bloc of voters: Clinton, Reagan,
Nixon, JFK, Roosevelt, whoever. In every case, the target
audience will forgive everything, believe anything—especially
if they learn nothing of the contradictory truth.
Thus this Bush knows exactly how to push the buttons of the
people in his base. (It's a talent that his father always
lacked.) Those who are most fervent in their faith in him,
it seems to me, are those most likely to identify with him.
They like his thin skin, his resentfulness, his animus against
the Europeans and the US coasts.
But Bush received as many votes as he received not just because
Fox-viewers voted for him, but because a lot of other people
voted for him, too—people who might not have voted for him
if they'd known a little more about his far-right ties, his
business dealings, and a number of other very damning things
that "the liberal media" sat on all along. Just one example:
throughout the presidential race, Bush carefully hid his true
intentions vis-à-vis abortion. If the media had blown
his cover on that one alone, he would have lost support. He
did as well he did, finally, because of the timidity and laziness
of US media.
Why were the Press so tough on every nuance of
Gore's? If Gore runs again, will they once again be tough
on him and let Bush slide? Would they be the same in your
opinion if another Democratic candidate were to run, such
as John Kerry?
Crispin Miller: They certainly will, because Gore
is still Gore—a man whom people just don't like, and one who
lacks the skill and/or the inclination to soft-soap the press.
(Bush's genius for this kind of thing is on full display in
Alexandra Pelosi's documentary "Journeys with George," which
will air on HBO this fall.)
Any Democrat will have a problem with the press, albeit not
as grave a problem as Gore had. Despite the loony whining
of the right, the media are steeply biased against Democrats.
So whichever of them runs is going to have to work quite hard
against that bias.
One noticeable thing about Bush is that he often
refers to government in the first person. "My government will
do this." "Arafat must satisfy me..." "My White House is unyielding..."
"I will pursue those terrorists."
This could be interpreted many ways. Either 1) all presidents
have done this, and it is just more grating to those who dislike
the current president anyway, 2) it is a harmless quirk, or
3) it represents his true attitude that it really is his
government, his White House and the U.S. actions are
his actions. How do you view this habit?
Crispin Miller: The correct answer is #3. I've
noticed that too—"my administration," he likes to say. This
marks a significant departure from all previous presidential
practice (and, I'd say, a significant adoption of a speech
tic common among dictators).
In the new edition of the Dyslexicon, I have some
good examples of GWB's unwonted clarity of speech—indeed,
his eloquence—when talking about his property in Crawford.
I think it's pertinent to note that the president who blows
it every time he tries to talk about democracy give us near-poetry
when going on and on about his spread.
Atrios: I'm sure you don't have the complete answer,
but do you have any suggestions for how to put pressure on
the media to do its job more completely, consistently, and
Crispin Miller: Where the US right has it all over
everybody else is in their single-mindedness and discipline,
which have helped them wield an influence quite out of proportion
to their numbers.
Everybody else, meanwhile, tends either to seethe in silence,
or waste their energies in fratricidal quibbling. (That's
still going on here on the so-called "left," with Democrats
persisting in their shots at Nader, sometimes with more venom
than they vent against the GOP. The Democratic wrath is understandable,
perhaps, but it's now time to put that past us.) We need to
emulate the right up to a point—not, that is, to act
like still more ditto-heads (God forbid!), but to collaborate
on pressuring the media to pressure Bush.
That's a short-term solution. We need a radical and comprehensive
program of real media reform, if anything progressive
is to be accomplished. But the short term is important, too;
and so, for now, we must go after the reporters, and
insist that they fulfill their civic and professional obligations
by asking Bush the questions that he does not want them asking
Several people [whose questions we unfortunately did not
have time to post during the discussion — Ed] have asked
what Bush's major weakness is, and how best to exploit it.
He's a malignant narcissist—he can't stand any challenge,
any contradiction. It makes him testy, bringing out the worst
in him. There is another Nixon just beneath that chummy surface.
The best way to expose it is to get the press to do its job—and
the only way to do that is to join with others and exert the
Let me add that sites like this are indispensable.
If it weren't for the Internet, and sites such as DU, we'd
be completely finished. So we ought to take advantage of this
The Bush Dyslexicon is an excellent resource. It packs
a lot of information into a small place. What's the next project
you're taking on? We can't wait.
Crispin Miller: Thanks for that. I'm going to write
a short book about the Marlboro Man, of all things, for a
new series that I'm editing for Yale University Press—a series
called "American Icons." It's quite an interesting subject
(and it'll be a big relief not to be writing about You-Know-Who).
BTW, there will be two books yearly in this series, and the
other one—I'm really thrilled about this—will be a book about
the Founding Fathers, by Gore Vidal.
After that, I will return to a project I've been working
on for years—a study of war-propaganda (whether martial or
electoral), and its pathological foundation. It will, I hope,
shed light on all the rightist bile that has been flooding
our political culture for the last twelve years (at least).
Its title is Mad Scientists: Paranoid Delusion and the
Craft of Propaganda.
Skinner: Thank you, Mark. This has been a really
great opportunity for all the members of DU. We appreciate
your taking the time to answer a few of our questions. Good
luck with the paperback. We hope it is a big success. Thank
you also to everyone who submitted questions for Mark. Sorry
we could not post all of them.
Crispin Miller: No, thank you—I really appreciate
your setting this up, and I'd like also to thank everyone
who asked a question (they were all terrific questions), as
well as everyone who just dropped in.
new paperback edition of The Bush Dyslexicon is available