Democratic Underground  

An Interview With Mark Crispin Miller
May 30, 2002

On 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 board. This is the transcript of that discussion. The original discussion thread can be found here.

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 at

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.

Mark 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 that time.

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 . . . . Secondly—and more commonly—Bush 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, it seems.

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?

Mark 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.

Do you think Bush is stupid, or playing stupid as some sort of political strategy?

Mark 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 our borders.)

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 dim.

Wonk: Which malapropism do you think best reflects the "true" Dubya? Have you had any problems with threats from right-wingnuts since publishing your book?

Mark 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.

MrBenchley: Great book! You are on the mark with that "cruelty" 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.

Mark 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.

tomp: 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? The press?

Mark 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.

rmpalmer: 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?

Mark 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.

Armstead: 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?

Mark 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.

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 responsibly?

Mark 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 him.

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 necessary pressure.

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 awesome gift.

ZenLefty: 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.

Mark 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.

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.

Mark 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.

The new paperback edition of The Bush Dyslexicon is available here.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage