The Washington Post Column

Why Can’t Bush Get the Words Right?

Call me lucky. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard three of the most important administration officials answer questions about the intelligence that led to their decision to go to war with Iraq. The settings were different. Donald Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon with a small group of journalists. Colin Powell was at The Post with a larger group of journalists. George W. Bush was on television with one journalist and an audience of millions.

But the story was the same. And as it happens, I don’t really dispute it. That is, I don’t believe any of the three is a liar. Before the war there was, after all, a broad international, bipartisan consensus on the extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program. The Clinton administration had come to the same conclusions. The United Nations had come to the same conclusions. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, simply made the Bush administration feel a more urgent need to do something about it.

But while the arguments were the same, the three men did not make them in an equally convincing manner. Indeed, of the three, the president was indisputably the most implausible, and I don’t think I’m the only one who found him hard to believe. After the president’s interview, New York Times columnist David Brooks was moved to write his own version of what Bush should have said, because Bush, “like most of us, doesn’t have the facility for perfectly expressing his situation in conversation.” Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, wrote wistfully that the president wasn’t like Tony Blair, someone who is “eloquent, in the moment, marshaling facts and arguments with seeming ease.” Yet in Britain, Blair is considered phony to the point of parody: He’s such a smooth talker that nobody believes him. Being too eloquent can be as unconvincing as not being eloquent at all. But if it is not their facility with language that makes us believe politicians, then what is it? I know there are sociologists or psychologists who think they have answers to that question, but I’m going to hazard some guesses of my own.

Part of the answer is that it’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it. Asked a difficult question, Rumsfeld leans back in his chair, looks at the ceiling and pauses a few seconds — at least appearing to think through his answer. Powell dispenses with the theatrics, but he speaks slowly and carefully, as if he knows his words matter. President Bush doesn’t pause, and he often answers too quickly, as if he doesn’t mind much what he says.

He also resorts too frequently to cliches. Asked whether the war has been worth the loss of 530 American lives, the president immediately said that “every life is precious.” Well, yes — but that could be the answer to a lot of questions. In that context, a generic answer makes the speaker sound as if he hasn’t really thought about the significance of the issue. But in any context, pat phrases — “Saddam Hussein was a madman” or “we still have a dangerous world” — serve to make complex issues sound too simple, which plays into arguments that the president is “stupid” and makes listeners wonder whether he’s concealing something.

But the problem isn’t only the president’s syntax. The problem is also his failure to acknowledge that anything has gone wrong. Powell admitted he “didn’t know” whether he would have recommended an invasion of Iraq had he known there were no stockpiles of weapons. Rumsfeld waved a satellite photograph of North Korea to emphasize how important it is that we have reliable information about other secretive regimes.

The president, by contrast, doesn’t concede that he “didn’t know” something or that our intelligence failures could have lethal consequences. “There’s theories as to where the weapons went,” he said. Or: “It’s important for people to understand the context.” In the end, the overall impression is one of a man striving to live up to his own preconceived notions of what a “leader” should be: tough, decisive, a man with rapid-fire answers, never wrong about anything, never making a mistake. But Bush — by all accounts a man given to self-deprecating humor and convivial conversation — isn’t really like that. Nor is anybody else. It’s a fictional notion of leadership, and I’m guessing it comes from a combination of Hollywood movies, management bestsellers and 19th-century novels. It seems inauthentic because it is.

Politicians are believable, by contrast, when they speak as if they don’t really care what you think of them one way or another. That’s easier for Rumsfeld and Powell, neither of whom is running for reelection. But it ought to be pretty easy for the president, too, considering that he’s spent more than three years in the world’s toughest job. It’s a mystery why he still strives to sound like someone else.