Excited linguists have been poring over the president’s latest Fourth of July speech at Fort Bragg. “He’s been giving the same speech, year after year, about Iraq, saying he’s ‘not gonna cut and run,’ says Reg Watson of Marshall University’s Language and Rhetoric Institute. “That provides an extraordinary opportunity to compare his language patterns over a period of time.”
Watson has detected what he calls “a strange inverse relationship” in the president’s speech. “The longer Bush stays in Washington,” he says, “the more he sounds like he’s from the backwoods. As he repeats the same phrases and slogans, you can just hear his grammar deteriorate, and notice his dropping more and more ‘g’s’ from the end of words.”
Researchers are still trying to pinpoint the exact nature of the president’s accent. “It’s not Texas,” said one. “More like a Texas accent as spoken at a costume party in Kennebunkport, Maine.”
One school of thought is that the president spent too many formative years watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another is that he is being privately tutored by a “speech coach” of the sort who work with country and western singers from Canada, California, and New Jersey.
The tutoring theory has come under fire from Horace Bradley of Shepherd University, who contends that the president is self-taught. “Did you ever hear Ramblin’ Jack Elliot?” he asks. “There he is, a Jew from New York City, who’s remade himself into a big plains drifter. Or Bob Dylan, a Jewish kid from Minnesota, who adopted what he understood to be the speech of the ‘folk.’ George W. Bush did the same thing—repackaged himself as ‘the common man.’ Nobody taught them; they just put an accent together on their own. Reinventing yourself is more American than apple pie.”
Linguists aren’t the only ones puzzled by the president’s patois. “Where did he learn to talk like that?” wonders Percy Phillips III, who has known Bush since their prep school days. “He didn’t sound like that when we were together at Andover, or when we were inducted into Skull and Bones at Yale, or even when we were classmates in Harvard Business School.” Phillips notes that Bush’s younger brother Jeb speaks perfectly grammatical English with a standard American accent.
Bonnie Weiler, chair of the linguistics department at Potomac State, suggests that Bush is employing a generic “shitkicker” accent similar to that used for years by long-haul truckers over their CBs. “I’ve filed a Freedom of Information request to find out if he has a pickup with a CB mounted in it,” she says in frustration, “but so far they’re stonewalling me.”
It jars some to hear Bush, the multimillionaire son of a U.S. president and grandson of Prescott Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut, inveigh against “elites” in a cornpone accent implying that his parents could have been a long haul trucker and a truck stop waitress.
Although his accent has been derided by some of his fellow performers, it continues to serve Bush well in his political career. “When he speaks extemporaneously, using that accent,” says Weiler, “it’s a tour de force—vapid, inane, clumsy, almost devoid of logic and coherence. Millions of voters, desensitized to language and ideas by years of television, connect with it in a visceral way.”
© Tony Russell, 2006