Fifteen years ago today, George W. Bush uncorked one of his frequent malapropisms. Discussing his upcoming trip to Denmark, the president told a prominent Danish broadcast journalist, “I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep on the soil of a friend.”
As the 43rd president of the United States would be the first to admit, this slip of the tongue was not an isolated occurrence. This was the commander-in-chief who assured the country three years after 9/11: “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Shortly thereafter, in September 2004, Bush lamented the exodus of family physicians from the profession by telling a Missouri audience, “Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”
Bush was running for reelection that year, so verbal contortions like these didn’t necessarily help his cause. Then again, the American people knew what they were getting when he ran the first time. “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Bush had said in South Carolina on Jan. 11, 2000. Sixteen days later, he told a New Hampshire crowd, “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.”
I cite these Bushisms not simply to make fun of them, but to make a larger point — and explain why I miss them. But first, a little perpective.
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All presidents do it. It’s not humanly possible to speak all day long with a microphone in your face and not sound occasionally like Yogi Berra. Ronald Reagan may have been the “Great Communicator,” but he was also the man who said soon after arriving in the White House, “Now, we’re trying to get unemployment to go up, and I think we’re going to succeed.”
And attending Harvard Law School didn’t preclude Barack Obama from telling a group of Oregon supporters, “Over the last 15 months we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in 57 states. I think one left to go. Alaska and Hawaii, I was not allowed to go to — even though I really wanted to visit — but my staff would not justify it.”
Still, when it came to such stuff, George W. Bush was in a league of his own. Political writer Jacob Weisberg turned them into a book — and after Bush won reelection, a sequel. I covered that presidency and remember them well. Here are a few of my faves:
— “We ought to make the pie higher.” — South Carolina GOP debate, Feb. 15, 2000
— “I think if you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it, that’s trustworthiness.” — CNN online chat, Aug. 30, 2000.
— “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” – La Crosse, Wis., Oct. 18, 2000.
— “There is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I’m sorry it’s the case, and I’ll work hard to try to elevate it.” — National Public Radio interview, Jan. 29, 2007.
And yet, such verbal miscues seem so innocent now. The man currently occupying the Oval Office disgorges them too regularly, and often with a mean-spirited edge, to laugh them off. President Trump has even pointed to his predecessors’ gaffes as a way of attacking not only those presidents but also the media. “When President Obama said that he has been to ‘57 States,’ very little mention in Fake News Media,” Trump tweeted in 2018. “Can you imagine if I said that…story of the year!”
Which brings me back to Dubya’s June 29, 2005 interview with Kim Bildsoe Lassen, a well-known broadcast journalist in Denmark. Although it was the first time an incumbent U.S. president was interviewed on Danish television, Bildsoe Lassen pulled no punches. He opened his interview by telling Bush that because his time was limited, “I would like to start rather bluntly, if I may.” He wasn’t kidding. Bildsoe Lassen told the president that under his leadership the U.S. had become “an often arrogant superpower” in the minds of many Europeans, adding that some believed Bush’s “either you’re with us or against us” attitude had created “a more violent and dangerous world.”
The interviewer then asked whether the apparent absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had compromised “the moral leadership of the United States.” And then he followed that question by saying, “But do you understand that there are people who say, ‘Can we believe it the next time a grave danger is emerging?’?”
In other words, the journalist was doing his job. And Bush did his. He never questioned the motives of his interlocutor, never complained about the coverage he received (or anything else), or responded to each question by providing his own counternarrative.
Near the end of the interview, Bush was asked whether he sleeps well at night, given the enormous pressures of the job. Bush replied that he did — and that he was usually asleep early, “much to the chagrin of Laura Bush.” The president credited his sound sleep with his habit of regular exercise and reading. “I’m an avid reader,” he said. “I like to read history. I just finished a book about George Washington. And so I get my mind off my work.”
That answer set up the ending of the interview, which may be viewed as a Bush blooper — or a refreshing glimpse into how healthy presidential communications once transpired, and could again. Here is how it went:
Bildsoe Lassen: Thank you, sir. Just this very last question.
Bildsoe Lassen: What are you looking forward mostly to in your visit to Denmark?
Bush: I’m looking forward to seeing your prime minister, who I like. He’s a good guy. I’m looking forward to seeing Her Majesty. I have never been to Denmark. I’m looking forward to seeing the beauty of the country. I don’t get out much when I travel, I must confess. I won’t be your average American tourist being able to move around freely. I wish I could. But the job doesn’t afford me to do that [and] it would be unfair to the people of Denmark if I tried to move around too much because the security would be quite inconvenient to them. But I really am looking forward to having a good discussion, talking about our common interests, talking about a way forward to help promote democracy and peace. And I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep on the soil of a friend.
Bildsoe Lassen: Thank you very much, sir, for your time. And I hope you have a pleasant and enjoyable visit to Denmark.
Bush. Thank you, sir, appreciate it.
Bildsoe Lassen: Thank you.
Bush. Good job.