Competence Questions

by Michael Moore.
distributed October 11, 2000

As I write this, there are two presidential debates left. I have a suggestion for Jim Lehrer. Don't ask George W. Bush any further questions about social security or prescription drugs or mandatory testing for students and teachers. Just get up out of your moderator's seat and take a copy of a book, any book. Walk over to Governor Bush, hand it to him, and ask him to read.

That's right. Just ask him to read, from anywhere in the book. I have a hunch that he can't read.

I know this is an outrageous thing to say. I have no proof. It's just an impression that's been sticking in my craw for some time. I am reluctant to make this observation not only because it seems so cruel, but also just the possibility of it is so surreal and unlikely that no sane man would ever utter such a thing.

But I was struck by something in last week's debate. Bush never wrote down a single word on the legal pad in front of him during the debate. I had never seen a debater-even Ronald Reagan-refuse to even jot a word down so he wouldn't forget to respond to it. Was Bush not writing anything because his mind is a steel trap with enhanced memory, storage, and impeccable collating capabilities?

I'm honestly worried he cannot read and write on an adult level. Back in the primary, he was asked what his favorite book was as a child. He replied, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." As it turned out, that book wasn't published until he was in his 20s. Everyone laughed it off at the time.

From that point on, his response has been that his favorite book is "the Bible" (and his favorite hero is "Jesus" and his favorite philosopher is "Jesus" and when Oprah asked him, "What are you sure of?" he replied, "Jesus" and "the Bible"). Christopher Hitchens, no friend of the Clinton/Gore administration, reports in "The Nation" this month that when Bush's aides would give him briefing papers to read, he would ask others to read them for him, or just give him a verbal summary. Of course, a briefing paper is just that-a summary, a "brief." No one, it seems, saw Bush read them.

Gail Sheehy in Vanity Fair writes that Bush has a learning disability, that he is "dyslexic." This is a serious and frustrating handicap faced by millions of Americans. But it is not a scarlet letter. Lots of people I know are dyslexic, and there are things they do to overcome it. The Bush camp denied the "charge," and no one in the media followed up.

The media, in fact, has stopped reporting how CONSISTENT and OFTEN Bush mixes up his words and just says the wrong damn thing. At first, it was cute and funny in an Archie Bunker sort of way. But it's not just the word "subliminal" he has a problem with-the mangling of the language happens in virtually every speech I have heard the governor make.

Even though every speech is scripted, and he repeats it almost verbatim in friendly robot-like tones at every campaign stop, he can't help but lose himself in the words he is supposed to say. It was no mistake that at one point in the debate, when he started down his robot path, he realized he wasn't answering the question, went silent, and then said, "I forgot the question," looking like a lost schoolboy.

Now, don't get me wrong. I do not point this out with any glee or condescension. I am not exactly Mr.Intelligence here. Just read any of these columns or my Internet letters and you will find them chock full of misspellings, improper grammar, and bizarre syntax-in spite of the best efforts of my editors or staff assistants who are simply overwhelmed and defeated by my assault on the King's English.

But I am not running for President of the United States. And I am not attacking teachers for doing a lousy job. And I am not making phony promises that "not one child shall be left behind" (when, in the state of Texas, more poor kids go without health care than any other state in the nation).

I got a call last week from someone I know at Yale. A friend of this person had secretly gone into the records facility and looked up the original transcript of George W. Bush from 1964-68. Not only were his grades all that we have heard about-C's and D's and not a single A -- but it looked as if they were written on the file card over OTHER grades that had been erased!

Could there have been ORIGINAL grades that were WORSE than the ones he's admitted to?

Look, I'm all for the dumb guys, being one myself. I dropped out of college after the first year. I still don't know if "ammount" has one "m" or two. But The Leader of the Free World should at least be able to read! Or say "explicit" instead of "exquisite," as Bush did in Detroit in September when he referred to the "exquisite sex and violence" in the movies. Don't we deserve better?

Mr. Lehrer: "Governor Bush, here is a copy of 'Green Eggs and Ham.' Please turn to page 12 and read for us."