By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz., Oct. 4 -- When the president speaks, every word can be subject to scrutiny. Even the punctuation marks.
As he heads out on the campaign trail, haunted by an unpopular war, President Bush has begun reassuring audiences that this traumatic period in Iraq will be seen as "just a comma" in the history books. By that, aides say, he means to reinforce his message of resolve in the long struggle for Iraqi democracy.
But opponents of the war have seized on the formulation, seeing it as evidence that Bush is indifferent to suffering. To them, it sounds as if the president is dismissing more than 2,700 U.S. troop deaths as "just a comma." And a lively Internet debate has broken out about the origins of the phrase, with some speculating that Bush means it as a coded message to religious supporters, evoking the aphorism "Never put a period where God has put a comma."
Presidential utterances have long drawn enormous notice. But instant transcripts and the Internet have focused an even more powerful microscope on the nation's leader. The approaching midterm elections have intensified the already close scrutiny of the president's words as he sharpens his rhetoric.
As Bush wound up a three-day campaign swing out west on Wednesday, for example, he attacked Democrats for voting last week against legislation authorizing warrantless telephone and e-mail surveillance.
"One hundred and seventy-seven of the opposition party said, 'You know, we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists,' " Bush said at a fundraiser for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) before heading to Colorado for gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez.
Asked about the president's statement, White House aides could not name any Democrat who has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists. Democrats who voted against the legislation had complained that it would hand too much power to the president and had said that they wanted more checks in the bill to protect civil liberties.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) called Bush's comment outrageous: "Every member of Congress, from both parties, supports listening in on terrorist communications, but the president still hasn't explained why we have to break the law to do it. It is time for the president to stop exploiting the terrorist threat to justify his power grab."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino defended Bush's remark as a reasonable extrapolation of the Democratic position. "Of course, they aren't silly enough to say they don't want to listen in on terrorists, but actions speak louder than words, and people should know what the Democrats' voting record is," she said.
The comma remark, though, offers an especially intriguing case study in how a few words can trigger many interpretations. Bush used it in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer aired on Sept. 24 in talking about Iraq. He noted the bloodshed shown on television but hailed the resiliency of the Iraqi people and cited the election last December in which 12 million came to the polls despite the violence.
"Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago," Bush went on. "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy." The president used a similar line at a campaign event last week in Alabama and again on Tuesday in Stockton, Calif.
Critics of Bush began e-mailing and blogging about the remark within minutes of the CNN interview. The Carpetbagger Report blog called it stunning "even by Bush's already-low standards" and added: "Everything we're seeing is 'just a comma.' I'm sure that will bring comfort to the families of those who have sacrificed so much for Bush's mistakes."
Then Ian Welsh, on his Agonist blog, postulated a theory about the hidden meaning of the comment, citing the "never put a period" saying and calling it a "dog whistle" comment that only some would understand: "He is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don't hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren't evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right [what it] wants to hear."
But it turns out that the phrase "never put a period" originated not with a Christian conservative figure or biblical passage but with Gracie Allen, the comedienne wife of George Burns. And the phrase is a favorite not of the religious right but of the religious left. The United Church of Christ, which is devoted to fighting for what it calls social justice and opposes the war, adopted the phrase in January 2002.
"I needed something short and succinct," said Ron Buford, the marketing director who came up with it. "When I saw the Gracie Allen quote, I was up all night thinking about it -- God is still speaking, there's more for us to know."
When he heard about Bush's comment, Buford was stunned. "It's ironic that, as savvy as they are about using these quotes to strengthen their base, that he would use a quote that we've been using lately," Buford said.
Aides said it is ridiculous to believe Bush is sending subliminal messages. "People have too much time on their hands," said Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. "I can assure you, you don't need a secret decoder ring to decipher what he's saying."
All Bush means, he said, is the struggle to build Iraqi democracy will take years. "He's making a historical analysis -- that these brief periods seem long and protracted now, but when you look back at them in history, they won't seem that way. He's definitely not discounting the loss of life or the sacrifice people are making."