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No Habla Espanol

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 5, 2006 12:48 PM

The Bush mythology is full of convenient little fictions -- like the one that he speaks Spanish fluently.

The president delights in injecting a phrase or two of Spanish into a speech or photo opportunity. And over the years, the misconception that he is proficient in the language has spread far and wide, and even crept into some credulous news stories.

But suddenly, it's not so convenient. Bush critics are accusing him of hypocrisy for publicly opposing the singing of the national anthem in Spanish -- when he allegedly did it himself during his presidential campaign.

So as part of the attempt to swat that story down, the White House itself is calling attention to Bush's foreign-language shortcomings.

"I'm saying that not only was that suggestion absurd, but that he couldn't possibly sing the national anthem in Spanish. He's not that good with his Spanish," press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday. "The president speaks Spanish, but not that well."

The Associated Press reports: "McClellan's comment was noticeable because presidential press secretaries usually boast about a president's ability rather than talk about any shortcomings. McClellan is in the last days of his job, leaving the White House next week."

Agence France Presse reports: "Bush's knowledge of Spanish is insufficient to sing 'Nuestro Himno,' the new Spanish-language version of the US national anthem, a White House spokesman said."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush boldly spews out Spanish phrases at any opportunity where they might be relevant, but the White House acknowledged on Thursday that Bush's fluency is, well, not bueno. . . .

"Bush, a former governor of Texas, sprinkles his speeches with Spanish phrases, as he did during both his presidential campaigns, to show kinship with Hispanics.

"He was at it again on Thursday, celebrating Cinco De Mayo, the day marking the May 5, 1862, Mexican defeat of the French army at the Battle of Puebla, with a smattering of Spanish phrases and urging newly arrived immigrants to learn English.

" 'Bienvenidos, welcome to the White House,' he said."

Here is the transcript of his remarks yesterday.

Ever since the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush's Spanish has come up as an issue now and again. Back in October 2000, campaign staffer Sonia Colin told the Dallas Morning News: "He's not completely fluent but he has given interviews in Spanish."

Back in June 2001, the Guardian wrote about Bush's appearance on Spanish TV, in a Spanish-language interview: "Mr Bush was mocked during the US election campaign for his relative ignorance of international affairs, but had always maintained he could speak Spanish.

"But in the interview he referred to Jose Maria Aznar as 'Anzar' and employed a mangled grammar, placing the emphasis on the wrong parts of words and confusing gender.

" 'I have to practice this very lovely language,' Mr Bush told the interviewer. 'If I don't practice I am going to destroy this language.' "

Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in June 2002 in the New York Times: "[J]ust how wonderful is the president's Spanish? . . .

"Mr. Bush probably answered the . . . question best himself last month in Miami when he told thousands of cheering Cuban-Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Republican, that 'no quiero destruir un idioma que bonita, y por eso voy a hablar en ingles' -- 'I don't want to destroy a beautiful language, so I'm going to speak in English.'

Here is the text and video of that speech.

Wrote Bumiller: "Various fluent Spanish speakers, depending on their political persuasion, describe Mr. Bush's Spanish as halting to conversational, but all give him high marks for trying. As the Spanish wire service Agencia EFE has noted, Mr. Bush speaks the language poorly 'but with great confidence.' Other Spanish speakers quibbled last year with Mr. Bush's pronunciation when he made the first radio address in Spanish by a United States president. They noted, for example, that he stumbled over the words administracion and nuestros intereses, or our interests."

Here's the audio and text of that May 5, 2001 radio address. Since then, almost all of his radio addresses in Spanish have been dubbed.

But time and time again, the fluency fiction has been fueled by Bush's flatterers.

Here's White House counsel Harriet Miers , from a Web chat last October:

"Clemencia, from Nogales, AZ writes: Ms. Miers, Does President Bush speak Spanish? If so, where did he learn to speak it?

"Harriet Miers: Yes, Clemencia, the President does speak Spanish. He apparently learned in his younger years in Texas, and in some classes in college. Speaking foreign languages is a real asset, and I encourage particularly young people in school to be sure and take advantage of the opportunity to learn a language."

Just yesterday, during Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez's visit to the White House, Vázquez publicly credited Bush for -- among other things -- speaking Spanish.

Here's the transcript .

(No one can possibly accuse the official White House stenographers of having any pretensions to bilingualism. They routinely mangle the president's Spanish. Case in point, from that transcript, Bush's closing: "PRESIDENT BUSH: Gracias, senior. Gracias.)

And just last week, reporters for the Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post were among those who reported, without any qualification, that Bush "speaks Spanish."

So what can we conclude from all this? Could Bush in fact -- as Kevin Phillips writes in his book, "American Dynasty" -- have dropped in at Hispanic festivals and parties during the 2000 campaign, "sometimes joining in singing 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in Spanish"?

Well, judging from his 2001 radio address in Spanish, Bush can at least do a serviceable job of reading a prepared text. It sounds like his interviews in Spanish were at least partially intelligible.

And Bush of course could have been pretending to sing in Spanish.

So in spite of breaking new ground in terms of uttering what could be perceived as a criticism of the president, McClellan's denial -- like so many others -- sounds more authoritative than it really is.

Signing Statements (Non) Watch

Reaction continues to be muted to Charlie Savage 's authoritative and alarming article in the Sunday Boston Globe about President Bush's use of signing statements.

Rather than veto legislation he doesn't like or publicly challenge its constitutionality, Bush has quietly approved signing statements that assert his authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, Savage wrote.

The New York Times editorializes today: "In this area, as in so many others, Mr. Bush has decided not to take the open, forthright constitutional path. He signed some of the laws in question with great fanfare, then quietly registered his intention to ignore them. He placed his imperial vision of the presidency over the will of America's elected lawmakers. And as usual, the Republican majority in Congress simply looked the other way. . . .

"Like many of Mr. Bush's other imperial excesses, this one serves no legitimate purpose. Congress is run by a solid and iron-fisted Republican majority. And there is actually a system for the president to object to a law: he vetoes it, and Congress then has a chance to override the veto with a two-thirds majority. . . .

"This president seems determined not to play by any rules other than the ones of his own making. And that includes the Constitution."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column about "battered Congress syndrome," which was first coined by Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

"The Constitution requires the president to 'take care that the laws be faithfully executed.' If a president can't live with a bill, he's supposed to veto it, so everyone knows where he stands. But when a president quietly eviscerates legislation through signing statements -- something Bush has done to an eye-popping 750 statutes -- he evades accountability. It's the political equivalent of the abusive spouse who takes care never to leave bruises that show.

"But the harm to democracy is just as real as the bruises left by a batterer's fist. Through signing statements, the president has repeatedly signaled his contempt for Congress and his intention to flout the law on matters ranging from torture to the protection of executive-branch whistle-blowers."

She notes Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter's decision to hold hearings on the matter -- see my Tuesday column, Summer Grilling Season? -- but writes: "Hearings are a start, but heck, why not a select committee to investigate possible basis for impeachment? Imagine it: Congress, co-dependent no more!"

Savage himself, in the role of one-man band, pens another follow-up story: "Two Massachusetts congressmen announced yesterday that they will sponsor a resolution to protest President Bush's assertions that he is not bound to obey more than 750 laws enacted over the past five years, saying that Congress must push back against the White House's expansive interpretation of executive authority.

"Representatives Barney Frank of Newton and Edward J. Markey of Malden, both Democrats, said in a joint statement that Bush's legal claims are part of an 'alarming pattern' in which the administration is 'blatantly and deliberately violating the fundamental constitutional principle of the right of Congress to make the laws of this country.'"

But from pretty much everyone else in the media? Deafening silence.

Is it possible that contrarian, sometimes-liberal Michael Kinsley is speaking for the mainstream media when he jumps to Bush's defense today in his Washington Post opinion column?

"It is not necessarily an outrage for the president to run the government according to his own interpretation of the Constitution. It is certainly not an outrage for the president to simply state his view and then do nothing about it. Legitimate outrage comes when the president acts in flagrant violation of the Constitution, defending his actions unconvincingly, disingenuously or not at all. And Bush has offered plenty of grist for this mill in his assertion of the right to kidnap people off the streets, keep them locked up for years without a trial or even a public acknowledgment of their existence, to torture them, and so on. But nailing Bush simply for stating his views on a constitutional issue, without even asking whether those views are right or wrong, is wrong."

Well at a minimum, some aggressive reporting on what precisely those signing statements have led to -- in terms of presidential action or inaction -- would seem to be required before writing this off as a non-story.

And while by any reasonable standard, Bush is more than entitled to say he doesn't agree with a law -- either by vetoing it or challenging it in court -- these signing statements appear to be a furtive and disingenuous power-grab.

A reader e-mailed me the other day to remind me of a scholarly article I linked to a while ago. In an essay for the Presidential Studies Quarterly last fall, Phillip J. Cooper , a professor of public administration at Portland State University, wrote that Bush "has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement, not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify but also to reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress."

Cooper writes that "the statements represent nothing less than a set of audacious claims to constitutional authority. The scope of the claims and the sweeping formulae used to present them are little short of breathtaking. What is more, they are not alone assertions of executive authority, but also often dramatic declaratory judgments holding acts of Congress unconstitutional and purporting to interpret not only Article II presidential powers but those of the legislature under Article I. At the same time, though, the administration has pursued its strategy in such a way and using such a little-known policy instrument in a manner often so difficult to understand that its actions are known to the relative few who happen to be specialists in constitutional law and American political institutions and are, for one reason or another, attentive to the use of the signing statement."

Poll Watch

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Angry conservatives are driving the approval ratings of President Bush and the GOP-led Congress to dismal new lows, according to an AP-Ipsos poll that underscores why Republicans fear an Election Day massacre. . . .

"Just 33 percent of the public approves of Bush's job performance, the lowest of his presidency. That compares with 36 percent approval in early April. Forty-five percent of self-described conservatives now disapprove of the president."

Dana Blanton reports for Fox News that its poll finds Bush's approval rating up to 38 percent, up from 33 percent two weeks ago.

Veto Watch

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate ignored President Bush's veto threat yesterday and easily passed a $109 billion emergency spending bill for war and hurricane recovery costs that also brimmed with favors for farmers, the fishing industry, and the states of Hawaii and Rhode Island."

Cheney's Rebuke

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday delivered the Bush administration's strongest rebuke of Russia to date. He said the Russian government 'unfairly and improperly restricted' people's rights and suggested that it sought to undermine its neighbors and to use the country's vast resources of oil and gas as 'tools of intimidation or blackmail.' . . .

"Mr. Cheney's remarks, which officials in Washington said had been heavily vetted and therefore reflected the administration's current thinking on Russia, appeared to lay down new markers for a relationship that has become strained and could become significantly more so in the months ahead."

Here is the text of Cheney's speech.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration has warned Russia that the upcoming summit of the Group of Eight nations in St. Petersburg could be a debacle unless the Kremlin takes specific actions in the coming weeks to demonstrate a commitment to democracy, according to U.S. officials.

"The administration has privately identified to Moscow concrete steps it should take before the July meeting, such as registering civil society groups that have been harassed, as a way of deflecting criticism that Russia has no business hosting a summit of democratic nations. And administration officials have sharpened their rhetoric about Russia's backslide toward autocracy."

And Baker explains: "Cheney's decision to go to Lithuania was itself a message to Russia. The gathering in Vilnius of democratic leaders from the region is the kind of meeting that might normally rate an assistant secretary of state. It's also the kind that typically irritates Russia, which views such gatherings as hostile."

The reaction? Oliver Bullough reports for Reuters: "A speech by Vice President Dick Cheney strongly critical of the Kremlin marks the start of a new Cold War that could drive Moscow away from its new-found Western allies, the Russian press said on Friday."

Hamas Watch

Zachary A. Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush vowed last night not to work with the Palestinian Authority's Hamas leadership until it disavows terrorism and recognizes Israel's right to exist, as three world leaders came together to celebrate the American Jewish Committee's centennial."

Here's the text of his speech.

Prayer

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush said Thursday that America's history is inexorably tied to prayer.

" 'America is a nation of prayer. It's impossible to tell the story of our nation without telling the story of people who pray,' Bush said during a White House celebration of the National Day of Prayer. 'At decisive moments in our history and in quiet times around family tables, we are a people humbled and strengthened and blessed by prayer.'

"Bowing his head many times as Christian and Jewish leaders offered prayers, the president thanked those who pray for him, calling it the greatest gift a citizen can offer him."

Here's the full text .

Kavanaugh Watch

Bill Brubaker writes for The Washington Post: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter today averted -- for now -- a possible Democratic filibuster over D.C. federal appeals court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh by granting a hearing into the White House aide's possible role in controversial Bush administration policies.

"Specter (R-Pa.) said Kavanaugh would appear before the committee Tuesday to respond to questions about whether he had a role in the administration's torture and domestic surveillance policies and whether he had dealings with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'm making my inaugural foray on WTWP, Washington Post Radio, this afternoon around 2:10 ET. You'll have to let me know how I do.

You Didn't Ask Which Mission

Blogger Kevin Drum justifiably calls attention to something the first lady said on Wednesday. She told "CNN's John King that when [her husband] gave a nationally televised speech under a 'Mission Accomplished' banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln three years ago, he only meant that the mission of that particular aircraft carrier had been accomplished."

It's true. Here's the transcript . She added: "We can look back and say, well, we should have done this, we should have done that. But the fact is, we are where we are now."

Late Night Humor

From Jay Leno : "A new geographic literacy study claims that less than 4 out of 10 American students can find Iraq on the map. Of course, President Bush has the opposite problem. He can't find his way out of Iraq."

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