Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The legacy thing

Commentary by Betty Bell


Betty Bell

The big picture, as Small Potatoes suggests, never fills my screen. What I see, what I'm drawn to as a nail to a magnet, is wee things, matters that can fit on the head of a pin, which perhaps explains my almost obsessive interest in the George Bush legacy—the legacy Himself has tried so hard to set in stone. But, poor feller, the first cornerstone of his hoped-for legacy, the quick and dazzling success in Iraq, proved to be made of sand. And then in the next corner, where he set the Social Security stone, it turned out to be made of sand, too. But of course there will be a George Bush legacy even if it's not the one Karl Rogue spends his time mixing the mortar for. And Himself probably won't have much say in it either. That's how it goes with legacies—the featured performer seldom gets to write the script.

Lately, I've carried a worrisome load on my shoulders: I think I've stumbled on to what the Bush legacy will be. And if it comes to pass, I see William Safire taking to his bed never to rise again, and the rest of us will be reaching for the Maalox should this be the cornerstone made of marble.

How I discovered the Bush legacy evolved gradually after hearing so many of those 90-second photo-op speeches. Almost always, somewhere along the way, we're used to the president coming up with a new malapropism that sets us giggling and ends the session on a cheery note. But what has gradually come to nettle me is what happens when the president gets to about the second sentence. It's the mayhem he commits against a common two-letter word, unfortunately a synonym-less word, the itty bitty word "to."

The president says "tuh."

Always. Religiously, you might say. The president never slips up and says "to." I bet he never even slips up when he and Lance are exchanging technique tips out there on their mountain bikes on a road less graveled. Unfortunately, he never slips up and says "to" when he's giving a speech with the current visiting head of state standing alongside him on the podium. It's tuh ... tuh ... tuh.

Tuh is a worry and it should be. How does the translator handle it? I don't suppose it's a challenge if his native tongue is ours, but what if he's from Afghanistan, or Nigeria, or any of those places we have to go to a map to place? I worry that tuh can cause the translator to pull up short, that it can stop him dead in mid-sentence, that he can lose the gist of what the president's saying. The consequences could be dire. Who'd a thunk the first World War could start because of a bunch of misunderstandings along the way?

Maybe you're one who's never picked up on tuh. If that's the comfort zone in which you've dwelled, I'm sorry about calling your attention tuh this. Nevermore shall you be able to not hear tuh—not hear it as loud as a Howard Dean scream.

Picture the desolate future in which we're all comfortable with tuh. Here's a scenario: Your first-born walks to the center of his high school stage resplendent in Shakespearean garb, and you're proud proud proud he was chosen to play Hamlet. And then he comes to the big soliloquy, that piece that even we Shakespearean ignoramuses quote whenever we can. Junior booms: "Tuh be or not tuh be; that is the question ..."

And worse follows: tuh's turned loose 11 times more in the next 10 lines. Check it out.

Tragically then, when the applause for Junior in that high school gym becomes deafening, what it means is that of all the possible George Bush legacies, this is the one that took.

But it's not yet a done deal. It doesn't have to end this way. There's still time for tuh to be quashed. Now that Karen Hughes is back from Mission Impossible—going to all the unfriendly places and trying to make us lovable again—she can get back to what she excels in—writing the president's speeches. And when she's finished one, all she has to do is go back through it and substitute "2" every time the impossible word appears. Like this: "Now is the time for all good men 2 come 2 the aid of their party."

It'll work. The president has no problem with numbers, not even really big ones with a string of commas—like the national debt.

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