Read His Lips? Sometimes You Have to Read the President's Mind to Find Out What He Really Means

updated 10/02/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/1989 01:00AM

What does crooner Vic Damone have to do with golf? How does one "steer the ball to the dance floor"? Who, pray tell, is "Mr. Smooth"? One man knows. And when George Bush, President of the United States and leader of the Free World, speaks of these things, everyone listens raptly. And then they ask someone else what he was talking about.

Although every President uses and abuses English in his inimitable way, few have been as consistently inventive as George Bush. Indeed, Bushspeak, as the pundits now call it, is as richly varied as the President's own background. When it comes to the language thing, the President is a rolling stone who has gathered only the moss. Churning in his fractured lexicon is his Andover-Yale Eastern Establishment lockjaw (the "silver foot in his mouth" that Democrat Ann Richards poked fun at), his early exposure to Texas twang, and what may be a misguided impulse to try to seem like one of the golfing guys. There are also whispers of Kennebunkport, his experiences as a fighter pilot, his tenure as the head of the CIA. Add a lifelong love of sports plus a fondness for quoting Yogi Berra, and the result is a mulligatawny mélange that baffles many Americans and sends foreign reporters to their dictionaries.

What has been missing, till this point, is a glossary of George Bush's English, a phrase book for tourists to Bush country. We now offer that guide, culled from a variety of sources, in the hope that future generations of schoolchildren will not be too mystified when they study the history of late 20th-century America and come upon phrases like "deep doo-doo."

VIC DAMONE: Nothing at all to do with the suave song stylist, this is George Bush's way of saying "victory," as in "Vic Damone" on the links today.

STEER THE BALL TO THE DANCE FLOOR: A Bush golfing expression—and mixed metaphor—which, in translation, means getting the ball on the green.

MR. SMOOTH: None other than the President himself, after he has made a particularly fine shot. This also gets him out of...

TENSION CITY: The critical juncture in any sporting or political event.

GO BALLISTIC: Become absolutely furious. As in "I go ballistic." This one probably makes some people in Moscow very nervous.

THE "THING" THING: Whenever the President can't come up with the noun he really needs, he substitutes "thing." The most famous instance was in a Newark drug clinic during the election campaign when he asked a recovering addict: "Did you come here and say, The heck with it, I don't need this darn thing?' Did you go through a withdrawal thing?"

DEEP DOO-DOO: The substance in which Mr. Smooth finds himself when he can't get out of Tension City.

I COULDN'T CARE LESS: He couldn't be more deeply concerned. Also see...

IT DOESN'T BOTHER ME: Boy, does it bother him. The more he denies it, the hotter he is.

A MODIFIED LIMITED PHOTO OP, CUM STATEMENT, SANS QUESTIONS: Photographers can take pictures; Mr. Bush will make remarks but not answer any questions. To achieve the same effect, President Reagan would simply stand beside a thundering helicopter.

GETTING INTO THEIR KNICKERS: Not as racy as it might appear. When the President used this locution he was praising Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and his burrlike ability to irritate the Democrats.

POWER OUTAGE: There's this thing in midair and the President doesn't think it's going to hit the target, so this is what he yells. Don't worry, he's referring to pitching horseshoes.

UNLEASH CHIANG: Though it sounds like some new age nostrum about casting the I Ching, this phrase actually goes back to the coldest days of the Cold War, when Taiwan strongman Chiang Kai-shek kept threatening to invade mainland China and take it back from Mao. When Mr. Bush uses it, though, it's a slyly humorous exhortation to his tennis doubles partner to deliver a blockbuster serve.

SLIDE SHOW: Bush's term for economic decline, as in, say, The Slide Show and Fall of the Roman Empire.

NO PRISONERS: What he says when he's on the verge of a big win, a wipeout.

YOU CAN OBSERVE A LOT JUST BY WATCHING: The President is fond of quoting Yogi Berra, that Hall of Fame philosopher-linguist. This drives foreign reporters completely bonkers—as does his general passion for baseball metaphors. This past summer, when describing his difficulty in catching bluefish in Kennebunkport, he told the press, "I've seen a lot of good .350 hitters bat, 178 for a while." "The French reporter threw down his notebook in frustration," said Washington Post reporter David Hoffman. "How do you begin to translate that?"

Well, maybe you start with the baseball thing and how a good hitter in Tension City finds that to achieve a Vic Damone...

—Michael Neill, Garry Clifford in Washington, D.C.

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