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Op-Ed: Why Presidents Should Speak Clearly

I've been swamped with e-mails attacking my comments on George W, Bush's sloppy speech. My correspondents do not defend their man; they embrace his goofy way with the English language. I am "elitist," they tell me. "He speaks the way regular people speak," one writer says. "We know what he means even if he doesn't say it."

This is not a stirring recommendation for a man running for the most important job in the world. But hey, they say, Ronald Reagan was no towering intellect, and neither was Gerald Ford.

Reagan was not an intellectual but he was, of course, the "Great Communicator." Whether you agreed with him or not, you knew what he was saying. Ford was articulate and plain-spoken. No national candidate in this half-century has been more inarticulate, ungrammatical, confused in his speech and astray in his own arguments than George W. Bush.

Does it make me an elitist to say so? No, it makes me a product of St. Mary's Grade School in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where Sister Roseanne taught us that proper speech and grammar were signs of self-respect. And a product of Urbana High School, where Marian Seward told us that sloppy writing could not be produced by an orderly mind.

Both women also told us that a plural noun takes a plural verb. "The people are" not "the people is." And to never use a word unless we knew what it meant.

When one has attended private schools and the Ivy League, is over the age of 50, and still speaks as George Bush speaks, such speech suggests laziness and lack of self-respect. Just as Bush would not want to appear in public with gravy stains on his tie or mud on his shoes, he should not want to speak like a yahoo. As clothes make the man, so speech reveals the mind.

Is it elitist to hold Bush to a higher standard? I think not. Americans deserve in the highest office a man able to express himself clearly and logically -- with the ability to inspire us through the clarity and poetry of his speech.

We do not deserve a man who does not care that he sounds uninformed and careless with the language, who misuses an alarming percentage of the longer words he employs, and who jokes about it. Only Thursday, he said the Democrats "want the federal government controlling Social Security like it's some kind of federal program." It is a federal program. Didn't he know that, or did he plug in the wrong sound bite? What a choice.

The President should be more articulate than the average person. Bush does not speak "the way ordinary people speak." The average American is more articulate. If a stranger sat next to you on the bus and spoke as Bush speaks, you would quickly form an idea of his intellectual level. It would not be Presidential.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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