The Washington Post
Monday, January 26, 2004; Page C01

How's the Candidates' Spanish? Hard to Say.

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer

Howard Dean was outraged. Worse, he was outraged en español. His eyebrows arching, his finger jabbing the air, his voice dripping with contempt, he stirred his Latino audience by attacking President Bush for what he'd done to nosotros ingresos.

That is, to "us incomes."

In the quadrennial stampede for the White House, President Bush and the gaggle of Democrats seeking to unseat him are pursuing Hispanic voters as never before. In debates and TV ads, in one-on-one chats and in town hall meetings, the Democratic hopefuls have shown a remarkable -- some might say reckless -- tendency to go bilingual.

This strategy is not without its hazards. In his speech last year to the Latino audience in Phoenix, for example, Dean confused "our" (nuestros) with "us" (nosotros). If only he were the only one. Latinos are now the nation's largest minority, a prize for any politician. And they make up a significant part of the population in two states -- New Mexico and Arizona -- holding early primaries, on Feb. 3. Small wonder, then, that the Democrats kicked off their presidential candidates' debates in Albuquerque last September with questions in Spanish and English. A similar bilingual event occurred in Phoenix.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who grew up in Mexico City, attended the debates. Asked to rate the candidates' Spanish, he snickered. Richardson gave a "passable C" to Dean and Sen. John Kerry, who spoke choppy but identifiable Spanish. Sen. Joe Lieberman, he noted, sprinkled his English with both Yiddish and Spanish, sometimes both at once. ("Viva chutzpah!")

And Dennis Kucinich? "D-minus," Richardson declared cheerfully.

It wasn't for lack of enthusiasm. The Ohio congressman plunged into fiery Spanish at every opportunity. He slammed into consonants and plowed on. His pronunciation slipped into French. He plowed on. Titters erupted in the audience. He plowed on. "Nosotros juntos!" Kucinich yelled at one point, introducing a phrase previously unknown in Latin American campaigning ("Us together!").

"He loves the language," marveled his spokesman, David Swanson.

U.S. leaders, of course, have long had a tenuous relationship with foreign languages. President John Kennedy declared himself a jelly doughnut in his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech (rather than a Berlin resident, or Berliner, without the "ein."). Former House speaker Jim Wright, on a trip to Mexico, once tried to say he was embarrassed. "Estoyembarazada," he declared, unwittingly revealing that he was pregnant.

Well, fortunately that dark era is over. The current crop of Democratic candidates features no Ugly Americans, but a cosmopolitan, multilingual lot. Take Kerry, the
Massachusetts senator: He speaks Italian, French and some Spanish. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark speaks French and learned Spanish while heading the U.S. Southern
Command. He also admits to conversing in Russian "with the help of vodka."

Then there is Kucinich.

"He'll speak in Florida and break into Spanish. He'll break into Creole," reports Swanson. "You know, he'll start in with Hebrew and Arabic in different events, and
French." Nor are languages Kucinich's only talent, Swanson says. "He's a singer. He does voices. He's a ventriloquist."

Most candidates, however, have a limited Spanish repertoire. For Lieberman, it's a family affair. He describes immigration as the story of "my familia." He speaks of
the American dream: "faith, familia and country." And he pledges to work with Latinos, "together -- as familia."

For his part, Dean has a decent accent, thanks to a long-ago summer job toiling with Cubans and Mexicans on a farm in Florida. But he admits much of his vocabulary
isn't fit to print in a family newspaper.

Some have mocked the candidates' Spanish. One Web site critical of Democrats,, featured a cartoon with three sombrero-wearing pols:
Jose Lieberman, Doctore Dean and El Kucinich. "We're Hispanic!" it was titled. And on his "Daily Show," Jon Stewart showed a clip of Lieberman speaking Spanish.

"Don't laugh at this man," advised Stewart. "When they do the bilingual Yiddish debate, he's going to crush."

Still, not everyone sees the fractured Spanish as comical. Some Latinos interpret it as a sign of respect for their growing political clout.

"When I was growing up, that [Spanish-speaking] was frowned upon," said Gene Henley, deputy director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. "So
the fact that many of the candidates have an understanding and appreciation for Hispanic culture and language is, I think, outstanding."

And many Latinos note it was just a few years ago that politicians were campaigning to deny social services to illegal immigrants. But by 2000, their attitude had
changed. Once hostile, it was now friendly, even panting.

"Yo te quiero mucho," Al Gore was fond of telling Latino audiences -- "I love you very much." Bush had a better command of Spanish, using it so often that the Times
of London predicted he could make history, as "the first president who is more comfortable speaking a language other than his own."

At the White House, Bush offers "bienvenidos" to foreign dignitaries and talks about his familia. He speaks Spanish to dignitaries ("Señor presidente, mi amigo"), to
his staff (including referring to national security adviser Condoleezza Arroz) and to the press corps (with one reporter responding, according to White House transcripts:
"No comprende.")

Bush is not fluent, veering often into English when his Spanish runs dry. And he is known to be grammar-challenged in languages beyond his own.

But he has not made a major faux pas like some other politicians have. A few years ago, then House speaker Newt Gingrich released a statement marking the holiday
of Cinco de Mayo; in the statement he literally translated his title as "Hablador." The problem: Hablador isn't "speaker," at least not the kind the Republican
congressman had in mind.

According to the authoritative New Revised Velazquez Spanish and English Dictionary, an hablador is "an impudent prattler, a trifling talker, a gabbler, a prattler, a
chattering fellow."

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