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A heck of a (fill in object of praise)

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It is presidential language that would make Harry S. Truman blanch - not for its saltiness but, heck, for just the opposite.

On a daily basis, sometimes several times an hour, the word "heck" creeps into President Bush's public pronouncements. People he wants to praise, as well as places, ideas and winning sports teams, are all told that they are, or have done, a "heck" of a good thing.

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You might think that Bush would have retired the expression after Hurricane Katrina, when he told the man who led the federal government's much-derided response: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

But the verbal quirk has turned up in Bush's speeches at least four times this week. One day last week, he used it four times in a 10-minute address.

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"New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit. It's a heck of a place to bring your family," the president effused on Thursday in talking about the city's reconstruction efforts. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, he said later in the day, had "fashioned one heck of a piece of legislation for the people of this important state." A day earlier, in Louisville, Ky., Bush apologized to his audience for not bringing his wife with him: "She is a heck of a person," he observed.

And Margaret Spellings, he said Monday, is "doing a heck of a job as the secretary of education."

The word served several linguistic purposes Jan. 5, when Bush addressed a group of university presidents. Condoleezza Rice, he gushed, is "a heck of a secretary of state. And Don Rumsfeld is a heck of a secretary of the defense."

Scanning his audience, Bush then addressed a group of ambassadors in the crowd. "What the heck are you doing here?" he said, the line met with broad laughter. "Like, you're supposed to be - the deal was, overseas."

The oft-used word shows up in the weightiest of moments. In that same speech, Bush sought to distinguish between Western democracy and what he said was the flawed vision of America's enemies in the battle against terrorism.

"We're going to win," he said. "Our ideology is a heck of a lot more hopeful than theirs."

Why all the "hecks?"

"It's a way to be a common person, and it may be who he is," said Montague Kern, a professor of media and politics at Rutgers University and a specialist in political language.

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"It gives impact to an idea, without having to explain the idea," she said. "This is an advantage that Bush has always had - the idea that he's a common person. He's more complex than that, but that's the public persona."

Last year, Bush told the Boston Red Sox, who were visiting the White House after their long-awaited World Series victory, that "this is a heck of a team." He even threw in a little praise for the mayor of Boston. "You've had a heck of a year, mayor," Bush said.

The Red Sox probably did not know that four years earlier, Bush had offered a similar commendation when hosting the team's archrivals, the New York Yankees.

"What a heck of man he is," Bush said of Yankees manager Joe Torre. "And, Don Zimmer, you're not so bad, either," he added, referring to the famed coach, then with the New York team.

Of course, that kind of praise did little good for former FEMA director Michael D. Brown, the "Brownie" who Bush said was "doing a heck of a job" responding to Katrina. Ten days later, Brown was looking for a new job.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.



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