Jeb Bush gave a Spanish-language interview on Sunday with Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart. This is the first time since the launch of his presidential campaign that his functional bilingualism has been on full display.
So how did he do? Here is the assessment of National Journal's Alexia Fernández Campbell ("How Well Does Jeb Bush Habla Español?"):
It's clear that the Republican presidential candidate speaks Spanish fluently (with a gringo accent, of course). During the sit-down interview, Bush discussed immigration reform, Cuban foreign policy, and the Puerto Rican debt crisis with only a handful of minor word-gender mistakes.
Bush, who is married to a Mexican woman and who has been embraced by Miami's Cuban exile community, kept his Spanish mostly neutral during the chat. You could only hear a slight trace of Miami in his accent, when he dropped the last "s" in some of his words. He did refer to himself as a niño popis when he met his wife, Columba, during a high school trip to central Mexico. That's Mexican slang for "spoiled boy."
If Jeb made it to the White House, he would be the first bilingual U.S. president in 70 years. The last one was FDR, who spoke French and German fluently. Past presidents have brushed up on their Spanish, knowing how important it is to reach Latino voters. But few, including President Obama, can really say much.
While Obama doesn't speak much Spanish, his Indonesian skills are not half bad, considering he hasn't lived in Indonesia since he was 10 years old. (See my series of Language Log posts here, here, here, and here.)
Now, could Obama have made it through a 20-minute Indonesian-only interview as Jeb Bush did in Spanish? I suspect not. The closest he came was a March 2010 White House interview with a correspondent from Indonesia's RCTI.
Before the interview proper begins, Obama gives a brief Indonesian response to the question of whether he can speak the language. He says, "Masih bisa omong sedikit," or "I still can speak a little," before returning to English ("I used to be fluent, but I don't get a chance to practice"). Then, at the beginning of the formal interview, he exchanges pleasantries, responding to "Apa kabar?" ("How are you?") with "Baik-baik, terima kasih" ("I'm fine, thank you"). Again he is asked about his Indonesian proficiency: "Masih bisa bahasa Indonesia?" ("Can you still speak Indonesian?"). Obama says in idiomatic Indonesian, "Masih bisa sedikit, sudah lupa banyak tapi" ("I still can [speak] a little, but I've forgotten a lot") and continues in English. Then, at the very end, he tells the interviewer, "Terima kasih, selamat jalan" ("Thank you, goodbye").
As to whether FDR could have held a wide-ranging interview in French or German, or Herbert Hoover in Mandarin Chinese, I cannot say. But I bet Martin Van Buren could have done quite well in Dutch.