November 2nd, 2006

ozarque figure

Political language; what John Kerry said...

Suppose we look at two sentences from recent political language.

What John Kerry actually said:
1. "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq."

What John Kerry says he intended to say:
2. "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get us stuck in Iraq."

I've been reading the blogs and the op-eds about this fandango, and there appear to be the following positions:

A. Kerry is telling the truth; he really meant to be telling a joke about how George W. Bush didn't make the most of his education, didn't do his homework, et cetera -- and therefore got us stuck in Iraq.

B. Kerry is lying when he says that sentence #1 was a botched joke. He really believes that most people [U.S. people] who are stuck in Iraq are stuck there because they didn't make the most of their education, et cetera. He just made up the "it was a botched joke" thing after the fact when he realized how people had reacted to sentence #1 and how destructive his gaffe was going to be for the Democrats. And he's not only lying -- he's wrong. What he said isn't true.

C. Kerry is lying when he says that sentence #1 was a botched joke. He really believes that most people [U.S. people] who are stuck in Iraq are stuck there because they didn't make the most of their education, et cetera. He just made up the "it was a botched joke" thing after the fact when he realized how people had reacted to sentence #1 and how destructive his gaffe was going to be for the Democrats. However, although he's lying, he's right. What he said is what everybody knows is true -- but they don't dare say it, because they know it's not politically correct.


I don't pretend to know whether John Kerry is telling the truth when he claims that sentence #2 is what he intended to say. Nor am I an expert on the education and intelligence of our volunteer military in Iraq. I do have a couple of opinions,however -- and then there's something I'm baffled about.


The opinions:

John Kerry will never forgive himself for having made this mistake and will go on torturing himself about it for the rest of his life.

For most Republicans to go after Kerry for this in public is just fine; it was an inexcusable mistake, and he deserves every word they're saying. But for the President of the United States to stoop to that is tacky beyond description. To quote a Clinton, it's inappropriate. He has plenty of people to do that sort of thing for him, and they're all having a wonderful time doing it.


The quandary:

Suppose John Kerry is telling the truth, and sentence #2 is what he intended to say, instead of sentence #1. He's not deaf; he can hear himself when he talks. He's not inarticulate; he prides himself on his polished oratory. I cannot figure out, therefore, why he didn't correct himself at the time -- when he made the mistake. Why didn't he say, "Whoa, wait a minute -- I botched that joke! It wasn't supposed to be a joke about our troops, it was supposed to be a joke about George W. Bush. What I meant to say was: 'You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get us stuck in Iraq.' Sorry about that!" He can pronounce "nuclear" [and so can George W. Bush, by the way; he just keeps saying "nucular" because it's one of his signature twirks], and he speaks elegant English, and he can think on his feet, and he's familiar with all the mechanisms English offers for repairing matters when you misspeak. So I'm baffled. Why didn't he fix it right then and there?
ozarque figure

Political language; what John Kerry said; afternote...

Thank you for all your comments. I agree with all of you who are saying that it's common to misspeak without noticing that you've done so, and even to be convinced that you haven't misspoken. That's absolutely right. I have just a few more words to say, however.

First, I believe that one of the major reasons why John Kerry appears so stiff and aloof when he's doing public speaking or debating is because he compulsively self-monitors when he's talking in public. (I can't prove that, and I won't try; it's just an opinion.) Second, I think it's important to remember that he was speaking from a written text prepared in advance, not speaking extemporaneously or engaged in private conversation. Here's a relevant quote from a story by Rick Klein in today's Boston Globe:

"Kerry said he had intended to say 'you get us stuck in Iraq' at the rally, a jab at Bush. His aides said his prepared text included that line, adding that the senator flubbed it and dropped the next one: 'Just ask President Bush.' "

I find it very hard to believe that Kerry left "us" out of one line of his joke, then failed to read the punch line that followed, and didn't notice that he'd done either of those things. Maybe if I'd been there, it would all be clear to me.

[The story I got the quote from is at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2006/11/02/kerry_voices_regret_stops_campaigning/?page=1 .]