October 04, 2004

Crib notes and earphones

Wild rumors are flying about dirty tricks at last Thursday's debate. Some Bush partisans are complaining about an object that Kerry apparently transferred from his jacket pocket to his podium, speculating that it might have been an index card full of key facts. On the other side, some Kerry partisans are suggesting that Bush's handlers were feeding him lines through a wireless earphone or bone-conduction system.

Here at Language Log Labs, we've been working to evaluate both rumors in a professional and scientific fashion. Well, at least I put in a few minutes over my breakfast coffee.

Let's take up the Bush business first. According to Kevin Drum's Political Animal weblog at Washington Monthly,

It all started when Bush looked up halfway though an answer during Thursday's debate and snapped petulantly, "Let me finish." This is a trademark Bush line and normally wouldn't draw any comment except for one thing: no one had interrupted him. He had plenty of time left, Kerry hadn't said anything, and Jim Lehrer hadn't said anything either. So who was he talking to?

The theory making the rounds is that he was wearing an implanted earpiece of some kind and was reacting to advice from whatever handler was on the other end.

The "let me finish" aside followed a rapid sequence of disfluent false starts. Here's my transcript, with a link to an audio file of the crucial bit:

I decided [pause 0.314]
the right action was in Iraq. [pause 0.539]
My opponent calls it a mistake -- it wasn't a mistake. [pause 0.306]
He said I misled on Iraq. [pause 0.292]
I don't think he was misleading when he called Iraq a grave threat in the fall of 2002. [pause 1.28]
I don't think he was misleading when he said [pause 0.126]
that it was right to disarm Iraq [pause 0.983]
in the spring of 2003. [pause 0.625]
I don't think he misled you when he said that, [pause 0.585]
you know if you- [pause 0.407]
anyone who doubted whether the world was better off without Saddam Hussein in power sh- didn't have the judgment to be president, I don't think he was misleading. [pause 1.382]
I think what is misleading [pause 0.244]
is to say you can lead [pause 0.723]
and succeed in Iraq [pause 0.597]
if you keep changing your positions [pause 1.381]
on this war. And he has. [pause 1.252]
As the politics change, his positions change. [pause 0.126]
And that's not how a commander in chief acts. [pause 1.494]
I- t- I- uh uh w- let me finish ((here)). The intelligence I looked at [pause 0.81]

was the same intelligence my opponent looked at, [pause 1.503]
the very same intelligence. [pause 0.784]
And when I stood up there and spoke to the Congress, I was speaking off the same intelligence he looked at to make his decisions to support the authorization of force.

Listening to this, and looking at the video, I believe that one of Kevin Drum's commenters (identified as Robert Earle) has it right (except that his estimate of the preceding pause length is a half-second off):

It is pretty obvious that Bush is looking down at Jim Lehrer while talking at that moment, and while answering Bush has paused for about two seconds just before he says 'Let me finish'. Obviously Lehrer thinks Bush is done, and is just about to ask the next question, which is a question to Bush.

The immediately previous passage in Bush's response sounds very much like an ending, both in its content and in the way he delivered it. So it would make sense for Lehrer to assume he was done, and begin to ask the next question. And if Bush started his peroration just as he saw Lehrer preparing to ask the next question, that would explain both the disfluency and a sotto voce aside to Lehrer, "let me finish here".

It's also relevant that Bush commonly uses "let me finish" or similar expressions as a way to control the flow of interviews and press conferences. And the surrounding passage does not seem to have the rhetorical polish that one would expect from lines being fed in via a hidden communication system.

As for the object that Kerry removed from his jacket pocket at the start of the debate, this accusation seems to be a more serious one. Preliminary results from the Language Log Labs image analysis department tend to support the hypothesis, first advanced by some sharp-eyed bloggers, that the object was a slim, rectangular can of whup-ass.

[Earphone rumor via Prentiss Riddle]

[More on this topic here.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 4, 2004 08:13 AM