October 09, 2004

Gibson scores a "Bushism", with an assist to Kerry

Talking is probably the most complex and difficult kind of skilled motor activity that any of us ever engages in. For a phonetician like me, it's a wonder that anyone can make it through a sentence. To get through a speech or debate without a major breakdown of planning or execution would be extraordinary. So it's no surprise that the participants in last night's debate made a few little slips here and there.

By reputation, George W. Bush is a less skilled verbal athlete than most politicians. However, he's not the one who committed the most striking speech error of the second presidential debate. Nor was the guilty party John Kerry, though he was a sort of accessory before the fact. The booby prize, in this case, belongs to Charles Gibson, the moderator.

This is doubly surprising. In the first place, Gibson did much less talking than either of the candidates. He didn't even ask the questions, he just introduced the questioners from the audience, and added a couple of follow-ups. In the second place, Gibson is a professional talking head. A kind of occupational Darwinism ensures that such people are way up on the upper tail of the curve of verbal facility.

And yet.

One of Gibson's few follow-ups dealt with the likely timing of the next terror attack within the U.S.:

I- I want to extend for a minute, Senator, and I want- I'm curious about something you said. You said it's not when, but if. You think it's inevitable? Because the sense of security is a very basic thing with everybody in this country.

Now, I have to say that even if Gibson hadn't swapped if and when, this would have been one of the sillier questions that have been asked in these debates. I won't insult your intelligence by explaining why. Let's just say that a plausible off-the-record answer from either candidate would have been "duh!?"

But of course Gibson did swap if and when.

Kerry kindly corrected Gibson by repetition, and then tossed in a couple of suitable sound bites.

Well, the president and his experts have told America that it's not a question of if; it's a question of when. And I accept what the president has said. These terrorists are serious, they're deadly, and they know nothing except trying to kill.

I understand that. That's why I will never stop at anything to hunt down and kill the terrorists.

But you heard the president just say to you that we've added money.

Folks, the test is not if you've added money; the test is that you've done everything possible to make America secure. He chose a tax cut for wealthy Americans over the things that I listed to you.

(More tests, by the way. Maybe Kerry would do better to avoid that word for a while, don't you think?).

Kerry himself started to make the same if/when speech error earlier in the debate, and then corrected himself. This probably helped prime Gibson's gaffe.

Kerry was answering a question from Ann Bronsing:

Senator Kerry, we have been fortunate that there have been no further terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Why do you think this is? And if elected, what will you do to assure our safety?

Kerry's answer (in my transcription).

Thank you very much, Ann. [pause 0.657]
Um I've asked uh in my security briefings why that is, and I can't go into all the d- answers et cetera, but let me say this to you. [pause 1.243]
This president, and his administration, have told you, and all of us, [pause 0.807]
it's not a question of when, [pause 0.574]
it's a question of- [pause 0.312]
excuse me, not a question of if. [pause .680]
It's a question of when. [pause 0.513]

We've been told that. [pause 0.723]
The when, I can't tell you. [pause 0.676]

This set the stage for Gibson to get his ifs and whens crossed, a bit more than three minutes later.

This wasn't Kerry's only disfluency by any means. Although I haven't checked systematically, my impression is that he was roughly as disfluent as Bush in this debate. For example, shortly after his if/when confusion, he said (in my transcription)

And I'm gonna [pause 0.258]
put ((in)) place a better homeland security. [pause 0.239]
Effort. [pause 0.259]
Look at it. [pause 0.256]
95% of our containers coming into this country are not inspected today. [pause 0.769]
When you get on an airplane, your car- your [pause 0.421]
bag is- is- is [pause 0.184]
((b-)) x-rayed [pause 0.494]
but the cargo hold isn't x-rayed. Do you feel safer? [pause 0.686]

(387 KB .wav file here).This is implicitly repetitive as well as disfluent. If Kerry hadn't needed to add "effort" as an afterthought, and hadn't gotten tangled up in the luggage, this whole stretch would have been a more-or-less verbatim repetition of sound bites from the first debate.

There's nothing wrong with that, but let's not get the idea that Kerry is some kind of robotic talking machine who never stumbles, substitutes, misorganizes or repeats himself.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 9, 2004 11:40 AM