October 24, 2004

True tautologies from Bush

I recently pointed out that Philip Gourevitch was wrong with his characterization of a couple of typical Bushesque phrases as tautologous. But Tom Ace reminds me that Bush really has uttered tautologies on a number of occasions. So if you want to see some genuine Bushian tautologies, read on.

"It's very important for folks to understand that when there's more trade, there's more commerce." —George W. Bush, at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, April 21, 2001

"If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it." —George W. Bush, during the third presidential debate, St. Louis, Mo., October 18, 2000

". . . the past is over." —George W. Bush, after making up with John McCain, Dallas Morning News, May 10, 2000

These statements really are tautologies in the logical sense. They simply cannot be false, no matter what the state of the world. If trade increases, commerce does. If something is indeed what you're for, then you're for it. And the past is truly over, for all of us.

Still, you have to be careful. Tom included this one:

"We want anybody who can find work to be able to find work." -- George W. Bush, 60 minutes II, CBS, December 5, 2000

It would indeed be tautologous to claim that those who can find work are able to find work (if can is taken in its dynamic "is able" sense, anyway). But the sentence above is not a tautology. If the Republican administration wants those who can find work to be able to find work, then they want a tautology to be true (and they're in luck, because they will get what they want: it is true). But it is only a contingent truth that they want that. One can imagine an administration so misguided that it wanted those who could find work to be unable to do so. They wouldn't get what they want, because it's a contradiction; but then some people want government spending to be increased in all categories while taxes are reduced and the deficit is eliminated. (Bush's speeches suggest that he actually wants that himself.) So one can certainly wish (stupidly) for a contradiction to be true, or for a tautology to be true. And if one does, it is a merely contingent truth, not a tautological truth, that those are one's wishes.

Tom also included this quote:

"Listen, Al Gore is a very tough opponent. He is the incumbent. He represents the incumbency. And a challenger is somebody who generally comes from the pack and wins, if you're going to win. And that's where I'm coming from." -- George W. Bush, Detroit, Sept. 7, 2000

But this chaotic verbal eruption too is nowhere near the logical territory of tautology. If we translate Bush's bumbling into the kind of more organized but wordy prose that people accuse Kerry of having as a native tongue, it might sound like this: "Gore is a member of the incumbent administration, hence in effect (though not currently the holder of the presidency) the incumbent in this race. The definition of a challenger is someone who comes from the pack to win (if indeed they do win), defeating a more powerful candidate already ensconced in a position of power. And I'm coming from within the pack. Hence I am a challenger, and if I win, it will be in effect the victory of a challenger over an incumbent." That at least is a coherent argument that might represent what Bush was attempting to blurt out. I see no tautologies in it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 24, 2004 02:34 PM