October 20, 2005

Never anything but less than precise

Something in the DC air has slips of tongue and pen flying thick and fast. The Volokh Conspiracy is in a tizzy over Harriet Miers' "trouble with commas" -- though being a stickler for spelling, grammar and punctuation was supposed to be one of her strengths. And this morning's Morning Edition quotes Senator Patrick Leahy overnegating his colleague Arlen Specter:

I've never know him to be anything but less than precise [862 msec.] on discussing cases.

The context is Specter's public difference of opinion with Miers about what was said in their private interview:

David Welna: Specter is also at odds with Miers over their differing versions of a private conversation they had Monday, on abortion-related rulings. Specter said Miers recognized these rulings as valid precedents. She contradicted that the same day, an experience that Specter said he'd never had with other court nominees.
Arlen Specter: And I've never walked out of a room and had a disagreement as to what was said. And as I have said publically, I accept her version.
David Welna: But Leahy vouched for Specter's version.
Patrick Leahy: I've never known him to be anything but less than precise [0.862] on discussing cases. [0.693] And I've never known him [0.560] to make a mistake [0.663] on what he heard.

Presumably what Leahy meant was either "I've never known him to be less than precise" or "I've never known him to be anything but precise". This could almost make you believe in Freud's analysis of what he called Fehlleistungen, and what everyone else calls Freudian slips.

Since I gave Harriet Miers credit for signaling her Oval Office agreement error with an extra-long pause, I've noted in the transcript that Leahy pauses for a fairly long time after precise. However, Leahy's post-error pause does not seem to be as outsized relative to his other pauses as Miers' was, and it might just as plausibly be analyzed as the "post sound bite pause" of a well-trained political speaker.

[Leahy's sound bit is here, if you don't want to listen to the whole NPR story. And the 10/19/2005 Leahy/Specter news conference is available from CSPAN here; Amy Ridenour has a transcript of (most of?) it here, but Leahy's comment is fixed up:

"I've dealt with Senator Specter on a lot of legal issues over the years, certainly on Supreme Court cases and nominees, I've never known him to be anything less than precise on discussing cases and I've never known him to make a mistake on what he heard."


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 20, 2005 11:52 AM