October 29, 2005

Don't read it as something more than it's not

The punditocracy and the blogosphere, from right to left, have generally been impressed by Patrick J. Fitzgerald's news conference yesterday. I share this positive evaluation, but I want to use it as background for a different point. Speaking demands skill; explaining something complicated in public to a large audience is stressful; and when the large audience is poised to interpret every nuance to the nth degree, with enormous stakes riding on the results, it's amazing that anyone ever manages to bring it off without mistakes.

Well, the truth is that almost no one ever does, and yesterday's performance by Mr. Fitzgerald was no exception to this generalization.

First, let's take a quick look at the reaction. Andrew Sullivan's evaluation:

WOW: Just a comment on the press conference. Fitzgerald is more than impressive. His focus, grasp of the relevant facts, clear enunciation of what he is doing and dignified way in which he refused to speculate on anything else were, to my mind, deeply encouraging for anyone who cares about public life. He's an antidote to cynicism. The Jesuits who educated him should be very proud today. It will be very hard to slime him; and the administration would be very foolish to even think about it.

Pejman Yousefzadeh at Redstate.org was less effusive but similarly positive:

I thought that Fitzgerald's television appearance was very impressive. He was restrained but principled, he knew the case inside and out and he was clearly at the top of his game in answering the reporters' questions (in addition to showing a great deal of patience with stupid questions like the very last one asked).

I agree, but let's look at some details of his performance at the press conference. (Quotes are taken from the transcript on the NYT site; on a quick check, they seem to match the recording. Any boldface and/or italics was added by me.)

As evidence of how carefully Fitzgerald was monitoring what listeners might make of his words, consider this Q & A::

QUESTION: Mr. Fitzgerald, do you have evidence that the vice president of the United States, one of Mr. Libby's original sources for this information, encouraged him to leak it or encouraged him to lie about leaking?

FITZGERALD: I'm not making allegations about anyone not charged in the indictment.
Now, let me back up, because I know what that sounds like to people if they're sitting at home.
We don't talk about people that are not charged with a crime in the indictment.
I would say that about anyone in this room who has nothing to do with the offenses.
We make no allegation that the vice president committed any criminal act. We make no allegation that any other people who provided or discussed with Mr. Libby committed any criminal act.
But as to any person you asked me a question about other than Mr. Libby, I'm not going to comment on anything.
Please don't take that as any indication that someone has done something wrong. That's a standard practice. If you followed me in Chicago, I say that a thousand times a year. And we just don't comment on people because we could start telling, Well, this person did nothing wrong, this person did nothing wrong, and then if we stop commenting, then you'll start jumping to conclusions. So please take no more.

Fitzgerald's first speech error occurs back at the very start of his presentation, in his second sentence:

FITZGERALD: Good afternoon. I'm Pat Fitzgerald. I'm the United States attorney in Chicago, but I'm appearing before you today as the Department of Justice special counsel in the CIA leak investigation.
Joining me, to my left, is Jack Eckenrode, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Chicago, who has led the team of investigators and prosecutors from day one in this investigation.

As the papers explained, Eckenrode is actually from Philadelphia:

Mr. Fitzgerald announced the charges with John C. Eckenrode, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Philadelphia Field Office of the FBI and the lead agent in the investigation.

and Fitzgerald of course knows that, as he made clear later in the session:

We, as prosecutors and FBI agents, have to deal with false statements, obstruction of justice and perjury all the time. The Department of Justice charges those statutes all the time.
When I was in New York working as a prosecutor, we brought those cases because we realized that the truth is the engine of our judicial system. And if you compromise the truth, the whole process is lost.
In Philadelphia, where Jack works, they prosecute false statements and obstruction of justice.
When I got to Chicago, I knew the people before me had prosecuted false statements, obstruction and perjury cases.

Why then did he call Eckenrode "the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Chicago"? Well, it was obviously just a slip of the tongue -- Chicago persisted from the the previous sentence, and intruded into a place where it didn't belong.

Fitzgerald committed another type of performance error in his answer to the first question:

OK, is the investigation finished? It's not over, but I'll tell you this: Very rarely do you bring a charge in a case that's going to be tried and would you ever end a grand jury investigation.

At least for me, the italized sentence is somewhere between terminally awkward and out-and-out ungrammatical. If he were writing the answer out, I'm sure he would have backed up and reworded it. But he's speaking, and so he has to keep going and work it out somehow.

[If you care about the details... What he's saying, it's clear, is that a prosecutor normally keeps a grand jury involved during the period between indictment and trial, so that new charges can be brought if appropriate. He starts out by putting this in a negative way: the contrary would happen "very rarely". What would happen very rarely is something like "you bring a charge and you end the grand jury investigation". Having started with "very rarely", he inverts the subject and auxiliary of the first clause: "very rarely do you bring a charge in a case that going to be tried". So far so good, but now he's stuck: not inverting the second conjunct would be very odd, while inverting it is hardly any better. Furthermore, he feels the need to stick in would so as to emphasize that the whole thing is hypothetical, since he apparently doesn't want to give any detailed facts about which grand juries are looking into what.]

Another type of error comes up in answer to a later question (pointed out to me by Eric Bakovic):

FITZGERALD: You couldn't walk in and responsibly charge someone for lying about a conversation when there were only two witnesses to it and you talked to one. That would be insane.
On the other hand, if you walked away from it with a belief that that conversation may have been falsely described under oath, you were walking away from your responsibility.
And that's why, when the subpoenas were challenged, we put forward what it is that we knew and we let judges pass on it.
So I think people shouldn't read this exceptional case as being something more than it's not.

As Arnold Zwicky observed via email, this apparently is a blend of

  (as being something) that it's not

  (as being something) more than it is

Let me emphasize again that I found Fitzgerald's presentation clear and impressive. My goal in pointing out some of his errors is not to cast a shadow on his considerable skill as a public speaker. On the contrary, these examples underline the fact that even impressive public speakers make lexical, grammatical and semantic mistakes in extemporaneous speaking, especially when the interpretive stakes are high.

This is a lesson that Jacob Weisberg and the other promoters of the Bushisms industry haven't learned, or more likely don't care to learn. As we keep explaining, people shouldn't read W's verbal blunders as being something more than they're not.

[Update: John Lawler emailed:

The first error I twigged to was one in the first selection you posted, but you didn't comment on it:

"We make no allegation that any other people who provided or discussed with Mr. Libby committed any criminal act."

Conjunction reduction has overapplied to the first disjunct VP; probably he meant to say 'provided information to' or something, but the rest of the VP with 'provide' got sluiced away, leaving 'Mr. Libby' as its erstwhile object. It's a good example of precisely what you're talking about in the post. Also a good example of how cooperative we listeners and readers are, even when we're on the lookout for mistakes.

Exactly. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 29, 2005 12:18 PM