November 26, 2005

Trends in presidential disfluency

Remember the town meetings about social security reform? It wasn't all that long ago, really. This was back in those halcyon days before the presidency was beset by the worst of its recent public relations troubles, and so I thought it would be a good point of comparison for evaluating a possible uptick in POTUS disfluency. And after analyzing the recordings, I have to say, it looks like we're talking about deep-seated tendencies, not just the expression of a transitory problem.

In the first of the town hall meetings that I looked at, the moderator begins the session by asking about a just-released USA Today poll showing that most voters were against having the government invest social security funds in the stock market. The president starts his answer this way (with blank lines indicating significant pauses):


I think first- I think there

a couple of explanations, first of all

we live in a time where

people are

using technology

to become more and more self sufficient and to get more and more information directly.

I mean that the- the internet is the fastest growing

uh communications organism in human history.
And I think that- so I think


The relevance of the internet is unclear -- people are skeptical because they're too well informed? And it's hard to imagine a lamer bit of closing rhetoric than "And I think that- so I think [pause] *that*".

The President's answer continues:

Secondly I think there's uh always been a healthy scepticism of


And thirdly

government hasn't been in very great favor over the last uh

seventeen or eighteen years, although it's doing better now than it was uh
a few years ago.


I think-

in public esteem, all the surveys also show that.

So his first point is the internet, his second point is the general public skepticism about government, and his third point is the general public skepticism about government. A compelling logical structure, here.

He mentions in his third point that the government is doing better now, starts to go on to say something substantive, and then jumps back to clarify that the dimension in which the government was doing better is the dimension of public esteem. It's good to have that cleared up -- otherwise we might have thought that the government was doing better at, say, governing.

The president continues:

I think the real question is

from my point of view -- we ought to get down to the merits of this --

first question you have to ask yourself is


a portion of the social security



go into

securities? Now- into stocks?


if they should go into stocks, or into corporate bonds

should that decision be made according to individual accounts...

OK, good, 54 seconds and 146 words into the answer, we get to the first question you have to ask yourself. Having gotten to the point, the president expands on it:

Would um would the g- uh would- and I think- but I think most people just think uh

if the risk is gonna b- if there's gonna be a risk taken, I'd rather take it than have the government take it for me, I don't think it's very complicated, so I think that

those who believe that- that it's safer and better

for people

to have the public do the investment, or the government do the investment, have the-

have to bear that burden.

Well, that certainly clarifies everything.

When I wrote about President Bush's 11/16/2005 Kyoto press conference, I observed that the passage I quoted was "surprisingly chaotic, given that the question was a predictable one and the answer is a routine piece of diplomatic boilerplate". But you could say the same thing about the social-security Q&A just discussed. The question was a predictable softball right over the center of the plate, an opportunity to bang a prepared answer over the rhetorical fence. Instead, the president's answer was an incoherent mass of rambling disfluency.

However, at this point, I have to confess that I may have misled you. At least, I've tried.

The author of the quoted remarks was President William J. Clinton. The occasion was a Town Hall Meeting on Social Security Reform, held at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, on July 7, 1998. (The recording, which alas is not available on line, was sent to me by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.)

Now, President Clinton is widely believed to be a first-rate public speaker. For example, at the biannual Public Address Conference in September of 1998, Prof. John Murphy of the University of Georgia said that

Clinton's expertise at public speaking ... may be likened to that of someone with a great ear for music -- someone who can hear a song once and then play it perfectly on a piano, according to Dr. John Murphy.

"Rhetorical style is quite important to a presidency, and Clinton is a master at it, and is, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, the most effective public speaker as president since Franklin Roosevelt," said Murphy ...

... Clinton has a striking ability virtually to become part of any audience he is addressing, so that his message is enormously effective. ...

"Clinton's rhetorical success is a melding of all kinds of discourse ... " said Murphy. "Now he's doing what he's very good at indeed -- trying to change the conversation from issues of impeachment to the problems of the American people."

And his former director of speechwriting, David Kusnet, underlines the role of Clinton's perceived ability to think and talk on his feet:

Clinton's talent for extemporaneous speaking influenced the work of his speechwriters, according to Kusnet. "All we really did was just take notes on what Clinton was saying and just type it up and give it back to him and then he'd change it again."

Let's note for the record that the 7/7/1998 Albuquerque Town Meeting took place during a key period of the Monica Lewinsky scandal's timeline. The Drudge Report broke the story on 1/19/1998, and the Washington Post first reported it on 1/21/1998. Paula Jones' case was dismissed by the judge on 4/1/1998. Linda Tripp began testifying before the grand jury on 6/30/1998, and Lewinsky was granted immunity by Starr's office on 7/28/1998. It's reasonable to guess that President Clinton was under considerable stress, and may not have had time to prepare properly for the discussion.

Based on my own experience as an interested citizen, I've always shared the view of Bill Clinton as a master of rhetoric, and it's no part of my purpose here to try to debunk that perspective. As Aristotle told us, there's more to rhetoric than words, sentences and logical arguments. You can't measure ethos and pathos by counting pauses, self-corrections, awkward sentences, illogical progressions and unhappy word choices. And there are stretches later in the same Albuquerque meeting when Clinton also handles the logos part very well indeed.

My point is that people who don't like George W. Bush, and have focused that dislike onto the (I believe untrue) stereotype that he is an incoherent and disfluent speaker, should beware of confirmation bias. As I wrote earlier, "You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage." Most of the time, you don't need hundreds of observers or lots of recordings -- I found my evidence in the first two minutes of the first Clinton recording I listened to.

Of course, if the alternatives are having Ken Starr spend four years and $40 million combing through your financial records and personal activities in search of scandal, or having Jacob Weisberg publish a regular magazine feature, four books and a yearly calendar detailing your "accidental wit and wisdom", I guess the choice is clear.

In my opinion, both Starr and Weisberg could learn something from John 8:7. A deep-seated tendency to disfluency and incoherence is part of the human condition. The fact that we can sometimes transcend our nature and achieve moments of eloquence is a miracle for which we should give daily thanks.

[For completeness, here is the moderator's initial question in full:

I guess I'd like to take the mod- moderator's prerogative to uh ask the president the first question
and it's about an interesting poll that appeared in uh USA Today this morning, Mr. President,
which voters said,
two thirds uh of the voters said
that they liked this idea of private investment accounts
but most of them also say that they don't want the government investing their money for them.
So how do you explain that?

An mp3 of the whole Q&A is here.

It's also worth noting that Clinton (as I understand it) then favored some form of private investment accounts as part of social security reform. However, the fact that this position was controversial even within his administration, and certainly within the Democratic Party, may also have made it difficult for him to give a straightforward answer to the question.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 26, 2005 10:23 AM