November 21, 2006

W and Vietnam: together again, linguistically

Nathan Bierma sent in a link to a classic linguification from Jay Leno:

"President in Vietnam. I bet you never thought you'd hear those words in the same sentence. It's like saying Bill Clinton and celibacy in the same sentence." --Jay Leno

The interesting thing about this one is that the joke depends precisely on the fact that W and Vietnam have often been together linguistically, in numerous sentences discussing his efforts to stay out of Vietnam physically. During the previous two presidential campaigns, I'll bet that there were hundreds if not thousands of such sentences in the media, and probably quite a few in comedians' monologues as well. One of the issues was the way that W avoided service in Vietnam by enlisting in the National Guard, an opportunity that he was alleged to have gotten as a result of his family's political string-pulling. Another issue was W's allegedly casual attitude towards the requirements, such as they were, of his National Guard duty. (This was a time when the draft was used to supply manpower for the war, instead of the call-ups of Guard and Reserve units that are now normal.)

In a story by George Lardner Jr. and Lois Romano, published in the Washington Post on July 28, 1999, under the headline "At Height of Vietnam, Bush Picks Guard", we have these five sentences containing the words Bush and Vietnam:

1. Later, when Bush was commissioned a second lieutenant by another subordinate, Staudt again staged a special ceremony for the cameras, this time with Bush's father the congressman – a supporter of the Vietnam War – standing proudly in the background.
2. Vietnam was clearly a crucible for Bush, as it was for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and most other men who left college in the late 1960s.
3. Bush maintains that he joined the National Guard not to avoid service in Vietnam but because he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
4. As he drifted, Bush struggled with his own feelings about Vietnam and the turmoil he saw around him in America.
5. Bush says that toward the end of his training in 1970, he tried to volunteer for overseas duty, asking a commander to put his name on the list for a "Palace Alert" program, which dispatched qualified F-102 pilots in the Guard to the Europe and the Far East, occasionally to Vietnam, on three- to six-month assignments.

If we include sentences with pronouns or full noun phrases referring to W, we get three more sentences from the same article:

6. He didn't dodge the military. But he didn't volunteer to go to Vietnam and get killed, either.
7. By enlisting in the Guard, his son not only avoided Vietnam but was able to spend much of his time on active duty in his home town of Houston, flying F-102 fighter interceptors out of Ellington Air Force Base.
8. "I'm saying to myself, 'What do I want to do?' I think I don't want to be an infantry guy as a private in Vietnam. What I do decide to want to do is learn to fly."

It's easy to find more like this -- the next election brought the whole CBS memogate business -- but this is enough to make the point. Leno's linguification is paradoxical: he can make a joke about how you don't expect to find Bush and Vietnam in the same sentence, precisely because Bush's efforts to avoid Vietnam have been so extensively and memorably discussed.

[Russell Borogove suggests that Leno's joke depended on the word "in" being part of the sentence we never expected to hear. Maybe so -- but I was relying on the parallelism implied by Leno's next observation, "it's like saying Bill Clinton and celibacy in the same sentence", which seems to set up the analogy Bush:Vietnam::Clinton:celibacy. Russell's idea, I think, is that the analogy should be Bush:in Vietnam::Clinton:celibacy, which seems forced to me. I construed the joke as relying on a sort of metaphorical connection between being linguistically close and being geographically close. I might be wrong -- but as we've seen many times in the past, people are not shy about making metaphorically-intended assertions about what words do (or don't) occur together that are obviously false, if taken literally.

I guess another option might be that Leno meant a generic (U.S.) president, and not George W. Bush in particular. I considered and rejected that idea, since Clinton visited Vietnam in November of 2000, when he was still president.]

[Jim Lewis writes:

Some years ago, in the 80s, I would guess, the New Yorker ran a humor piece by Veronica Geng -- I can't find the text itself on the web, but you can find it in one of her books -- called 'Love Trouble is My Business'. The piece begins with an epigraph quoting a Village Voice article, which itself quotes a Sunday Times story. The Times story said something about Ronald Reagan and Proust; the Voice writer suggested that it would be the only time the words "Mr. Reagan" and "read Proust" would ever appear in the same sentence. In Geng's piece, the words "Mr. Reagan" and "read Proust" occur in every sentence.

A quick search on turns up "Love Trouble: New and Collected Work", for which the "search inside" feature is available. This shows that the piece entitled "Love Trouble Is My Business" starts on page 149. The opening quote is from Geoffrey Stokes (in the Village Voice, August 14, 1984). Stokes in turn quotes Francis X. Clines, writing in the Sunday Times, to the effect that "subjects such as the Soviet Union seem to haunt Mr. Reagan the way vows to read Proust dog other Americans at leisure", and comments that "This may be the only time in history in which the words "Mr. Reagan" and "read Proust" will appear in the same sentence".

Since Stokes was unwise enough to use the future tense, the door is open for Geng to write a story that begins:

I glanced over at the dame sleeping next to me, and all of a sudden I wanted some other dame, the way you see Mr. Reagan on TV and all of a sudden get a yen to read Proust. Not that she wasn't attractive, with rumpled blond curls adn a complexion so transparent you could read Proust through it -- that is, as long as her cute habit of claiming a tax deduction for salon facials didn't turn up in some IRS stool pigeon's memo to Mr. Reagan.

And so on. ]

[Jay Cummings writes:

I think what is interesting about Leno's joke is that it would not be particularly funny if it was not a linguification. "I bet you never expected to see the President in Vietnam." Of course, a professional comedian manages to make some amazing things funny, but still, the lingufied version seems funny even on the page.

Maybe this is some recognition of the absurdity of the formulation?


[And Jim Lewis adds:

Now that I think about it, I should point out that Geng cheats a little bit. The original Times story, and the Voice article that refers to it, uses "read Proust" in a way which indicates that the "read" is present tense. Geng's piece shifts between present tense "read" and the past tense "read", which I assume counts as two different words, no? Maybe not, but I'd love to have heard the discussions between her and the New Yorker's celebrated fact checkers. (I doubt that humorous pieces are granted a pass on such matters: they fact-check poems over there.)

A great piece, though.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Same to you, Jim!

But if the New Yorker's fact checkers were ever very careful about matters of linguistic fact, they aren't now. A few examples: "Those slurry, sleepy southerners" (2/25/2004), "No hurr in Nellyville?" (4/4/2004), "AW+" (4/29/2004), "Grammatical complexity and electability" (5/6/2004) "And every lion tongue cast down" (8/1/2005), "Invariably followed by the phrase" (10/23/2005) ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 21, 2006 07:28 PM