December 14, 2006

I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat

Under what conditions is it true that you have heard some ideas that would lead to defeat? Yesterday, on December 13 an AP reporter asked President Bush: "You've been gathering advice, as you said, from leaders here and from leaders in Iraq. As you've gone through that extensive process, have you heard any new ideas at all, anything that would change your thinking?"  And in the opening lines of his response Bush said something that I strongly suspect is a flat-out lie:

I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat, and I reject those ideas — ideas such as leaving before the job is done; ideas such as not helping this government take the necessary and hard steps to be able to do its job. [White House transcript here]

The President is making statements here (if he has understood the question) about linguistic acts having taken place: about things people have actually said to him in recent meetings in response to a request for new ideas. Picture a situation that would make his claim true: Bush asks some general or legislator what should be done, and the answer is, "Mr President, I think leaving before the job is done would be the best course"; or someone says, "Well, sir, in my opinion it is time to move to a policy of not helping this government take the necessary and hard steps to be able to do its job." Who has said these things? Who has said anything even remotely similar to them under extreme stretching of the notion of paraphrase?

Nobody in the public sphere has been saying anything of this sort. The report of the Iraq Study Group does not say such things. Even the most extreme of Bush's critics — The Nation, or the "Talk of the Town" pieces by Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker — say anything even vaguely reminiscent of these things. I'll admit I was wrong immediately if anyone can produce evidence of someone in some meeting with Bush proposing that we leave "before the job is done", or declining to help the either the US or the Iraqi government "take necessary and hard steps", but I don't think anyone can. I think Bush just made this stuff up as a way of reiterating some things he likes to insist he will not do. He simply made the decision to pretend that people have been saying this (this cartoon hits the nail on the head) — to lie to us about what he has been hearing behind closed doors.

He has a right to say what he does not plan to do. But he does not have the right to put those claims in imaginary people's mouths before rebutting them. That is not just a figure of speech. It's lying. And it is not the first time he has told a lie of exactly the same sort. He did the same thing in January 2003, and his advisor Condoleezza Rice tell a very similar thing right afterward, as I pointed out in the first Language Log post I ever wrote. Do I really have to point out that lies about linguistic behavior, concerning what people have said, are just as untruthful as lies about anything else?

[Thanks to Heidi Harley for pinning up the cartoon in the Senior Writers' Lounge.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 14, 2006 07:13 PM