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When Politicians Misspeak, Should We Care?

The past two weeks have seen two notorious examples of what we might call the swivel-tongue syndrome—starkly graceless verbal incoherence—and from public figures no less. First was Rick Perry’s cringe-worthy attempt to demonstrate basic knowledge of South Asian geopolitics during the most recent GOP candidate debate; and, more recently, we have apparently caught President Obama mixing up Jews and janitors at a speech before the Congressional Black Caucus.

We do, these days, exert an unrealistically high standard on public figures’ oratorical abilities. Few, speaking almost around the clock and often unrehearsed, would be able to avoid the occasional slip of the tongue. And anyone who speaks consistently in well-formed sentences would be something other than human. The artificial deliberation that is writing encourages an illusion that well-formed coherence is what language “is.” Yet this doesn’t mean that Obama’s and Perry’s gaffes are similarly innocent. While Obama’s was likely an innocuous mistake, Perry’s was, as most have suspected, alarming.

HERE’S A BRIGHT college student talking to another one in a science class about carbon, recorded in a study of spoken, as opposed to written, language in the early 1970s. 

In other words in the desert you have the carbon granules which would absorb, collect moisture on top of them. Yeah. It doesn’t help the tree but it protects, keeps the moisture in. Uh huh. Because then it just soaks up moisture. It works by the water molecules adhere to the carbon moleh, molecules that are in the ashes. It holds it on. 

The syntax is hardly Gibbonesque; one might believe it if told George W. was the student. It was, in fact, a student no one would judge as inarticulate; the study in question was designed to show how disjointed even educated people’s casual speech tends to be. Record yourself in your own home shooting the breeze. Play it back and marvel and how much of the above sort of thing you hear.

Last weekend, during a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus, it sounded like Obama said “If asking a billionaire to pay the same tax rate as a Jew, uh, as a janitor makes me a warrior for the working class …” A close listen reveals that he actually said “jun—” Some might suppose he was about to say “Jew-nitor,” with Jews on his mind for sinister reasons. However, it’s more likely that the alternate word floating in his mind was “junior,” with him spontaneously sensing a contrast between a billionaire and someone lower on the success hierarchy—such as, say, a “junior executive.” Instances like these, which linguists call substitution errors, are typically driven by concepts or ideas the speaker is likely to have in their minds at the time, and “junior” was much more likely a concept in Obama’s mind than “Jew”—he has shown no evidence in the past of harboring tacky stereotypes about Jewish people.

Perry’s flub, however, was more than just the equivalent of a syntactic misfire. When prompted by the moderator of the debate for his response to the hypothetical news that Pakistan had lost control of a nuclear weapon to the Taliban, he responded:

Well, obviously, before you ever get to that point, you have to build a relationship in that region. And that’s one of the things that this administration has not done. Just yesterday we found out through Admiral Mullen that Haqqani has been involved with—and that’s the terrorist group directly associated with the Pakistani country—so to have a relationship with India, to make sure that India knows that they are an ally of the United States.

In terms of jumbled syntax—what a composition teacher would frown at—there isn’t a whole lot of distance between this and the innocent science student’s “It works by the water molecules adhere to the carbon moleh, molecules that are in the ashes. It holds it on.” After all, the link between being articulate and being bright is only partial. All are aware of the intuitive notion of “book smart” in opposition to actually having developed powers of reasoning. As Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory argues, being articulate is just one way of having mental power. Plus, as I’ve emphasized, none of us speak as smoothly on the fly as we might like to think, and choppy speech is not a sign of stupidity. This, however, should not excuse Perry. The rest of the quote shows why. He continues:

For instance, when we had the opportunity to sell India the upgraded F-16’s, we chose not to do that. We did the same with Taiwan. The point is, our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends, we will be standing by there with them. Today, we don’t have those allies in that region that can assist us if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality.

The problem with Perry’s answer is only partly that it meandered and much more that it failed to answer the question, instead rambling about our allies. His seeming non sequitur about Taiwan—possibly intended to reference our poor treatment of allies around the world—further strayed from the question. What’s more, it showed a lack of familiarity with, well, the things someone in the job he’s applying for is expected to know well. The wordy formality of calling Pakistan “the Pakistani country” suggests unfamiliarity, as does calling the Haqqani network simply “Haqqani.” And, as widely noted, Perry has his facts about India and the F-16s wrong.

Helping run the world requires more curiosity or at least more mental retentiveness than Perry evinces in statements like these—even given our universal human failings when it comes to the elegance of our speech. His inability to even fake any of this suggests that the basics of the arts of statecraft would be alien to him as well. Sometimes, linguistic slip-ups tell us nothing at all. At other times, they tell us almost more than we’d like to know.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.