Another casual lie from Charles Krauthammer

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"Krauthammer: 'Obama Clearly a Narcissist,' 'Lives In a Cocoon Surrounded By Sycophants'", Fox News 9/16/2014:

"This is all because, I mean, count the number of times he uses the word I in any speech, and compare that to any other president. Remember when he announced the killing of bin Laden? That speech I believe had 29 references to I – on my command, I ordered, as commander-in-chief, I was then told, I this. You’d think he’d pulled the trigger out there in Abbottabad. You know, this is a guy, you look at every one of his speeches, even the way he introduces high officials – I’d like to introduce my secretary of State. He once referred to ‘my intelligence community’. And in one speech, I no longer remember it, ‘my military’. For God’s sake, he talks like the emperor, Napoleon."

Since Krauthammer can't be bothered to check on mere matters of fact, I found the transcript of President Obama's speech about the death of Osama bin Laden, and checked the pronoun counts and rates. In fact, the speech contains 1396 words, of which 10 are 'I', for a rate of 0.7%. Perhaps Krauthammer was thinking of President Reagan's Address to the Nation on Events in Lebanon and Grenada, which did have "29 references to I" — though the overall word count was higher, so that the rate was exactly the same, at 0.7%.

It's a tribute to our nation's culture that a man like Krauthammer, who so consistently expresses blatant quantitative falsehoods about national leaders, is not only out of jail but comfortably established as a commentator for a major media outlet.

A fact-oriented history of the memetic falsehood about Obama's pronoun use, supporting the conclusion that he has overall been somewhat less likely to use first-person singular pronouns than his predecessors were:

"Fact-checking George F. Will" (6/7/2009)
"Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme" (6/8/2009)
"Inaugural pronouns" (6/8/2009)
"Royal Baloney" (6/9/2009)
"Another pack member heard from" (6/9/2009)
"I again" (7/13/2009)
"'I' is a camera" (7/18/2009)
"What is 'I' saying?" (8/9/2009)
"Them there I's" (2/11/2010)
"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse" (7/10/2010)
"A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator"" (8/9/2010)
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time" (10/6/2010)
"Recommended reading" (5/3/2011)
"Presidential pronouns, one more time" (5/22/2011)
"Two more pundits who don't count" (6/21/2011)
"Another pundit who can't (or won't) count" (6/23/2011)
"A meme in hibernation", 3/31/2012
"Obama pronouns again", 10/31/2012


  1. Jan said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    Didn't I hear something, maybe on NPR, about the use of "I" in interactions being associated with less powerful positions?

    It was unexpected, when I heard it, and I don't remember details, but I suspect one or another reader/writer here has a much better grasp of the research and such. My point is more asking if looking for "I" in political speeches tells us anything useful at all.

  2. Theophylact said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 11:52 am

    Interesting that in the one paragraph cited, Krauthammer uses "I" three times to refer to himself: "I mean," "I believe," "I no longer remember it." What a narcissist he must be.

  3. MattF said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    My suspicion is that whenever Obama says 'I', Krauthammer feels a stabbing pain in a sensitive area.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    Jan: Morning Edition recently ran an "encore presentation" of a segment that originally ran in 2012, interviewing the social psychologist James Pennebaker about his work on function words. Pennebaker did indeed find that first-person pronouns are used less frequently by a higher-status person addressing a lower-status person than vice versa. For more, see Pennebaker's book The Secret Life of Pronouns (which I reviewed for the NYT Book Review). Pennebaker also contributed a guest post here in 2009 (linked above): "What is 'I' saying?".

  5. cs said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    Possibly CK meant to refer to the total number of first-person pronouns, not just the word "I". Still, I could only find 2 uses of "me" and 3 of "my", so it still doesn't make 29.

  6. Jan said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    Thanks, Ben! That's very helpful.

  7. Elonkareon said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

    Actually, Krauthammer is referring to Obama's self-references–all of them, not just personal or possessive pronouns. He lists "commander-in-chief" as one of the examples.

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

    Obama did not, in fact, refer to "my intelligence community" after the bin Laden raid, as Media Matters notes. (He said "our intelligence community.") Krauthammer is correct that Obama once (once) referred to "my military," in his press conference of September 6, 2013 ("My military assured me that we could act today, tomorrow, a month from now…"). But George W. Bush said "my military" at least twice during his presidency. Media Matters quotes him in a 2005 Fox News interview with Brit Hume, and he also said it in a 2002 speech ("…how confident I am of my military…").

  9. Elonkareon said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

    Aside: You're not exactly doing Obama any favours by establishing he uses personal pronouns less often than his predecessors. One of Pennebaker's other, less oft publicized findings is that people avoid "I" when they are trying to distance themselves from a situation, such as when deflecting blame or seeking to avoid scrutiny. Or, similarly, they use "I" more often when taking ownership and responsibility over the topic under discussion.

    Not that any conclusions can really be drawn from that either, since "I" use (again, per Pennebaker) falls on a spectrum, from "gentle-I" through to "sledgehammer-I", and the uses of each of these are quite different. Simply counting how many I's and me's each of these politicians use tells us nothing.

  10. Elonkareon said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

    Ahem, not that you're trying to defend him, just fact checking the usual journalistic hoohah. But it seems to me it would be better to attack the misconception about I and self-reference directly, rather than counting words.

  11. pj said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    I can't listen to the audio at the link at the moment, but I find it hard to believe the punctuation of the transcription that tells us he said

    he talks like the emperor, Napoleon.

    Can he really have done?

    (And are there any comparable speeches of Napoleon's on record to check the 'je' count, I wonder?)

  12. Jeff Carney said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    "My military assured me" sounds like a shorthand version of "My military advisers assured me." Who would object to that?

  13. Miguel said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    Pathetic Obamabot who wants people arrested for criticizing the Messiah.

    [(myl) Funny thing, there were dozens of LLOG posts defending George W. Bush against those who criticized his language in false or misleading ways, for example here. And the point of the remark about prison was that (at least since the expiration of the Alien and Sedition Acts) America generally allows people to engage in cynical and dishonest attacks on political leaders without fear of judicial intervention, a fact for which I'm grateful.]

  14. Technopolitan said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

    Perhaps one should note that saying "I" when taking credit for the heroics of others is different than saying "I' when accepting blame for a tragedy.

    Context is everything.

  15. BobC said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

    Well, given the fact that the "major media outlet" for which Krauthammer is a commentator is Fox News, his consistent expression of blatant quantitative falsehoods about [ Democratic ] national leaders comes as no surprise at all.

  16. Darkwhite said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    Why are you counting instances of 'I', when Krauthammer is very clearly talking about a more general class of reference to self? He even makes this clear with a list of examples, which includes 'my command', 'as commander-in-chief'.

  17. Southern Man said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

    Rather than cherry-pick a couple of speeches, let's take a look at, say, State of the Union addresses by several presidents and do an "I" count.

    [(myl) See "The evolution of SOTU pronouns", 1/28/2014.]

  18. Southern Man said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

    Data can be found here.

    Comparing the last four presidents, Clinton and Obama use "I" with somewhat greater frequency in the SOTU addresses than did Bush Jr. or Bush Sr.

    [(myl) Here's a plot of SOTU pronoun frequencies, showing that Obama is lower than Bush 1, Johnson, and Clinton. And in inaugural addresses, Obama has been the lowest of recent presidents in use of first-person singular pronouns.]

  19. Stephen Hart said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    Not to mention the elephant in the room, but maybe what really sticks in Krauthammer's craw (as exposed on Fox) is that when Obama says "I" or "me," or especially "my military" and "commander in chief," Obama's referring to a black man.

  20. David Morris said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    COCA's word frequency list gives 3,978,625 occurrences of 'I' in the 450M word corpus, a rate of 0.88%. Adding the rates for 'me', 'my', 'mine' and 'myself' will make that even higher. So it could be argued that Obama uses these words considerably less than everyone else.

  21. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    David: And if you wanted more of an apples-to-apples comparison, you could look at COCA's spoken-language subcorpus (drawn from TV and radio transcripts), which has 1,736,933 tokens of "I" out of 95,385,672, for a rate of 1.82%.

  22. D.O. said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    I counted only 7 instances of "I" in the bin-Laden-is-dead speech. Ok, let's take that speech apart form the self-reference point of view.
    1) There are several quite routine FPSP, which hard to get rid of in a normal speech:
    a) Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted…
    b) Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. [To soothe things over a legally questionable operation — hardly an insignificant detail inserted just to inflate Obama's role]
    c) And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. [Though this paragraph is not an example of coherence, but the use of I is completely routine.]
    d) Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones …

    2) Obama's role in the whole process. You might think that this role was insignificant and he'd better leave it out, but it's sort of normal for people to tell others what they've personally done, even if it's not the main part of the story
    Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

    3) Miscellenia:
    a) Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation… [This is more of taking responsibility type thing. Also this]
    b) Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action…
    c) As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. [I guess, adding Bush's name should neutralize any doubt about Obama's ego-inflation in this one.]

    4) And now, the objectionable parts
    a) And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority… [Insinuates that the previous administration or some other political actors didn't consider this a priority. If he didn't mean it, he'd better emphasized the continuation of the bin Laden hunt rather than his role].
    b) After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded. [His emotions when signing those letters could be very well left out compared to the feelings of people who receive them. This was gratuitous.]

    Overall, a poor job for a narcissist.

  23. Rootlesscosmo said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    On the out-of-jail status of Krauthammer, compare John, Lord Hervey, having a bash at Alexander Pope:

    • • * • •
    If limbs unbroken, skin without a stain,
    Unwhip't, unblanketed, unkick'd, unslain,
    That wretched little carcase you retain ;
    The reason is, not that the world wants eyes,
    But thou'rt so mean, they see, and they despise.'

  24. David Morris said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

    @Ben. Thanks for those extra numbers, which reinforce my basic contention. This was the first time I had accessed COCA's word frequency lists, so I was just finding my way around, plus I did that research over breakfast, which is not conducive to in-depth exploration.

  25. Geoff Nunberg said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    I did a Fresh Air piece a couple of years ago on the pronoun business, referencing Mark's findings, and ended by suggesting an explanation for for the confirmation bias that people like Krauthammer, George Will and Stanley Fish display here:

    If you're convinced that Obama is uppity or arrogant, you're going to fix on every pronoun that seems to confirm that opinion. But you can't help thinking there's a measure of projection here, as well. Will and Fish are neck and neck for the most immodest style in all of American prose, and it's not surprising that they'd read Obama's impenetrable self-possession as the sign of a bristling ego. When you're a narcissist, every doorknob becomes a mirror.

  26. peter ramus said,

    September 16, 2014 @ 11:45 pm

    "I guess, adding Bush's name should neutralize any doubt about Obama's ego-inflation in this one."

    I can't for the life of me parse what's being neutralized by this sentence. But that's Language Log for ya.

  27. D.O. said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    @Peter Ramus: I meant, if there was any suspicion (not "doubt", I used a wrong word) that this sentence was formulated the way it was just to show the Obama's importance, this suspicion should be removed by mentioning of Bush's name. Does it make more sense this way? It might still inflate the role of the presidency in national discourse, but not Obama's personally.

  28. Alex said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    What's really funny to me is the assumption that the use of "I" signals narcissism. It could so easily be seen as the opposite. In couples therapy, parenting classes, and conflict resolution, people are encouraged to use "I statements" as a way of being more humble and conciliatory. The idea is to avoid dogmatic assertions of the way things are, and to avoid blaming other people with "you statements." It's about taking personal responsibility, not about self-involvement.

  29. Rube said,

    September 17, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    @Alex: And of course, if you make a mistake, you're apparently damned if you say "Mistakes were made" and damned if you say "I made a mistake".

  30. Crissa said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

    Hasn't he written this exact paragraph in the past?

    Also, 'my military' isn't in the speech at all.

  31. Chris said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:11 am

    It looks like Stephen Colbert might be a Language Log fan. On Monday's episode (Sept 23), he ran a bit about EXACTLY this topic. No shout out to myl, though. Video

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