George F. Will, "An Olympic Ego Trip", WaPo, 10/6/2009:
In the Niagara of words spoken and written about the Obamas' trip to Copenhagen, too few have been devoted to the words they spoke there. Their separate speeches to the International Olympic Committee were so dreadful, and in such a characteristic way, that they might be symptomatic of something that has serious implications for American governance.
Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about . . . themselves. Although the working of the committee's mind is murky, it could reasonably have rejected Chicago's bid for the 2016 Games on aesthetic grounds — unless narcissism has suddenly become an Olympic sport.
In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences conveyed the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling.
The last time George F. Will trotted out his opinion that president Obama is "inordinately fond of the first-person pronoun", I did some counts ("Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009). As I explained:
…since I'm one of those narrow-minded fundamentalists who believe that statements can be true or false, and that we should care about the difference, I decided to check. …
I took the transcript of Obama's first press conference (from 2/9/2009), and found that he used 'I' 163 times in 7,775 total words, for a rate of 2.10%. He also used 'me' 8 times and 'my' 35 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 206 in 7,775 words, or a rate of 2.65%.
For comparison, I took George W. Bush's first two solo press conferences as president (from 2/22/2001 and 3/29/2001), and found that W used 'I' 239 times in 6,681 total words, for a rate of 3.58% — a rate 72% higher than Obama's rate. President Bush also used 'me' 26 times, 'my' 31 times, and 'myself' 4 times, for a total first-person singular pronoun count of 300 in 6,681 words, or a rate of 4.49% (59% higher than Obama).
For a third data point, I took William J. Clinton's first two solo press conferences as president (from 1/29/1993 and 3/23/1993), and found that he used 'I' 218 times, 'me' 34 times, 'my' 22 times, and 'myself' once, in 6,935 total words. That's a total of 275 first-person singular pronouns, and a rate of 3.14% for 'I' (51% higher than Obama), and 3.87% for first-person singular pronouns overall (50% higher than Obama).
As a result of this previous experience, I had a first-person-counting script all ready to go, and it took only a few seconds to check the new transcripts. This time around, Barack Obama's Olympic remarks included 26 first-person-singular words out of 1130, for a rate of 2.3%. This is slightly below his typical rate for presidential press conferences, and a bit more than half the rate of the George W. Bush pressers that I measured earlier (2.3/4.49 = 51%, to be precise).
[Give me some links for presidential remarks at events more comparable to these, and I'll check them out as well — I don't have time to look around this afternoon.]
It's true that Michelle's tally was higher — 45 first-person-singular words out of 781, for a rate of 5.76%.
This is almost as much as the 6.4% first-person-singulars registered by Nancy Reagan's statement on Edward Kennedy's death, or the 7.0% achieved by her remarks at the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan in 2001, or the 10.0% notched by her discussion of the assassination attempt on her husband. [Again, give me pointers to ceremonial remarks by former first ladies on occasions like the Geneva meeting, and I'll tally them as well.]
Mr. Will also complains about the
… egregious cliches sprinkled around by the tin-eared employees in the White House speechwriting shop. The president told the Olympic committee that: "At this defining moment," a moment "when the fate of each nation is inextricably linked to the fate of all nations" in "this ever-shrinking world," he aspires to "forge new partnerships with the nations and the peoples of the world."
Unfortunately, I don't have a program ready to hand for measuring cliche-density, much less cliche egregiosity, but I'll work on it. My prediction: in speeches prepared for ceremonial occasions like this one, the cliche density of presidential rhetoric has been fairly constant for decades if not centuries.
There are two interesting questions here, it seems to me. The first one is why George F. Will is so struck by rates of first-person usage, on the part of Barack and Michelle Obama, that are significantly lower than has been typical of recent presidents and first ladies on similar occasions. The second question is how many pundits and talking heads will follow his brainless lead this time around. For some attempts to tally the score from the last go-round, you could check out these LL posts:
"Fact-checking George F. Will" (6/7/2009); "Obama's Imperial 'I': spreading the meme" (6/8/2009); "Inaugural pronouns" (6/8/2009); "Another pack member heard from" (6/9/2009); "I again" (7/13/2009); "'I' is a camera" (7/18/2009).
And if you're curious about what inferences, if any, can be drawn from someone's rate of first-person-singular usage, see Jamie Pennebaker's guest post "What is 'I' saying?", 8/9/2009.
[Now that I think of it, there's another significant question here as well. How in the world did our culture award major-pundit status to someone whose writings are as empirically and spiritually empty as those of George F. Will?]
[Update — I clearly haven't been paying attention to the right pundits. The "Obama is a narcissist" meme has seen a surge among Republican beltway insiders in recent weeks:
Mona Charen, "Obama's Self-Worship", Real Clear Politics, 9/25/2009:
President Obama's speech to the United Nations has been called naive and even "post-American." It was something else, as well: the most extravagant excursion into self-worship we have yet seen in an American leader.
Michael Gerson, "All about Obama", 9/26/2009, Washington Post:
I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced.
David Frum, "Obama's Narcissism", newmajority, 9/26/2009:
Michael Gerson's reading of President Obama's speech to the U.N. is both shrewd and damning.
Marty Peretz, "Rio, 1 — Chicago, 0. The Politics of Narcissism and General McChrystal", TNR, 10/4/2009:
What I suspect is that the president is probably a clinical narcissist. This is not necessarily a bad condition if one maintains for oneself what the psychiatrists call an "optimal margin of illusion," that is, the margin of hope that allows you to work. But what if his narcissism blinds him to the issues and problems in the world and the inveterate foes of the nation that are not susceptible to his charms?
And so on. So George Will was just adding his pebble to a pot of stone soup that was already on the boil. I'm not sure whether this makes his column less stupid — because he's chiming in to support one of his cohort's talking points — or more stupid — because the idea, though apparently vacuous, is not even his.]
[Update #2 — in the comments, Sinfonian points us to his tally of FPS pronouns in three pages of George Will's essay "The Cubs and Conservatism": 29 in 853 words, or 3.4%. Less than George W. Bush's press conference, but more than Obama's Copenhagen speech.]