Charles Krauthammer has joined the chorus of pundits using presidential first-person pronouns to test the theory that a lie told often enough becomes the truth ("The selective modesty of Barack Obama", WaPo, 7/9/2010):
It's fine to recognize the achievements of others and be non-chauvinistic about one's country. But Obama's modesty is curiously selective. When it comes to himself, modesty is in short supply.
It began with the almost comical self-inflation of his presidential campaign, from the still inexplicable mass rally in Berlin in front of a Prussian victory column to the Greek columns framing him at the Democratic convention. And it carried into his presidency, from his posture of philosopher-king adjudicating between America's sins and the world's to his speeches marked by a spectacularly promiscuous use of the word "I."
For mind-numbingly detailed examinations of the facts — indicating that Obama uses first-person singular pronouns less often than the other recent presidents — see here, here, here, here, here, here, … And for a discussion of why the use of first-person pronouns is not a very good way to measure modesty vs. narcissism, see here.
But Krauthammer decorates the presidential-pronouns meme with another little empirically-untested curlicue:
Notice, too, how Obama habitually refers to Cabinet members and other high government officials as "my" — "my secretary of homeland security," "my national security team," "my ambassador." The more normal — and respectful — usage is to say "the," as in "the secretary of state." These are, after all, public officials sworn to serve the nation and the Constitution — not just the man who appointed them.
Fev at headsup: the blog ("The echo chamber: Pronouns again!", 7/9/2010) does some searching through news archives, and finds that Obama's use of these phrases seems comparable to that of other recent presidents — except that by this test, at least, Obama, unlike Carter and Bush senior, seems never to have been quoted as using the phrase "my ambassador".
You can do a version of this sort of thing yourself. Search the NYT archive since 1981 for "my secretary of state", and you'll find 11 hits: in chronological order, the speakers are Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, George Bush senior (three times), Christine Todd Whitman, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush (twice), Thomas Friedman, and Dick Cheney.
Now not every presidential statement is memorialized in the New York Times, so maybe Charles Krauthammer has commissioned some archival research showing that Barack Obama is especially prone to use phrases like these. Or maybe he's just blowing smoke. My own guess is that he doesn't really know or care what the facts are, because he thinks he knows the truth.
All right, America's Newspapers. Charles Krauthammer is a hack and a fabulist. You already know that if you run his column. Consider this advance notice that this particular column is a pack of lies from top to bottom. You should consider calling the Washington Post Writers Group and asking for your money back. And if you're the Washington Post, you should consider asking your columnists to meet minimum professional standards or confine themselves to the studios of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. I really don't think you'd have a problem filling the space with competently written, accurate, provocative material.
If it was up to me, I'd start by soliciting the official Language Log take on Kathleen Parker. That might provide the Wills and Krauthammers of the world with a gentle hint that open fraud is no longer an appropriate mode of op-ed discourse. Sound like fun?
That "official Language Log take" can be found in the posts "Rhetorical testosterone and analytical hallucinations", 7/1/2010, and "More on the stupidity of Kathleen Parker", 7/4/2010.
Political pronoun-counting is not even an original piece of nonsense, alas — it's been around in American politics at least since the time of Abraham Lincoln. According to the entry for "my (use of possessive pronoun)" in Safire's Political Dictionary, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all attacked for overuse of first-singular pronouns. Thus the Burlington Gazette wrote of Lincoln that "he is known all over Suckerdom by the name of the 'Perpendicular pronoun'"; and the Cleveland Press counted self-references in an 1866 Johnson speech, and commented "That's not so much, only 109 allusions to himself in a 15-minute speech . . . President Johnson is a my-ty man."
[Update 11:30 7/10/2010 — fev follows up by observing that Safire's entry is itself factually suspect, in a partisan way:
… for all the different personae he assumed in his writing (Foxy Grandpa with a steel-trap memory for campaigns past, Mr. Marple summoning his platoons of irregulars to crowdsource the truth), [Safire] was at bottom a political creature. When the push of observation came to the shove of ideology, the latter tended to win — at least, often enough to make him a lodestone of the particular brand of fiction-posing-as-analysis that seems to be in fashion on the WashPost's op-ed pages of late.
I think that "lodestone" is too harsh, but fev definitely catches him substituting stereotype for fact, albeit with a supporting quotation. Safire's dictionary:
Dwight Eisenhower, a team player, consciously avoided the possessive pronoun. "I don't believe," wrote reporter* Robert Donovan, "that Eisenhower has ever used the expression 'my administration' or 'my Cabinet.' He speaks of the Cabinet or the administration."
It takes all of two or three minutes to find this letter from Ike to Konrad Adenauer, discussing the disposition of confiscated German assets, reported in the NYT of Aug. 11, 1954:
Several bills dealing with the subject are now pending there [in Congress], and members of my Cabinet and other Government officials have appeared and expressed their views. None of the measures thus far proposed have the approval of my Administration, but you may be assured that this problem is receiving earnest consideration and it is my hope that a fair, equitable and satisfactory solution can be arrived at.
That's a TKO, I think. Fev again:
I like Ike's writing here: no Oxford comma, no strained attempt to avoid the perfectly well-placed preposition at the end of the sentence, comfortable use of the passive voice where it's appropriate ("you may be assured"). And, of course, what I would interpret as an assertion of personal responsibility in "my Cabinet" and "my Administration."
An interpretation is exactly that — an inference you draw about what evidence means in its context. No doubt we could construct a "my Cabinet" sentence that means or implies something entirely different: "My Cabinet will look like America," meaning "and yours doesn't, you Skull-n-Bones elitist." I like my reading of the Ike letter, but I'm open to other ones, partly because I think there's a high risk of overstretch in drawing broad psychological conclusions from isolated examples of language.
Read the whole thing.]