A few days ago, in discussing Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin ("The phonetics of flop sweat", 9/26/2008), I quoted the reaction "Those aren't talking points; they're babbling points". But in Couric's 9/29 interview with Governor Palin and Senator McCain together, things went differently, in a way that deserves notice.
Ms. Couric asked about the "Pakistan terror gaffe", where in answering a question from a voter, Palin seemed to agree with Obama and disagree with McCain on the question of cross-border raids into Pakistan. In response, Gov. Palin brought out her talking points in good order:
Couric: Governor Palin, are you two on the same page?
Palin: We had a great discussion with President Zadari [sic] as we talked about what it is that America can and should be doing together to make sure that the terrorists do not cross borders and do not ultimately put themselves in a position of attacking America again or her allies. And we will do what we have to do to secure the United States of America and her allies.
She didn't answer the question, of course. But I surmise that her non-answer was almost exactly what her handlers would have wanted her to say, aside from a minor mispronunciation of Asif Ali Zardari's name — which was not nearly as far off as Sen. McCain's earlier rendition of it as "Kardari". (And she was probably supposed to say "what it is that Pakistan and America can and should be doing together, not "what it is that America should be doing together". But really, she was very close.)
In contrast, Sen. McCain was not nearly as disciplined or coherent:
Couric: Is that something you shouldn't say out loud, Senator McCain?
McCain: O- of course not, but look — I understand — this day and age — gotcha journalism — was that a pizza place? In a conversation with someone who – you didn't he- hear the question very well, you don't know the context of the conversation — grab a phrase — (([unclear] dedag-)) Governor Palin and I agree that you don't announce that you're going to attack another country.
The phrase "babbling points" describes this pretty accurately.
My point is not to criticize Sen. McCain or praise Gov. Palin, but simply to point out that the standard narrative about public figures is not always a valid description. In particular, the view that certain politicians are characteristically disfluent needs some scrutiny, as discussed at length in "Trends in presidential disfluency", 11/26/2005.
Politicians need to express complex ideas in a simple way, in real time, in response to questions that are not entirely predictable and sometimes hostile, in a situation where the costs of misstatement are high, and the costs of excessively frank statements can be even higher. You could use this description to design an experimental paradigm that would produce high rates of disfluency and incoherence — except that university Institutional Review Boards probably wouldn't allow you to put human subjects through such a harrowing procedure.
It obviously helps to be more verbally skilled, more knowledgeable, and better prepared. And politicians do differ on these dimensions. But all of them babble sometimes, and none of them babbles all the time. Maybe it's time to define a disfluency index — or better, a vector of qualities related to fluency and coherence — that could be used to put the field of political babble-ology on a sound footing.
[By the way, can anyone figure out what Sen. McCain was starting to say in the fragment that I've transcribed as "((dedag-))" ?