Dick Cavett recently called Sarah Palin "The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla" and "the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High". He worries that "ambitious politicos" will learn "that frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences that ramble on long after thought has given out completely are a candidate’s valuable traits". Peter Suderman, more specific if less witty, complains ("Sarah Palin speaks!",11/12/2208 ) that "I do not know what this means":
… massive leverage by everyone from consumers who bought houses for nothing down to hedge funds that were betting $30 for every $1 they had in cash a world economy that is so much more intertwined than people realized which is exemplified by British police departments that are financially strapped today because they put their savings in online Icelandic banks to get a little better yield that have gone bust globally intertwined financial instruments that are so complex that most of the C.E.O.'s dealing with them did not and do not understand how they work especially on the downside a financial crisis that started in America with our toxic mortgages …
Oops, sorry, that was a portion of a sentence from Thomas Friedman's latest column, "Gonna Need a Bigger Boat", with the punctuation removed. The passage that Peter Sunderman complained about was this:
Sitting here in these chairs that I’m going to be proposing but in working with these governors who again on the front lines are forced to and it’s our privileged obligation to find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don’t get away with that. We have to balance budgets and we’re dealing with multibillion dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees in our organizations.
The quoted passage is from Sarah Palin's interview with Wolf Blitzer, at the recent Republican Governors Association. Suderman got the quote from a post by Kevin Drum ("What just happened", 11/12/2008), who in turn seems to have gotten it from a transcript posted at The Page.
Unfortunately, this transcript is a poor one, and in particular, it makes some remarkably tone-deaf punctuational choices. This transforms into gibberish a spoken passage that's entirely coherent, if full of the appositives and parentheticals and false starts that are common in extemporaneous speech.
Let's take a closer look at the conversation, step by step. Wolf Blitzer asks Gov. Palin for her "new ideas on how to take the Republican Party out of this rut that it's in right now"; and she tries to shift the focus back onto the Republican governors in general, who "have really good ideas for our nation because we're the ones there on the front lines being held accountable every single day in service to the people whom [sic] have hired us in our own states"; and Blitzer interrupts and tries again to get her to make some specific, personal, and newsworthy proposal ("Does that mean you want to come up with a new Sarah Palin initiative that you want to release right now?"), and she responds (click on the link for an audio clip):
Ah, nothing specific right now, sitting here in these chairs, that I'm going to be proposing; but-
She starts with a noise that's unexpected coming from a national politician being interviewed on CNN — the transcript renders it as "Gah!", and maybe that's the right choice, though "Ah" looks more dignified, and maybe it's actually "Yah". But aside from this, there's nothing linguistically suprising so far.
Trying again to shift focus back to her fellow governors, she continues:
… in working with these governors — who again on the front lines are forced to (and it's our privileged obligation to) find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day …
Her plan is clear — she means to say that in working with her fellow governors, she's heard a lot of good ideas. But then she gets tied up in a series of supplementary clauses of praise for the governors, and a hinted dig at Barack Obama, and then more clauses of praise:
... being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don't get away with that, we have to balance budgets and we're dealing with multibillion dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees in our organizations, that executive experience that every governor has and must have uh being put to good use now as we work together AS governors to help reach out to Barack Obama's administration uh being able to um help him make good decisions based on the solutions that we already seek.
And now she's forgotten that her sentence started as a subordinate clause ("…but in working with these governors, who …"), so she just gives it up without ever getting to the main clause. This is a mistake, and one that a more experienced public speaker might have avoided. But it's neither incoherent nor especially uncommon.
And she does remember that Blitzer wanted some kind of policy proposal from her, so after the long litany of praise for her fellow Republican governors, she tacks on a bit of her personal agenda:
For me specifically of course, energy independence that is doable here in this country, we have the domestic solutions because we have the domestic supplies.
This is not a very persuasive policy proposal, based on what I read about the calculus of petroleum supply and demand. And it's not a complete sentence — like Bush 41 and many other public figures, Govenor Palin often speaks in noun phrases — but it does ends with a rhetorically praiseworthy and syntactically well-formed slogan, even if that slogan's policy recommendation is at best controversial.
Daniel Larison almost gets it ("Cracking the code", 11/12/2008). He writes that "What we have to do … is decrypt her message by filtering out all of the confusing chatter that keeps her statements encoded and difficult to follow", where by "confusing chatter" he mostly means the parentheticals and false starts.
But the thing is, almost everyone's natural speech almost always needs some of this sort of editing. Consider this passage from an earlier president's town hall discussion of social security privatization ("Trends in presidential disfluency", 11/26/2005):
Would um would the g- uh would- and I think- but I think most people just think uh if the risk is gonna b- if there's gonna be a risk taken, I'd rather take it than have the government take it for me, I don't think it's very complicated, so I think that those who believe that- that it's safer and better for people to have the public do the investment, or the government do the investment, have the- have to bear that burden.
That was William Jefferson Clinton, who has been called "with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, the most effective public speaker as president since Franklin Roosevelt".
I wouldn't go as far as to praise Sarah Palin's public speaking style as Camille Paglia recently did, writing that Gov. Palin "uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist". But I'll agree with Paglia that
Liberal Democrats are going to wake up from their sadomasochistic, anti-Palin orgy with a very big hangover. The evil genie released during this sorry episode will not so easily go back into its bottle. A shocking level of irrational emotionalism and at times infantile rage was exposed at the heart of current Democratic ideology — contradicting Democratic core principles of compassion, tolerance and independent thought. One would have to look back to the Eisenhower 1950s for parallels to this grotesque lock-step parade of bourgeois provincialism, shallow groupthink and blind prejudice.
[…] So she doesn't speak the King's English — big whoop!
I expressed some similar sentiments in an earlier post ("Verbage", 10/20/2008):
I don't agree with many of Sarah Palin's political views … But I think it's a catastrophic and unnecessary mistake to throw her into the linguistic briar-patch as a representative of those who have a provincial accent, sometimes use stigmatized idioms or non-standard pronunciations, and don't speak in well-polished paragraphs.
… If you set up a political choice between the people who talk like Sarah Palin and the people who talk like James Wood, guess who wins?
But I also believe that it's also morally wrong to try to win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish.
Alas, after several hundred words defending and praising Sarah Palin, Prof. Paglia somewhat subverts herself by tacking on a note about her keynote lecture for the Theodore Roethke Centenary Conference, which she summarizes this way:
I'm sick of the insipid bourgeois neuroticism in current, careerist American poetry. Bring back the psychotics!
I might be able to get behind that, depending on what kind of craziness she has in mind. But in national politics, I have to say that I'd just as soon go with some sanity for a while.
[William Ockham correctly points out, in the comments below, that linguistic snobbery directed at Sarah Palin has come from every point on the political spectrum. But after several centuries in which the right played the role of "elitists vs. ordinary people", a new political story-line is assigning this role to the left, who therefore have more to lose by method-acting the part with such verve and gusto in this particular drama. ]