Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time

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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.]


  1. bulbul said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    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?
    Nepotism? No, wait, that's Bill Kristol.
    Presence and name recognition? His columns are widely syndicated and perhaps even read and he appears on TV. Apparently that's all it takes, since he's being paid to write and speak, not to be factual and right.

  2. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    I usually like George Will. Clearly, he's off base here. I suspect this is what happens to many people when they don't like someone, they come-up with reasons to hate them even if those same traits don't bother them in other people they like. The phenomena is fairly common.

    [(myl) Could you point the rest of us to some of the columns (or TV pontifications) that support your admiration? I read him from time to time, and see him on TV fairly often, and I can't remember the last time he wrote or said anything that seemed especially insightful.]

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Stephen: That explanation might have worked the first time. Since he has already been called on it, we know that now he simply feels he can lie freely and get away with hardly anyone (i.e., just us) noticing.

    [(myl) I rather doubt that Mr. Will is aware that he's "already been called on it" — that would be giving him too much credit for lack of ego-involvement :-).]

  4. MJ said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    In fairness to Will (not that he deserves it), his complaint is about 'I's per sentence, rather than 'I's per word.

    Not that this is the most reasonable way to go about it– he seems to count not sentences-containing-'I' per sentence, but rather just total # of 'I's per sentence. The former seems a closer measure of whether the larger part of one's substance is oneself.

    I don't have any fancy computer skillz to check, but out of the first 30 sentences in Bush II's first press conference, he uses 'I' or 'me' 16 times, for an average of 53% 'I's per sentence. That's slightly less than Obama's 54% cited by Will, though I suspect the difference is not statistically significant, and would vanish given more data than what I could count by hand.

    So Will is wrong even given his own kooky way of measuring things.

  5. Acilius said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    I agree that Will's way of measuring is kooky. Since this is a rhetorical question, surely we can't reduce it to "How many first-person singular words do the Obamas use, as compared with others in their position?," but "How much emphasis do the Obamas put on first person singular words, as compared with others in their position?" Of course, that would require an analyst to study a large number of speeches, break them into clausulae, etc etc. That's far too much research for a twice-weekly newspaper column. Such columns survive because it is widely believed that America's political elite reads them, and no one could look at America's political elite and believe for a moment that they read anything that was based on solid research. .

  6. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    Forget comparing his speeches to other presidents — compare it to the other speeches given to the IOC. Especially the ones given by the Brazil delegation.

    I don't understand what he thinks is so wrong about "I." Did he actually expect the president and his wife to NOT express a personal stake and personal hope in the IOC proceedings? Should they NOT try to persuade the panel by appealing to personal emotions?

    Will needs to stop analyzing these speeches as isolated literary works and at least attempt to put them in context.Examining what a person says without exploring WHY they say it is just…well.

    It's just what we have here.

  7. Adam said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    "empirically and spiritually empty "

    Empirical (adj): 1 – originating in or based on observation or experience

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    [(myl) "Empirical: capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment" ]

  8. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    I just read the whole column and I found this interesting: "In 2008, Obama carried the three congressional districts that contain Northern California's Silicon Valley with 73.1, 69.6 and 68.4 percent of the vote. Surely the Valley could continue its service to him by designing software for his speechwriters' computers that would delete those personal pronouns, replacing them with the word "sauerkraut" to underscore the antic nature of their excessive appearances."

    As far as I'm aware, every computer in the world with a word processor can do that. Search and replace is probably the most ubiquitous function on word processors right after the ability to insert text and save files.

  9. bulbul said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:14 pm

    I usually like George Will.
    Like our host said, why? Is it his remarkable insight about the insidious role jeans have played in the destruction of the American society?

  10. William Ockham said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    You might want to compare Obama's speech to Bob Dole's acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 (http://www.4president.org/speeches/dolekemp1996convention.htm ). I wonder what Will thought of that speech. Based on the quote below, perhaps he believes the high occurrence of "I, me, mine" in that speech is result of his wife not being there to save Dole from himself. Mari Maseng Will was Dole's communications director until March 1996. She resigned after George Will caught some heat for praising a Dole speech that his wife had helped write. She continued to advise the Dole campaign informally. In the column explaining why his wife was stepping down, Will wrote this fairly revealing bit about the subject at hand (David is their son, then age 3) :

    One recent noontime when Mari was crashing on some campaign project – I forget what: probably putting together some remarks for the candidate to mangle or ignore – I was deputed to pick up David from preschool. There he and I had a conversation normal in substance but notable in style.

    Most 3-year-olds, this experienced father of four thinks, would have combined their favorite word (the first person singular pronoun, "I") with their most frequently used verb ("want") to express their fondest desire with stark, Hemingwayesque directness: "I want to go to McDonald's." Instead David, whose oblique style is more Henry James than Hemingway, said: "Were you thinking we should go to McDonald's?"

    Syntactically sophisticated and slightly sly, David does not need a communications director. However, he will find other employments for his mother.


    Will rather obviously values circumlocution as a marker for sophistication. But why didn't he notice that Bush and Clinton both actually used first person pronouns more than Obama does? There's a rather simple explanation. What Will and the rest of the folks who obsess over Obama's 'ego' really want to say is that Obama is uppity. In their worldview, black men and women are supposed to be deferential and self-effacing.

  11. Michael Straight said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    he seems to count not sentences-containing-'I' per sentence, but rather just total # of 'I's per sentence

    Which means that, if he's measured anything, it's could just be that Obama's sentences are longer than he's used to hearing from the President.

  12. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    I used to watch him with my dad on This Week With David Brinkley. On that show he was typically on a panel with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts. On that show, he seemed fairly reasonable and well spoken. In hindsight, this may have more to do with Sam than George himself. I based my opinion on him with what I remember from the Clinton and G.H.W. Bush years. After that, I joined the military and ceased watching the show, or any tv at all for a number of years. Perhaps he's changed. Or perhaps I have. I haven't kept up with him.

  13. Mark P said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    If you attribute a certain level of intelligence and dislike of Obama to George Will, you might be tempted to think that he intentionally says these things without concern with whether they are true or false because he knows they will assume a life of their own.

  14. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Here is an example of something of his I like:

  15. Mark P said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    One problem with the column Stephen Nicholson cites is that Will conflates certain eminent domain cases and the lawsuits about them with laws limiting certain election ads funded by corporations and unions (McCain-Feingold). The first has nothing to do with the second, but Will tries to use the (to me) justified outrage over the first to tar the second.

  16. arc said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

    Why on earth does anyone think these kinds of simple word-counts tell us anything about a speech or the person who makes them anyway? If I had written "I wonder why anyone thinks these kinds of simple word-counts…" in the preceeding sentence, would that indicate that I'm 33% more narcissistic than otherwise?

    I did rather enjoy Will's jeans column, though. Hilarious.

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    You think Geo. Will is dumb about pronouns and the egregiousness of clichés? You're lucky you majored in linguistics rather than meteorology. Meteorology is the fork I took and I'm reduced to pulp when I read his twaddle about the "Cassandras of global warming."

    The erudite Will doesn't even know his mythology well enough to realize that Apollo's curse was that no one would believe Cassandra's prophesy but that she would always be right.

  18. bulbul said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    Mark P.,

    Will is talking about two different things: the eminent-domain cases you are referring to and a legal action against a book about them (Royall v. Main). He appears to be blaming the Kelo decision for the suit (and other examples of "intimidation by litigation") and considers McCain-Feingold an accessory ("entangled abuses" he calls Kelo and McCain-Feingold).
    I, for one, fail to see the causal connection between the Kelo decision and Royall v. Main. Where McCain-Feingold comes in is anybody's guess.
    I also fail to see why one would look to George F. Will (MA and PhD in politics) for a commentary on a legal matter. But that's just silly ol' me, with my stupid conviction that whatever the subject one seeks information on, one should consult an expert.

  19. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    Well, he's talking about free speech. In the column, he denounces to forms of speech suppression: the McCain-Feingold legislation that allows the government to censor speech because of who sponsors it, and the filing of lawsuits to harass people into being quite. Most of the column is devoted to the later. And the subject of that lawsuit is eminent domain.

    I agree with Mark P though, he is conflating issues. I think that it's symptomatic of treating liberalism and conservatism as single subjects with multiple parts. Rather than tackling the issue of harassing lawsuits (and there is enough material there to more than fill a newspaper column), he tackles a wide range of problems typically identified with the conservative platform and implies that liberals are to blame for everything.

    I like the column because, while I'm not a conservative, I agree with much of his feelings on the subject. Eminent domain shouldn't be used to take away people's homes just to give to a large developer. The McCain-Feingold legislation does allow the government to censor speech. And harassing lawsuits are bad.

    I don't feel that Obama is vain and his analysis in the whole "I" counting fails because he doesn't take the time to make comparisons.

    Anyways, it's possible, even likely, that if I take the time to read through his old columns I'll find myself disagreeing with him more. Of course, I like Obama, and I don't think he's right all the time.

  20. Rubrick said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    I owe LL a great debt for the juxtaposition of these last two posts, in which caused me to realize that for many years I've been (at least occasionally) blending the identities of George Will and William Safire. I've rarely read either, but I knew Will to be a pompous jackass, and so was puzzled when various Safire obits referred to his lack of snobbery and everyman appeal. RIP, Mr. Safire; I've done you a silent disservice all these years. Mr. Will, please go away.

  21. Harlow Wilcox said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    I sort of like Geo. Will when he writes about baseball.

  22. IC said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    George Will — misleading on facts all the time. On science and energy, pretty much non stop disinformation campaign. He's also exceedingly irrational — driven by profound idelogical bias — but hides his amazing illogic with prosaic contortions of prose.

    How/who is going to make the story not so much what Will says, but that what he says repeatedly misleads or is flat out wrong — always in one direction — and get THAT to be covered?

  23. IC said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

    George Will writing about baseball is what keeps him human. Otherwise, outside of doing what he can to prevent any advancement beyond build, pollute, pollute some more rather than sometimes build not to pollute so much, he'd only be obsessed with stuff like this — And that, apparently, is a watered down version from the original column, which was far worse before it was apparently edited to tone it down and make him not look like someone who was one short circuit away from declaring martial law and imposing Afghanistan like sanctions on what people can or can not wear.

  24. dragnet said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    Sometimes Will is okay, but I think today he was making sure to cover his movement conservative bona fides—or at least whatever he has left. How else do you explain his attacking Obama with the exact terms being used in the media to discredit the POTUS? He was way out in left field on this one.

    HOWEVER…he's right about the cliches. Especially the "at this defining moment…" bullshit. I mean, really Obama?? We're not talking about children dying due to a lack of coverage or women getting acid thrown in their faces in Afghanistan. We're talking about people running fast and jumping really high. Dial it back a notch, wouldya?

  25. fev said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    The pundit culture in the US press doesn't select people based on subject knowledge. (Case in point, Bill Safire). It selects people who — to steal one from Daniel Boorstin — are experts on being experts. George Will, and most of the people like him, whichever side of the alleged aisle they sit on, are good at putting particular glosses on particular bits of received opinion.

    People like Paul Krugman are exceptions. Will's just another hack. And I don't like his baseball writing either. (Of course, I think that pitch got Inge.)

  26. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    At least this time he bothered to count the pronouns in his experimental group (or to have an assistant do so); so, he's improving. Baby steps. Maybe by the next time he returns to this topic, he'll have learned about control groups. Or confirmation bias. That would be nice.

  27. Adam said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    Anybody else think George Will is just getting old? I've read many sensible, interesting columns written by him over the years, but what with his shrill global warming denialism and junk like this over the last few years, I can't help but wonder if he's slowly going the way of the codger: more and more cranky (Kids These Days!), less and less relevant.

  28. Dhananjay said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 4:45 am

    arc said,

    Why on earth does anyone think these kinds of simple word-counts tell us anything about a speech or the person who makes them anyway?

    Jamie Pennebaker has crafted a distinguished career in Psychology at the University of Texas on that very basis:


    I was just as dubious that anything of worth could come out of 'mere' word-counting, but the man has falsifiable, empirical research showing it does. You may still quibble with the methodology upon further examination, but I encourage you to look into it.

  29. Graeme said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 5:49 am

    "this experienced father of four" is a sly if wordy way to avoid the 'I' word.

  30. wally said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    Not to mention that at the end of the jeans column George Wills' inprecise wording impies that "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" was written by Jerry Jeff Walker, when it was written by Ray Wylie Hubbard.

    @Stephen Nicholson Of course McCain-Feingold doesn't censor anybody, it just tries to prevent people with big bucks from being the only people that can be effectively heard.

  31. Acilius said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    @Wally: "Of course McCain-Feingold doesn't censor anybody"

    I vote against "of course" in this sort of context.

  32. John said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    To emply another shop-worn, overused cliche: I think George Will has begun to "drink the Kool-Aid" offered up by the foaming-at-the-mouth element of the Republican Party. The number of conservative pundits who actually have something cogent, coherent, and marginally rational to say about public affairs these days is growing steadily smaller. They either have the same genetic code as the Limbaugh/Beck/Hannity/Coulter/Savage/O'Reilly/Levin crowd, or they are viewed as apostates because they don't ritually condemn the President for everything short of this morning's rainy weather. Brooks, Sullivan, Frum, for example. I used to put Will in the category of conservative-but-not-certifiably-insane. Today, not so much. The erudite style of his prose tends to mask his increasing hysteria.

  33. Marie Burns said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    I'm a flaming liberal, but Will was correct. I cringed when I heard the Obamas' speeches (so did Jon Stewart, BTW) they were so self-referential. It's "normal" & necessary to use the first person in a press conference when one is asked questions about one's policies. It is not appropriate to make a pitch for somebody or someplace else by dwelling upon what the somebody or someplace means to you. How was Michelle Obama's deceased father's interest in sports supposed to sway IOC members to send the games to Chicago? It seems as if the Obamas already have too many "yes-people" in the White House & no one to tell them that narcissism is not that good a sales tool.

    The Constant Weader at http://www.RealityChex.com

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    Extralinguistically, one cynical right-wing view of George Will is that he has over the years made a very good living by fitting a stereotyped view of "conservative intellectual" held by liberals with little direct personal experience with conservative intellectuals. For example, you're the liberal editor of a mid-market newspaper, and in order to demonstrate "balance" on your op-ed page it is necessary for one of the four or five nationally syndicated columnists you run to be someone generally acknowledged to qualify as a conservative. Problem: you don't know any conservative writers, and you certainly don't want to solicit suggestions from those readers who keep sending in cranky right-of-center letters to the editor complaining about your coverage. Solution: hey, what about that guy who always wears a bow tie and fusses about language use in a nitpicky, schoolmarmish and empirically ungrounded way?

    It is, I should note, possible to believe this without believing that Will himself is cynical. I.e., he needn't be putting on an act, rather than simply having had the good luck for his preexisting character quirks to fit a marketing niche so well.

  35. Richard Hershberger said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Will piece on eminent domain and the libel lawsuit is an excellent example of not even wrong. It does not rise to a level of coherence such that it could be judged right or wrong.

    He characterizes the Kelo decision as a "mistake." What was mistaken about it? He doesn't tell us. He notes in passing that the ruling was with regard to the constitutionality of the taking under dispute. So what is his legal theory contradicting this ruling? He does not so much as give us a hint. Perhaps he has a bang-up argument that he isn't telling us. My guess is that he is bullshitting.

    (As a side note on the Kelo decision, it merely says that there is nothing in the US Constitution prohibiting such takings. This does not prevent states from legislating additional restrictions on eminent domain, and many jurisdictions have done just this. If you dislike your state's law on the subject, talk to your legislators.)

    Will then segues in a discussion of a libel lawsuit, which he seems to think is somehow connected to the Kelo decision for reasons he doesn't explain. He assures us the lawsuit is frivolous. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he is right. There are protections in place against frivolous lawsuits, including the courts making the plaintiff pay the defendants' legal costs. There is a coherent discussion to be had about whether these protections are adequate and applied properly, but Will does not seem to be aware of them, or otherwise chooses not to mention them.

    The whole piece comes across to me as Will complaining that there is stuff out there he doesn't like, but with little indication that he knows or cares about the issues in question. I don't like takings of the sort litigated in the Kelo case, but I prefer a reality-based discussion of available remedies. Will is just pissing and moaning.

  36. Bill Walderman said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    "The whole piece comes across to me as Will complaining that there is stuff out there he doesn't like, but with little indication that he knows or cares about the issues in question."

    He needn't worry. The Supreme Court will soon expand the takings clause to make it impossible for governments to legislate environmental protections, and will allow corporate dollars to dominate political discourse under the guise of free speech.

  37. Dave said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

    Stephen Nicholson said: "I agree with Mark P though, he is conflating issues. I think that it's symptomatic of treating liberalism and conservatism as single subjects with multiple parts. Rather than tackling the issue of harassing lawsuits (and there is enough material there to more than fill a newspaper column), he tackles a wide range of problems typically identified with the conservative platform and implies that liberals are to blame for everything."

    This is fairly harsh critisism for someone whose writing you admire. If this is what Will is doing, isn't what he is doing dishonest polemics?

    IC said: "he'd only be obsessed with stuff like this".

    This article would have been au courant like 20-30 years ago!

  38. How Many First-Person Pronouns in “I’m the Decider”? | Margin Notes said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    […] Mark Liberman at Language Log has been fact checking George Will on this claim since the last time he trotted it out earlier this year: "This time around, […]

  39. MattF said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    I guess there's an "Obama multiplier" in Will's head– each time Obama says "I", it gets multiplied by a gazillion.

  40. Willio said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    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

    Mr. Liberman,

    Mr. Gerson's claim is not invalidated by your comparison of presidetial press conferences.

  41. Sinfonian said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    Forget about comparing President Obama's use of first-person-singular to that of Presidents Bush or Clinton. How about comparing it to George Will's own writing?

    You won't be shocked to discover that, by his own standards, Will is pretty darn narcissistic himself … certainly more so than President Obama.

  42. Willio said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    You all are trying too hard by half to make your invalid point. Obama was speaking to an international body on behalf of the American people (or at least on behalf of the people of Chicago). He was not addressing the American Press on behalf of himself or his Administration.

    Candidate Obama is the one who used messianic rheotoric on the campaign trail, saying things like:

    "we are the change taht we have been praying for" and

    "we have a righteous wind at our back"

    Jeez, talk about narcissism.

  43. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    @Dave: The criticism may be harsh, but he's a public figure I don't personally know, I'm sure he can take it. :)

    Also, I don't feel any need to let pass without criticism everything I public figure I like writes, says, or does just because I liked some of the things he's said or done in the past. Specifically, the kind of fact checking Mark does in both of his posts on the subject is to important to blindly defend Will. More generally, such a position encourages columns like George Will's. It encourages people attack someone they don't like on flimsy evidence. And worse, in encourages people to support actions they might otherwise despise if done by someone they don't like.

    That said, I would like to point out that I said that "generally liked" Will. I consider liking someone a lesser feeling than admiration. I like lots of people, but I admire only a few. If you want to read someone I admire, I suggest Martian Gardner.

  44. Vicki Baker said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    I Corinthians 13, the premiere text in the Western canon on selfless love and charity:

    18 uses of "I" or "my" in 16 sentences and 262 words , or 6.9%. This was using the New International Version and MS Word.

    Since I actually have sophisticated software with the capability to replace personal pronouns with the word "sauerkraut", I tried it out:

    When sauerkraut was a child, sauerkraut talked like a child, sauerkraut thought like a child, sauerkraut reasoned like a child. But when sauerkraut became a man, sauerkraut put childish ways behind sauerkraut.

    George Will: Dumber than sauerkraut.

  45. Willio said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    Further, Mr. Liberman's article compares the use of personal pronouns in Presidential Press conferences, where the Presidents presumabley talk about their own policies.

    George Will's article analyzes the President's address to the IOC, where one might expect that the emphasis would be on the benefits of holding the games in Chicago and not how it might please 'The One'.

  46. Vicki Baker said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    The relevant questions are

    1. Does Obama use personal pronouns at a higher rate than other presidents?


    2. Is the rate of personal pronoun usage a reliable indicator of "narcissism"?

    My earlier comment was relevant to question 2.

    In regards to question 1, it would be important to find comparable samples ( I guess you missed Mark's remarks about that, and request for links) So, yes, it was unfair of Mark to compare Obama's speech to GWB's press conference when Mr. Will so even-handedly compared the Olympic speech to… oh, wait…

  47. arc said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 6:48 pm


    Point taken. I'm sure 'mere word counting' can tell us quite a bit about a person: indeed the entire area of forensic linguistics could be described as 'word counting'. What I meant was specifically that Will's idea that a count of personal pronouns surely must be a measure of narcissism seems pretty dubious, and more generally I'd be suspicious about any such measure decided from an armchair. Especially when a moment's thought shows that some usages of 'I' do not seem prima facie narcissitic.

    Perhaps I needed a "-minded" after the "simple".

    I've just gone and read Jamie Pennebaker's guest post linked to above about what 'I' can tell us, and he draws out a lot more nuances about the usage of personal pronouns than Will seems to be aware of. I was going to mention one myself – prefacing descriptive claims with "I think that" doesn't obviously make you more narcissitic or ego-centric, in fact often it means you're allowing room for your interlocutor to disagree with your discriptive claim.

  48. willio said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    Vicki and Arc,

    Why is this so difficult for you ? Why can't you compare speeches for yourselves ? Are you hiding your heads in the sand ?

    From Brazilian President Lula's speech:

    " Our time has come. Among the 10 largest economies in the world, Brazil is the only country that has never hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games."

    "Among the countries that are now competing, we are the only ones that never had this opportunity. For us, this will not just be an Olympic Games. For us, it will be the opportunity to be equal."

    "The doors of Brazil are open for the biggest party of humanity: the Olympic and Paralympic Games of Rio, one of the most beautiful and welcoming cities in the whole world. We need your support and vision for the future. Rio is ready."

    "If you give us this opportunity, you will not regret it. And you can be sure that the games in Rio will be unforgettable, because they will be full of the passion, happiness and creativity of the Brazilian people."

    From President Obama's speech:

    "I know you face a difficult choice among several great cities and nations with impressive bids of their own. So I've come here today to urge you to choose Chicago for the same reason I chose Chicago nearly 25 years ago — the reason I fell in love with the city I still call home. And it's not just because it's where I met the woman you just heard from — although after getting to know her this week, I know you'll all agree that she's a pretty big selling point for the city."

    "You see, growing up, my family moved around a lot. I was born in Hawaii. I lived in Indonesia for a time. I never really had roots in any one place or culture or ethnic group. And then I came to Chicago. And on those Chicago streets, I worked alongside men and women who were black and white; Latino and Asian; people of every class and nationality and religion. I came to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods."

    "And while we do not know what the next few years will bring, there is nothing I would like more than to step just a few blocks from my family's home, with Michelle and our two girls, and welcome the world back into our neighborhood."

    [(myl) Interesting. But it would help the rest of us if you could provide links to these speeches, so we could look at the whole thing, not just the selected passages; and it would also make sense to look at what other world leaders do in similar speeches.

    My sense of this comparison is that Lula was making a pitch for fairness to a city, a country and a continent that have never been Olympic hosts; whereas the Obamas were making a more personal pitch for their hometown. This might not have been the right strategy — but even given this approach, their rates of FPS usage were relatively moderate, and certainly not high enough to explain the extraordinary vitriol of the accusations by Will and Peretz and others.

    I'll note in passing that Obama's UN speech (about which Michael Gerson wrote, without explanation beyond repeated assertion, that "I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced"), came in at 1.12% FPS pronouns, compared to (say) Ronald Reagan's justly famous "tear down this wall" speech, at 1.88%.

    Such percentages are not the metric that I would choose to evaluate someone's degree of self-involvement — but FPS counts and percentages have been cited throughout this discussion by Obama's critics, from Terence Jaffrey back in June, to George Will a few days ago. So it seems fair to ask for a comparison to the behavior in similar circumstances of the American presidents that these critics favor.]

  49. Wes said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    One could also compare Obama's address to the most famous of all American presidential addresses – "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent …"

    In that case you will find that Obama is infinitely more narcissistic

  50. fev said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    Gee, I wonder what the bottom-feeders would say if Obama employed what, oh, Charles Krauthammer called "the royal we." Let's ask FreeRepublic!

    "He is only using the royal “We.” He doesn’t think we are a Christian Nation. Its just him. Its always about him, haven’t you gotten this yet?"

  51. arc said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    Willo, my position is that you can't tell from a speech that the speaker is particularly narcissitic merely by counting personal pronouns. Why would I want to waste my time comparing speeches for myself on this basis if I think the comparison is worthless?

    As you do seem to think this analysis is worthwhile, are you prepared to conclude that Bush is more narcissitic than Obama, on the basis that he uses 'I' more often? (viz. Pennebaker: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1651)

    As it happens, of the examples you've posted, Obama's strikes me as the more self-indulgent. But it's not merely the fact that 'I' appears a lot in that speech that makes me think that, it's the fact that there's an awful lot of personal anecdote there.

    Lula's from a different country and a different political culture, though. Americans seem to be a lot more interested and a lot more engaged with the personal details of their presidents, so it's not surprising to me that an American president should make a lot of their personal narrative.

    Assuming I'm right about this, does this mean American Presidents are more narcissitic than other world leaders?

  52. Acilius said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    @Wes: I also think of Abraham Lincoln's speeches in this connection, but to another point. You say that Mr O is infinitely more narcissistic than Lincoln because he uses infinitely more personal pronouns than Abraham Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address. I've been thinking that Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, a speech that goes to great lengths to avoid the first person singular ("At this second appearing to take the oath of Presidential office," etc,) is among the most narcissistic public documents in history. Lincoln frames the events of the preceding four years in a narrative in which "one side" is both wholly innocent of wrongdoing and inexhaustibly willing to forgive the inexplicable deeds of evil to which it has been subjected by "the other." The decisions, actions, and attitudes he attributes to that "one side" are those for which Lincoln expects to take sole credit. To the extent that political success consists of taking credit, the "one side" that would "accept war rather than let [the nation] perish" is Lincoln himself, not the United States generally. If Lincoln had used the first person singular to tell this story, he would have been laughed off the platform. As written, the speech identifies Lincoln with the United States, and the United States with a sinless deity.

  53. Willio said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:01 pm


    You are ridiculous. Both national presidents were speaking to an international sporting body. Regardless of culture, both of them are national leaders speaking to an international audience.

    Neither of them were talking about the polilcies of their respective administrations. Yet, both Obamas personalized their messages.

    Who cares that 'The One' would like to walk out the door of his home to the events ? This is an international event, not an award for being most popular.

  54. Willio said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    So it seems fair to ask for a comparison to the behavior in similar circumstances of the American presidents that these critics favor.

    I agree. So, why compare appeals on behalf of others with appeals for policy? Raygun was appealing to the Soviets on behalf of the policies of his adminsitration. The Obamas were appealing to a sports body on behalf of their hometown, not their own policies. Yet, the personalized their appeals that were made on behalf of others.

  55. arc said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 9:07 pm


    I'm just supposing that people will continue to do what they know how to do, especially if that has been successful in the past. That doesn't strike me as an especially ridiculous supposition.

    And Obama's rhetoric has been successful in the past – he got elected, after all. One of the things I'm learning through reading this blog is that there are quite a lot of similarities between Obama's rhetoric and Bush's rhetoric, so it appears that Americans generally respond well to these kinds of personal touches. Of course, there's always a certain percentage of the population who will just thoroughly dislike the President, and those people will probably just be further infuriated by the personal involvement.

    It might well be a mistake to suppose that the IOC will respond as well as the American public will, to be sure, but I'm far from convinced that this shows us anything in particular about Obama's personality. Someone (or a team of someones – don't forget there's a team of speechwriters behind every politician) who could discover, adopt and master the rhetoric appropriate for any given circumstance in short order would be impressive to behold.

  56. Lois said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

    After the reading the comments, I see that many people enjoy listening to someone who is self obsessed. It has never appealed to me. To each his own.

  57. Willio said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    Hey, I have a thought. Since President Obama is assumed to be more intelligent that G.W. Bush, one might assume that his sentences may have more words in them. So, rather than compare the use of first person pronons to total words used; perhaps we should rate their use of first person pronouns per sentence.

  58. Vicki Baker said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    Willio, why do you think anyone here assumes Obama is smarter than G.W. Bush? When people laughed and pointed at GWB for his disfluent "Bushisms," the author of this post you find so objectionable repeatedly defended GWB against the charge of egregious language-mangling: http://tinyurl.com/yka78ao

    The point of bringing up GWB and other presidents is not to "prove" who is the most narcissistic, since nobody but you and George Will think that rate of first person singular usage correlates with narcissism. Instead, it shows that many commentators' perception that Obama's uses FPS pronouns more frequently than other presidents is not supported by empirical observation.
    It doesn't mean that Obama isn't narcissistic either, just that pundits should come up with better evidence for their gut feelings that he is an egoist, or admit that their gut feelings have an irrational basis, and not try to confuse people with spurious quantifications that mean nothing at all.

  59. Vicki Baker said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    Anyway, instead of assuming, wouldn't it be better to count the average number of words per sentence? I mean, as long as we're trying to reality-check our assumptions, in the interests of like, objective truth, and stuff?

  60. Is Obama a “narcissist”? « John McQuaid said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 10:20 am

    […] it, and the view that Obama’s self-regard had finally done him in. George Will claimed – incorrectly, it turns out – that Obama's Olympic speech contained an inordinate number of […]

  61. John McQuaid: Is Obama a "Narcissist"? | Obama Biden White House said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    […] and the view that Obama's self-regard had finally done him in. George Will claimed – incorrectly, it turns out – that Obama's Olympic speech contained an inordinate number of […]

  62. CE Week 5: “Is Obama a Narcissit?” | Figueira's AP GO PO Blog said,

    October 13, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    […] and the view that Obama's self-regard had finally done him in. George Will claimed — incorrectly, it turns out — that Obama's Olympic speech contained an inordinate number of […]

  63. Douglas McClean said,

    October 14, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    Michael Gerson wrote:
    "I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced."

    Someone might want to ask him if he recalls the "mission accomplished" speech, and the President's dramatic thereto, just for starters. I'm quite certain the annals of political egotism include a great many more counterexamples to his (conveniently phrased for deniability) thesis.

  64. Dave said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Stephen Nicholson (October 7, 2009 @ 3:31 pm) said: "@Dave: "The criticism may be harsh, but he's a public figure I don't personally know, I'm sure he can take it. :)"

    I didn't say the criticism was wrong!

    Stephen Nicholson (October 7, 2009 @ 3:31 pm) said: "Also, I don't feel any need to let pass without criticism everything I public figure I like writes, says, or does just because I liked some of the things he's said or done in the past. Specifically, the kind of fact checking Mark does in both of his posts on the subject is to important to blindly defend Will. More generally, such a position encourages columns like George Will's. It encourages people attack someone they don't like on flimsy evidence. And worse, in encourages people to support actions they might otherwise despise if done by someone they don't like."

    Criticize away! My opinion is that what you said was thoughtful.

    If the critisism is correct, then what George Will did isn't really excusable (it's irresponsible and dishonest). I suspect that these kinds of things he's written are not accidents (or at least inexcusibly sloppy). I don't think they are mitigated by things one might like that he does.

    Stephen Nicholson (October 7, 2009 @ 3:31 pm) said: "If you want to read someone I admire, I suggest Martian Gardner."

    I think that Gardener is an honest person. I fear that George Will isn't.

  65. Joan Quarles said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    George will –> you can almost smell the mold, the moss, and the algae growing on his quill pens, old books about rightist writing, and such. Or you can smell the mold, the moss, and the algae in truth because his twaddle stinks as far away as Bayonne, New Jersey.

    I think the Post carries his old man-raging-against-change-in-an-erudite-cathedral-of-"reason" because it (the Post) likes little man Georgie. I mean, pity is the only reason, right? What other reason would there be?

    Straight up, though, George is an old, worn-out rightie who really thinks blacks are still neeeeeeeeeeee-grows and that we oughta know our place. Poor thing wants his massa seat back. ;=)

    Sorry, Geo. Beez dat way sum-tahms!

  66. More Than Words said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    […] about his own campaign," said Sarah Palin in her 2008 convention speech. George Will has objected on separate occasions that both Barack and Michelle Obama use the word "I" too […]

  67. I Meme, You Meme | The Lost Art of Mini-Grilling said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    […] fellows at the Language Log have debunked more first-person President claims than the Mythbusters have busted hourly chunks of my life, so when I read Victor Davis […]

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