"Open fraud as Op-Ed discourse"

« previous post | next post »

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.

Fev's conclusion:

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.]


  1. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 2:04 am

    This is, of course, the Washington Post. Hardly a surprise.

  2. William said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    Perhaps he should use the royal 'we'? Works for the Queen and I'm sure Americans would get used to it.

  3. fev said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    Thanks for the link, Mark. But to the point a couple of LL commenters raised last week: Are you guys going to write a column for the Post about this? Because somebody needs to.

  4. IRON said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    Someone should definitely write a column about this post.

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    A whopping two examples of "my ambassador" can be found in Obama's speech transcripts on WhiteHouse.gov. But five can be found in the George W. Bush archives.

    [(myl) These numbers might be taken to support Krauthammer, to an extent, since if normalized for amount of time in office, they come out to 5/2 = 2.5 per term for Bush 2, and 2/(1.5/4) = 5.3 per term for Obama.

    The effect is even magnified slightly if we compare the counts for "ambassador" in the same archives, which are 6746/2 = 3373 per term for the Bush 2 archives, and 497/(1.5/4) = 1325 per term for the Obama archives.

    Does this mean anything? I don't think so — in the first place, the counts (2 and 5) are so low that that they are surely not meaningful from a statistical point of view. More to the point, though, is the fact that (as fev observes) when someone in a position of authority refers to one of their subordinates as "my X", this is often because they're being careful to take personal responsibility for a decision ("I'm directing my Secretary of Health and Human Services to…"), not because they're especially immodest.]

  6. Jay Lake said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    Oddly, "my ambassador" would be correct, because an ambassador is a personal representative of the President of the United States, not of the government as an entity. Whereas Cabinet secretaries and whatnot are government employees not personally representing the President.

  7. Bill Walderman said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    "an ambassador is a personal representative of the President of the United States, not of the government as an entity . . . Cabinet secretaries and whatnot are government employees not personally representing the President."

    Are you sure about this? Both ambassadors and cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the president and are subject to confirmation by the Senate. I thought ambassadors represented the United States. What is the source of this assertion, and what difference does it make?

  8. Leo said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    So what is Obama now – a feminine, professorial, passive egomaniac? AFAIK this news has yet to reach the press here in Britain.

  9. MattF said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 9:49 am


    Conservatives here are inconsistent about Obama. Goes without saying that he's evil, but the exact reason is elusive.

  10. Picky said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 10:14 am


    "We" may be used by HM in formal contexts, but has anybody ever heard her use it in speeches? (OK, I know you weren't serious, but I'm picky)

  11. theophylact said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    Today's Washington Post has an Op-Ed by Rick Barber, a right-wing candidate for Congress in Alabama, objecting to a column by Ruth Marcus. Barber's piece is filled with obvious falsehoods:

    Over the past 18 months, the federal government has sought to seize or has seized control of the health-care industry, the financial industry, the mortgage industry, the automobile industry, student loans, broadband Internet and the energy sector through cap-and-trade legislation.

    There's no earthly reason the Post should have granted this loony the valuble real estate to repeat such nonsense; but that's what passes for "balance" these days. If the Post is open to this sort of rubbish, it's no surprise that Krauthammer continues to have a column.

  12. John Lawler said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    The standard for American journalism has switched over the years from
      "Is what they said true?"
      "Is it true that they said it?".

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    Even if we accepted this concept overall, "my Cabinet" (mentioned by Safire) seems irrelevant, since it is in fact often referred to as "the President's Cabinet", even on official government Web-pages.

    But it's also worth noting that, according to the search feature on The Washington Post's Web-site, Krauthammer himself has used phrases such as "his Secretary of State" a fair number of times. How disrespectful!

  14. Bellisaurius said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    The Ike letter almost feels like it should be signed "Your humble servant, D."

    I appreciate these posts on political language.They've really given me food for thought on what's easy on the ear, and what comes off as brusque; with the bit on Kerry, Bush and I being the one I'll be most inclined to try and implement in my own life.

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    @theophylact: It may be comforting to believe so, but the falsehoods are not obvious at all. Is it the word seize, the word control, or the list of industries that is at issue? Or is it the general sense that it is not the administration's actions that produced the outcome cited by Barber?

  16. Joyce Melton said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 3:13 am

    @Mr Fnortner, perhaps it is the hyperbolic sense of frothing at the mouth. Regulation, even too little and too late in many cases, is after all, not a seizure of control.

    Many of those industries on the list came to the government begging for bailouts. And many of the same people who frothed at the mouth about "seizures" also frothed from all other orifices that the government wasn't getting more input into how those bailouts were getting spent.

  17. Picky said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 4:03 am

    Yes, but isn't it hyperbolic to describe frothing hyperbole as "obvious falsehoods"?

  18. Kylopod said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I do agree that there's a difference between frothing hyperbole and obvious falsehoods. The quoted section of Barber's column is quite ridiculous, but still in the realm of legitimate opinion (though just barely). The screeds by George Will and Kathleen Parker and Charles Krauthammer on Obama's use of the passive voice and first-person pronoun are not legitimate opinions. They aren't "opinions" at all, any more than the assertion that Eskimos have 50 words for snow.

    And yet, at least we will probably see the Post print responses to Barber's column in the coming days. But the Post has so far been completely silent about the factually untrue statements of Will, Parker, and Krauthammer. And it's been months since Will's column about Obama's I's.

  19. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    I, for one, have had it with the Post. I've emailed the ombudsman to tell him that if the Post doesn't own up to the falsehoods in its recent op-ed columns, I'm canceling my subscription — after nearly forty years of subscribing. (Of course, the circulation people will blame the Internet.)

  20. Picky said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    The stuff about Eskimo words for snow seems in fact to be very much a matter of legitimate opinion, since it seems to hinge simply on different definitions of the word "word" (as far as my ignorant understanding goes).

    But there, enough, move on …

    [(myl) It's "legitimate opinion" that the Eskimo language has an unusually large number of terms for snow, due to the centrality of snow in the Eskimo experience? Or perhaps that this number is exactly 50, or 400, or some other large, specific figure? This is not picky, it's willfully ignorant.]

  21. Kir said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    I followed through to an old language log post (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1486) and read the original links.

    Perhaps I'm mistaken, but when reading the linked articles http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=45948, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=45705 and http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100490548, I couldn't help feeling that Obama simply did come off as much more arrogant. Please keep in mind that these were your document choices, not mine, so I'm assuming they're representative.

    I think I've figured out why. Rather than search for "I", which shows up in all sorts of completely neutral statements of fact, search for "I think" and "I don't think" in both articles. Then walk through them and eliminate ones that don't fit the pattern "I think (I have a better idea)…" or "I think (if only we follow my plan)".

    "I think there are a lot of Republicans who are sincere in…" is a simple, polite observation. "I think there are areas like education where some in my party have been too resistant to reform" is significantly more imperious.

    Note that I'm not particularly sure that Obama is any more arrogant than Bush. They're both very self-confident men who believed they should hold the most powerful political position in the world. But this might explain why Krauthammer's claim seems reasonable to many of his readers.

    [(myl) You're implicitly suggesting an experiment: (1) find passages in various politicians' speeches that fit a certain pattern; (2) anonymize them if necessary, and ask a suitable number of representative subjects to evaluate them for dimensions like "arrogance". You suggest that such an experiment might show that people find that both Obama and Bush come across as fairly arrogant.

    You might be right. For all either of us knows, such an experiment would show Obama to be perceived as more arrogant than other recent presidents. But Mr. Krauthammer didn't do any such experiment, or imagine the process of doing such an experiment, or even take the elementary precaution of checking against confirmation bias by asking whether his "evidence" (such as it was) against Obama is any different for other recent presidents.

    As for why Krauthammer's readers find his writing reasonable, the most plausible explanation is that they share his prejudices, find their opinions amplified by the echo-chamber of other pundits who have been singing the same song, and (to the extent that they evaluate any evidence at all) experience the same pleasures of confirmation bias.

    These are essentially the same reasons why the Bushisms industry thrived for nearly eight years.]

  22. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    I'm now quite interested in "frothing hyperbole." Google turns up over 80 references to this type of hyperbole, but no reference to a Dr. Frothing, after whom I presume it is named. Any ideas?

  23. fev said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    Frothing, M., Feisty, H., and Embuggerance, E. (1981). Hyperbole as strategic ritual: Towards an understanding of motivated mediated message consumption. Social Forces, 31, 284-301. You're welcome.

    Go check the Drudge Report — the standard Obama-as-Mussolini shot is being used to illustrate a story about Switzerland's refusal to extradite Roman Polanski. Wanna guess how many times Obama is mentioned in the story?

  24. Attempt at Monday round-up. « We Who Are About To Die said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    […] Krauthaumer, my hack, our hack, or just hack. from → Lit ← New Dirty Joke No comments yet Click here to cancel […]

  25. Kir said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 3:56 am

    It should be pointed out that the note involving "I" was localized to a very small portion of the article. Even if that particular piece of supporting evidence is untrue or irrelevant, the rest of the article may be fine. I only point this out because it's obvious that several other commentators here have either not read or not understood the article they're attacking.

    Most of Krauthammer's article is dedicated to showing how Obama is not proud of the country of which he is President. "Obama is not the first president with a large streak of narcissism. But the others had equally expansive feelings about their country."

    Nowhere does the article argue that Obama is more arrogant that Bush (which seems to be the obsession of certain people here). If I might quote you, "The daily experience of being president, in modern times, must tend to exaggerate the natural arrogance of anyone who makes his way to that position."

    In other words, while your mostly borrowed critique is quite correct, it is tearing apart the evidence that Krauthammer didn't need to provide to make his point.

  26. tablogloid said,

    July 14, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    At least Obama has never claimed he was talking to God. There may be only one presidential search hit on that.

RSS feed for comments on this post