The dangers of mental search-and-replace

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In John McCain's interview with Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America this morning, he seemed to want to turn any discussion of "Afghanistan" into a discussion of Iraq, as in this exchange:

DS: Does [Obama] deserve the credit for saying that there should be more troops in Afghanistan, and
now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is saying just the same thing?

JM: Actually the chairman of the Joint Chiefs uh said yesterday
that it'd be very dangerous to do what Senator Obama wants to do in Iraq.

A bit later in the interview, he took this one substitution too far:

DS: Do you agree the situation in Afghanistan is precarious and urgent?

JM: Well, I think it's very serious. I mean, it's a serious situation.

DS: Not precarious and urgent?

JM: Oh I- I don't- know wha- exactly whether- we can run through the vocabulary, but it's a very-
it's a ((v-)) serious situation,
and- but there's a lot of things we need to do,
we ha- we have a lot of work to do, and I'm afraid-
that it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border

I'm sure that Senator McCain meant to say "Afghanistan-Pakistan border", and committed the common type of speech error that replaces an intended word with another that is semantically close and contextually relevant. [Then again, there's a lot to like about Q. Pheevr's suggestion in the comments that "Perhaps 'the Iraq–Pakistan border' is the hip new name for what we used to call 'Iran.'"] For the most part, the press corps seems to be ignoring McCain's error — which seem appropriate to me — or else noting it in passing as a slip of the tongue. This is how most politicians' speech errors are treated, with one notable recent exception.


  1. Q. Pheevr said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

    Perhaps "the Iraq–Pakistan border" is the hip new name for what we used to call "Iran."

  2. ST said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

    I first read the mistake described in Huffingtonpost as another "gaffe," and assumed that McCain really did not know there was no Iraq-Pakistan border. I see now that it was probably a less serious mistake caused by the error that you describe. Nevertheless, McCain's made a lot of errors this campaign that can't be dismissed so easily.

  3. Dave said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

    McCain's first answer isn't a slip of the tongue; it's blatent subject-changing. As for the second, I think that McCain's handlers have drilled into him "things are going well in Iraq, keep mentioning Iraq" so much that he probably mutters "Iraq, surge, victory" in his sleep.

  4. Mark P said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Of course everyone occasionally makes that kind of mistake and lots of others, especially in speech as opposed to writing. But I have found that the pattern of a person's speech is a pretty good indicator of his thought processes over the long term.

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