My, Karl, that's so 1984 of you

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Comedy Central is currently showcasing this "astoundingly popular" video clip from The Daily Show:

Throughout the clip, Jon Stewart juxtaposes comments about [Alaska Governor and Republican V.P. nominee] Sarah Palin by [former Republican strategist] Karl Rove, [FoxNews blowhard] Bill O'Reilly, ["lying sack of shit"] Dick Morris, and [McCain's senior policy advisor] Nancy Pfotenhauer with other comments previously made by those same people about [Virginia Governor] Tim Kaine (Rove), Jamie Lynn Spears (O'Reilly), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Morris, Pfotenhauer). The juxtaposition exposes a high level of hypocrisy among these conservative commentators: they all defend Palin with the same swords they use to attack Kaine, Spears, and Clinton. If you haven't already, please watch the video (better yet, the full episode): it's one of those laughs that'll make you cry.

Note that Rove's comments are the only ones that Stewart has to provide some context for — the other three commentators simply contradict themselves, but Rove chooses his words in just such a way that, without the relevant context, pretty much anyone could hear his two sets of comments back to back and not notice the contradiction. Here is the full set of relevant facts about the two Governors:

Kaine Palin
Governor of… Virginia, pop. 7,642,884 (2006 estimate) Alaska, pop. 670,053 (2006 estimate)
Governor since… Jan. 14, 2006 (966 days) Dec. 4, 2006 (642 days)
Lt. Governor for… 4 years (2002-2006) n/a
Mayor of… Richmond, VA, pop. 192,913 (2006 estimate) Wasilla, AK, pop. 5,469?/7,025?/9,780? (various estimates)
Also… 2 terms on city council 2 terms on city council

About Palin's experience, Rove says:

She's a populist, she's an economic and a social conservative, she's a reformer, she's a former mayor, she's the mayor I think of the second largest city in Alaska before she ran for governor…

And about Kaine, he said:

He's been a governor for three years … he was mayor of the 105th largest city in America and again, with all due respect to Richmond, Virginia, it's smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa or Gilbert, Arizona; North Las Vegas or Henderson, Nevada — it's not a big town. So if you were to pick Governor Kaine it would be an intensely political choice, where you said, "You know, I'm really not, first and foremost, concerned with is this person capable of being President of the United States."

See how Rove does it? Not only does he deftly contrast "second largest city" with "105th largest city" (forget the "in Alaska" and "in America" parts; that's beside the point), but he also goes on to compare the size of Richmond with the sizes of no less than six other cities that most folks have never heard of, just to drive the point home. (Incidentally: Mesa is the 38th largest city according to the 2007 estimate that Rove likely bases his comment on, and that's larger than Oakland, Miami, and Minneapolis.) The overall impression you're left with is that there's more to Palin than meets the eye, and that Kaine is very much just small potatoes — precisely the opposite of the categorization that the actual facts of the matter might otherwise lead you to.

As anyone following the Palin nomination knows, Republicans have been bending over backwards to shine the best possible light on her relative lack of experience, especially given that "lack of experience" has been one of their main rhetorical themes used against Barack Obama: the fact that she has been a mayor and a governor (as opposed to a mere U.S. Senator, like Obama, Biden, and even McCain) gives her "executive experience"; the fact that Alaska is relatively close to Russia gives her "foreign policy experience"; the fact that Alaska is the largest state in the U.S. in terms of geography (but the 47th in terms of population) gives her … what, large landmass experience? What Rove did here is more of the same, of course, but I think it deserves special mention here because it's the best example I've seen in this campaign of language being used to manipulate and deceive people. Plus, it's a damned funny video clip.

[ Hat tip to Ed Keer. ]


  1. Rubrick said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

    I predict that comments on this post will remain strictly confined to the linguistic issues raised. Bets?

  2. Orange said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

    I wasn't sure why Rove went with that "second largest city in Alaska" line when it's not remotely true. Actually, Anchorage has about 40% of the state's people, Juneau and Fairbanks each have about 30,000, and Wasilla is in the under-10,000 category.

    I don't know that Rove was consciously using the contrasting "Xth largest" formulations with the intent to contrast. Wasn't the Kaine clip aired weeks or months before his Palin remarks?

  3. S. Archibald Tennemell said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    Astoundingly popular, indeed. This clip showed up in 8 different RSS feeds that I subscribe to, including LL.

  4. Eric Baković said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    @ Rubrick: I'll take that bet…

    @ Orange: You're right about Wasilla not actually being second largest, of course — I meant to mention that but clearly forgot. Given this, Rove's "I think" hedge in that case (and not in the case of Richmond, where he is very specific about its ranking and has a list of six smaller cities at the ready) is significant: he's given himself an out in case he's called on it.

    And yes, the Kaine comments were made about a month earlier than the Palin comments. I do believe Rove is calculating enough to have specifically chosen to contrast the two numbers — that is, I believe that he remembered the strategy he had used to put Kaine down and consciously reversed it to give Palin a boost.

  5. Claire said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    The way that taxes are being discussed involves tricky language, too. The Repubs have been talking about how Obama will "raise taxes on working families" and "raise your taxes," neither of which is strictly false — but of course, neither accurately conveys the details of his economic plan, either, which cuts middle-class families' taxes deeper than McCain's plan. Who's the "your" in "Obama will raise your taxes"? Was Palin only talking to the wealthy audience members?

  6. Spectre-7 said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 11:50 pm

    There's a slight error in the Governor since… row that had me scratching my head. I just couldn't figure out how Dec. 14th 2005 and Jan. 4th 2006 could be 324 days apart. :)

    Turns out Palin has been Governor since Dec. 14th 2006.

  7. Spectre-7 said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    Errrr… Oops. I reversed those. Dec. 4th, 2006.

  8. Freddy Hill said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 1:10 am

    I predict that comments on this post will remain strictly confined to the linguistic issues raised. Bets?

    Were there any legitimate linguistic issues raised in the original post, except as transparent excuses to express a political opinion?

  9. kamper said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 1:27 am

    The linked video doesn't appear to be available to Canadians, however, you can watch it here:—september-3-2008/

    It's clip 2.

  10. Eric Baković said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 1:34 am

    @ Spectre-7: thanks for catching that. I've fixed the typo.

    @ Freddy Hill: define "legitimate". And, I need no excuses (transparent or otherwise) for making my political opinions known.

  11. Rico said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    I'm with Freddy Hill. What did the original post have to do with linguistics? You fellows can run your blog how you'd like, but it'd be nice if you could do your campaigning for or against candidates elsewhere.

    There's enough hypocristy to go around on both sides. Maybe I'll make my "bet" on whether Professor Bakovic blogs on George Obama. But of course, that's not "damned funny."

  12. Freddy Hill said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 11:08 am

    Eric, Transparent: What I can see through. Excuses: you definitely don't need to make any and none were asked for by me.

    I was simply reacting to a previous commenter who seemed to regret that the thread would become political instead of linguistic. I pointed out that it had started political with a thin coating of linguistics.

    I don't necessarily disagree with the politics either, but would point out that hypocrisy is a bipartisan thing. Universal thing, actually

  13. Freddy Hill said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 11:15 am

    Sorry, I forgot to comment on "Legitimate": The word was too strong, I concede. I should have said that it seemed to me that the linguistics were a excuse to make a partisan point, like if only one party was gilty of this crime. You might as well start citing bushisms next.

  14. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    So there's no point in posting hilarious examples of obvious hypocrisy, because they're all hypocrites? I don't get that.

  15. language hat said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    You fellows can run your blog how you'd like, but it'd be nice if you could do your campaigning for or against candidates elsewhere.

    I agree, and would much prefer to see Language Log stick to language. I can get my political outrage elsewhere.

  16. Eric Baković said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    @ Freddy Hill: you seem to assume that I would never have posted something like this had I encountered an example of similarly contradictory comments by a Democrat. Why?

    @ Rico: Karl Rove is not a candidate. It takes a lot of reading into my post to conclude from it that I'm "campaigning for or against" anyone.

    @ language hat: would it have made any difference if I had been as thorough as Mark Liberman tends to be in his posts in supporting my contention that this post is relevant to this blog? Should I have talked about Lakoff's work on framing (yet again), or maybe said a little more about Orwell to justify the passing reference in the post title? Perhaps, but I suspect not. Somehow, even a relatively indirect reference to a political candidate is like the third rail on this blog, unlike direct references to political issues (like my frequent posts on official language issues, where I wear my political opinions on my sleeve, often supporting them as thinly as I do here — but I rarely if ever take this kind of flak for it in the comments).

  17. Joe said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Don't forget Palin's moose-dressing experience!

    I think that moosek will be Palin's "potatoe" (if anyone remembers Quayle).

  18. bulbul said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    like if only one party was gilty of this crime
    Maybe Eric should have added something on 'balance', too – you know, about how when you point out a wrongdoing some dogooder always runs up yelling "but look, Romulans do it too!". It's a nice strategy, but doesn't actually contribute squat to the debate.
    And fyi, yes, only one party is guilty of this particular transgression (which, by the way, is not hypocrisy). If you have proof to the contrary, please, show us.

    You fellows can run your blog how you'd like, but it'd be nice if you could do your campaigning for or against candidates elsewhere.
    Translation: You fellows can run your blog how you'd like, unless you insult my sensibilities.

  19. john riemann soong said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 12:34 am

    Well I like Language Log generally because the issues of "language" it discusses" are not that of "Language Lite" (as Steven Pinker would say) … not commenting on how odd it is that we drive on parkways and park on driveways. Sure, here's a politician manipulating language, but not necessarily using any linguistically interesting concepts, unless we want to explore how general reasoning (or cunning) interacts with specialised language modules, something which wasn't really discussed here. For example, Freudian slips and various word substitution errors are interesting from a cognitive science point of view, especially when they expose deception. But just plain regular old deception?

  20. Jahi Chappell said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    There's a quite clear linguistic approach here (says the complete non-linguist). Notice the other clips were mainly a prelude to talking about how Rove used "neutral" language to emphasize completely different contexts (a la framing). Using the "smaller than" "105th"-obscure cities framing, he belittled one politician, where using "second largest", largest state, executive experience phrases (executive experience possibly not mentioned at all in Kaine's qualifications, despite being relatively identical to Palin's, if not exceeding them) — without saying anything technically untrue (with the "I think" hedge), he used language to disparage the person who, objectively, has more experience in the relevant area while praising the other person who, objectively, has had less experience governing fewer people (though if you count her mayorship, and don't count Lt. Governorship, then she does have perhaps more time governing fewer people). Seems clearly linguistic — as well as political — to me.

  21. Joe said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

    The sad thing is that I saw exactly this sort of reasoning the other day on another forum. The discussion was over Alaska & how it takes in so many tax dollars from the rest of the country, even though they pay residents out of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

    First, he made Alaska the "largest state" with such a small amount of total cash, as if it were the landmass we were spending money on instead of people. Then when challenged, he compared the state's per capita to DC's (which isn't a state, and is quite the anomaly; and he had to have known, given that Alaska gets the most per capita of any *state* and is at 20x the average).

    So I think there's a good point in here about how you can use framing to deceive without lying. And just how good at that some politicians are. There was also that CNN interview where you can see another technique: answering a different question (though Tucker Bounds got nailed for that by a persistent interviewer[1]). And you can also deceive by questioning the question.

    There's plenty here to talk about the mechanics of deception. I wonder sometimes if people don't read that as a "how-to" guide, though, but the information is interesting enough. I'm sure there are other ways to create semi-defensible lies, too, such as feigning confusion over distinctions that should be clear, etc. but I can't think of more right now. That's probably a good thing.


  22. Paul said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 5:48 am

    While it's true that the identity of the next president of the USA will probably have some sort of impact on my life, I don't have a vote in the election and the long drawn-out process of the primaries became mind-numbingly tedious. But: use of language by politicians to spin the facts as they want us to see them is of great linguistic interest, if nothing else because it's an area where linguistics can contribute to the education of the general population, to some useful effect (i.e. equipping people to see through the trappings of rhetorical skill).

  23. ed said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 9:14 am

    OMG Eric I demand that you be removed from LL and replaced by someone who loves America!

  24. Chud said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 11:49 am

    Attorneys do this sort of thing all the time, don't they, and we expect them to do it. I'd say that anyone who thinks that Rove, et al. (and their counterparts for the other side) don't have a horse in whatever race they happen to be talking about on the TV is a fool.

    John Stewart has said before that the Daily Show is just trying to be funny. And the show knows its audience, and that seems to be an audience that already doesn't like Rove, etc. If the Daily Show folks were aspiring to be master satirists, I think they'd spend more time challenging their audience by looking more closely at the other side (of course, then their audience might decide to become somebody else's audience).

    But for what it was, the bit was very well done.

  25. Bryn LaFollette said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    @Chud: Not that I'm a regular viewer of The Daily Show, but from what I've seen, although they do have an obvious tilt towards the left, they spend plenty of time poking fun at all sides.

    @Joe: Excellent use of 'moosek'!

  26. felix culpa said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

    kamper; thanks for the link. At last, access whose denial I had not found the means to circumvent.

    The complaint about preferring to find politics elsewhere, that the organ in question had been understood to be an enclosed garden free of the noxious odors of political partisanship, is familiar from a lifetime of reading car and audio magazines. Those of course were my poisons; I’m certain the disease is found in every possible niche. Uncertain of the underlying reasons, I can report it seems a vastly more popularly taken offense among the rightward sorts. It always calls upon a principle of a set of ideas hermetically sealed off from rude reality.

    This instance seems a poor place to proffer the principle. In fact linguistics, through the at-least-related field of rhetoric, has roots in the practice of politics, in particular the use of words to shape perception as a means to winning power.
    Rhetoric arose in association with the democratic idea. As the reasoned persuasion of others became a central tool for the political process, rhetoric became not just the systematic means for manipulating minds, but the means of dissecting and seeing through systematic manipulation.
    Its practices remain in active use albeit unconsciously. A trained rhetorician is able to rattle off categories of deception tabulated in Athens two-and-a-half millenia ago as they tumble from the mouths of political actors.

    The fact that deceptions are flying thick and fast makes the present setup a rich field for investigating obfuscatory language in all its forms.

  27. Christy Mason said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

    What I found interesting about Karl Rove was the cities that he picked – I recognize three of them: Mesa AZ (basically, next to Phoenix), Henderson NV and North Las Vegas NV (both next to Las Vegas). These three cities are all part of major urban sprawl in some of the fastest growing communities in the U.S. While not famous locales, these are hardly small towns in the middle of nowhere.

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