"Babbling points" from all over

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A few days ago, in discussing Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin ("The phonetics of flop sweat", 9/26/2008), I quoted the reaction "Those aren't talking points; they're babbling points". But in Couric's 9/29 interview with Governor Palin and Senator McCain together, things went differently, in a way that deserves notice.

Ms. Couric asked about the "Pakistan terror gaffe", where in answering a question from a voter, Palin seemed to agree with Obama and disagree with McCain on the question of cross-border raids into Pakistan. In response,  Gov. Palin brought out her talking points in good order:

Couric: Governor Palin, are you two on the same page?
Palin: We had a great discussion with President Zadari [sic] as we talked about what it is that America can and should be doing together to make sure that the terrorists do not cross borders and do not ultimately put themselves in a position of attacking America again or her allies. And we will do what we have to do to secure the United States of America and her allies.

She didn't answer the question, of course. But I surmise that her non-answer was almost exactly what her handlers would have wanted her to say, aside from a minor mispronunciation of Asif Ali Zardari's name — which was not nearly as far off as Sen. McCain's earlier rendition of it as "Kardari". (And she was probably supposed to say "what it is that Pakistan and America can and should be doing together, not "what it is that America should be doing together". But really, she was very close.)

In contrast, Sen. McCain was not nearly as disciplined or coherent:

Couric: Is that something you shouldn't say out loud, Senator McCain?
McCain: O- of course not, but look — I understand — this day and age — gotcha journalism — was that a pizza place? In a conversation with someone who – you didn't he- hear the question very well, you don't know the context of the conversation — grab a phrase — (([unclear] dedag-)) Governor Palin and I agree that you don't announce that you're going to attack another country.

The phrase "babbling points" describes this pretty accurately.

My point is not to criticize Sen. McCain or praise Gov. Palin, but simply to point out that the standard narrative about public figures is not always a valid description. In particular, the view that certain politicians are characteristically disfluent needs some scrutiny, as discussed at length in "Trends in presidential disfluency", 11/26/2005.

Politicians need to express complex ideas in a simple way, in real time, in response to questions that are not entirely predictable and sometimes hostile, in a situation where the costs of misstatement are high, and the costs of excessively frank statements can be even higher. You could use this description to design an experimental paradigm that would produce high rates of disfluency and incoherence — except that university Institutional Review Boards probably wouldn't allow you to put human subjects through such a harrowing procedure.

It obviously helps to be more verbally skilled, more knowledgeable, and better prepared. And politicians do differ on these dimensions. But all of them babble sometimes, and none of them babbles all the time. Maybe it's time to define a disfluency index — or better,  a vector of qualities related to fluency and coherence — that could be used to put the field of political babble-ology on a sound footing.

[By the way, can anyone figure out what Sen. McCain was starting to say in the fragment that I've transcribed as "((dedag-))" ?


  1. Luis said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:00 am

    "Gotcha journalism" as practiced by some dude in a restaurant. RIIIIGHT.

    I hear it as [d[schwa]d[ash]g] — more or less exactly as you transcribed it. I can't infer what he might have been starting to say and then (I infer) discarded. I let it churn for a bit in my head, but nothing tries to attach to it. The vowels and prosody make it sound like "today", but that's a big stretch, I think.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:13 am

    Luis: "Gotcha journalism" as practiced by some dude in a restaurant. RIIIIGHT.

    In fairness to Sen. McCain, I think he didn't mean to accuse the restaurant dude of being a gotcha journalist, but rather to criticize the journalistic treatment of Gov. Palin's answer to the restaurant dude.

    This complaint would be more persuasive if Sen. McCain's party hadn't been playing the same sort of gotcha game so vigorously with respect to Sen. Biden.

  3. Will Fitzgerald said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    dedag == today?

  4. Mark P said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    I agree that no one can speak entirely coherently all the time, especially in situations like politicians have to face in interviews. But I do think that a person's speech can give some insight into their thinking. I once worked for a contract technical administrator who seemed to have trouble expressing himself. After meetings my boss and I would often go back to our offices and try to figure out what he wanted us to do. I finally decided that the administrator did not have trouble expressing himself; he was expressing exactly what was going on in his mind.

  5. outeast said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    Is McMain speaking PowerPoint?

  6. Grant Murray said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:48 am

    "the, the, g- Governor Palin"

    I think McCain started to say "the governor" and switched to "Governor Palin"

  7. Stewart Haddock said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:59 am

    You can watch McCain say "dedag" at 1:13 on this clip. He starts to look over at Palin and then looks back at Couric. I think he was going to continue down the 'grab a phrase' route, but changed his mind and mumbled a little nonsense sound. Perhaps he knew he was babbling and wanted to just wrap things up.

    (If you watch it about 5 times in a row, you might find yourself starting to think that he is giving some kind of subliminal secret signal to Palin.)

  8. Mark Seidenberg said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    Palin and McCain's dysfluences surely have different origins. Palin does not know what to say (see also http://www.newsweek.com/id/161204), but has to say something and so falls back on canned phrases and slogans. There isn't enough data to tell whether McCain's dysfluencies are what would or would not be expected under the circumstances Mark describes. It's not an easy experiment to do. I am not a clinical psychologist. But McCain's supposed impulsivity, combined with his dysfluent speech production when he's extemporizing, really make me wonder about his frontal lobe function. Seriously. Language production makes huge demands on frontal-executive-planning functions. So does planning and decision making. His frontal lobe function may be entirely normal for a person of his age and circumstance, but completely inadequate for a president.

  9. William Ockham said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    Palin's problems in this regard are largely not of her own making. First, she was thrust into the limelight unexpectedly, meaning that she had no reservoir of good will built up with political journalists. The McCain campaign then created an even more confrontational situation by refusing to allow interviews until the press was willing to treat her with appropriate deference. They used the word deference. They might as well have painted a bullseye on her back. Then, because they had made a campaign issue out of Obama's inexperience, they created this absurd fiction that she has foreign policy credentials. This forced her into situations that were bound to be highly scrutinized where her only option was to spout gibberish, no matter how well organized. Finally, many of her core beliefs and policy positions are at odds with McCain's, forcing her to tap dance around her record and previous statements.

  10. rpsms said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    It definately looked like he was signaling her.

    De Dag is apparently a newspaper. It would fit the context, but I have no evidence.

  11. Paul Wilkins said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    Dedag is a frog. A frog living in Senator McCain's throat.

  12. dr pepper said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    I read a quote once, attributed to Robert Heinlein. He said that Annapolis has an exercise in which one student is given a situation and a very short time to devise an appropriate order to give. Then the rest of the class gets to come up with ways to misinterpret that order.

    I imagine that political handlers do something similar with their charges.

  13. Amy said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

    Dedag = didactic? (Does Senator McCain ever use that vocab word?) Perhaps as a means of complaining about the media's excessive moralizing or professorial tone when playing "gotcha journalism"? (I know, it's a stretch.)

  14. Michael W. said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    Closing my eyes, and before reading any transcription, I hear "of the day". The first part especially is inaudible, but it fits with the flow of the sentence and makes sense if he's just taking a breath but continuing to talk.

    "Day" is lacking the emphasis it might otherwise have had – I think he did abandon that train of thought and skipped straight to the point.

    So I think there's two things happening there – taking a breath which chops of the first part, and then "trailing off" which leaves the end of it hard to decipher.

  15. Michael W. said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

    I heard that I mean. (Of course I still hear it that way, too).

  16. Elyaqim Mosheh Adam said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

    I think the dedag- portion was either the the as Grant Murray suggested this morning, or it was tha- tha-, but then McCain decided to add “Governor Palin and I agree” before continuing “that you don’t announce that you’re going to attack another country.”

  17. John Laviolette said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 1:06 am

    I lean towards "the the" as well, although it's tempting to go with Michael W.'s suggestion of "of the day", since that might fit in with an unusual spread of the phrase "at the end of the day" among pundits. For an example, see this clip of Eric Cantor and Barney Frank on CNN:


    I count four occurrences of "at the end of the day" in 3 minutes and 31 seconds. And I'm not sure what the phrase means, here. It's definitely not literal. I'm aware of a figurative usage, meaning the same as "when all is said and done," but I'm not sure this fits all four occurrences.

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