In president, out president, fake president

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On Dec. 1, ABC News published the "excerpted transcript of Charlie Gibson's interview with President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at Camp David", along with some video clips of parts of the interview. The "transcript" is here, and the video clip containing the passage discussed below is here.

Here's the audio of one linguistically fascinating Q&A, along with my transcription:

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Gibson: Do you feel in any way responsible for what's happening?
Bush: You know, I'm in president during this period of time but I think
uh when the history of this period is written people will realize
a lot of the decisions
uh that were made on Wall Street
took place over
you know a- a decade or so, before I arrived in president, during I arrived in president.
I'm sorry it's happening of course, obviously
I don't like the idea of people
losing jobs or being worried about their 401Ks.
On the other hand, the American people got to know that-
that uh we will safeguard the system, I mean
we're in, and if we need to be in more, we will.

What I want to focus on here is the expression "in president", which occurs three times in this answer.

When I began the transcription, I mentally amended the first one to "I've been president" instead of "I'm in president". But after listening carefully several times, I'm pretty sure that it's "I'm in president". And the double repetition of "before I arrived in president, during I arrived in president" makes it clear that President Bush is comfortable talking about being "in president" the way that I would talk about being "in school" or "in office".

(The use of during to introduce a tensed clause is also striking, but that's a topic for another post.)

The president's usage has a certain logic: if you can say "before I arrived in office", why shouldn't you be able to substitute the name of a specific office into the expression? Well,  this pattern is an idiomatic one — we Americans commonly join our British cousins in saying "in school", but not "in hospital".

So is the extension of the pattern to "in president" idiosyncratic to George W. Bush? Or is it a familial quirk, or a regionalism, or what? Would he also say "when I was in governor", or "when Barack Obama was in senator"? Inquiring linguists want to know.

Jon Stewart's reaction was less charitable:

[on screen: Gibson asks Bush if he feels 'in any way responsible' for what's happening. Bush says he's been president while this has been going on, but continues on to say he thinks when this period of history is written, people will realize 'a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade' before he arrived 'in president']. Before I arrived 'in president'? That doesn't make sense. Let's give him a chance to correct himself [on screen: Bush says 'before I arrived in president, during I arrived in president']. No! You know something? I'm gonna miss you so much! By the way, do we really have to build this guy a library? I mean, can't we just get him an arcade/go-cart course? I know he'd like it more.

But actually, something else about this interview struck me even more forcefully than President Bush's unusual locative idiom — the strange liberties that ABC News felt empowered to take with the text of its "edited transcript", or perhaps with the video of its interview.

The passage that I've given above was a single question from Gibson followed by a single answer by the president. At least, that's what the video seems to show, though it cuts from camera to camera in between some of the president's phrases, which means that it could easily have been edited to create a version of the interview that never actually happened.

And in the text of ABC's transcript, the two halves of the president's response, from the question-and-answer we began with, are instead found in the opposite order, in parts of the answers to two different questions, separated by four other question-answer pairs:

GIBSON: When was that?

BUSH: That was, I would say, five weeks, four weeks after we began to deal with some — like AIG. And that was right before we went to Congress for the $700 billion. And my attitude is, is that if that's the case, this administration will do everything we can to safeguard the financial system. And that's what we've been doing.

And I'm sorry it's happening, of course. Obviously I don't like the idea of people losing jobs, or being worried about their 401Ks. On the other hand, the American people got to know that we will safeguard the system. I mean, we're in. And if we need to be in more, we will.

And eventually, however, this economy will recover. And when it recovers, many of the assets backed by the government now will be redeemed, and we will — could conceivably make money off of some of the holdings.

GIBSON: But was there an "uh-oh" moment — and I could probably use stronger language than that — (laughter)– when you thought this really could be bad —

BUSH: Well, that was, of course, the crystallization. When you have the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Fed say, if we don't act boldly, we could be in a depression greater than the Great Depression, that's an "uh-oh" moment. But you got to understand, leading up to that we had been bailing water in this way: AIG was failing; other big houses on Wall Street needed to be merged, one failed —

GIBSON: Was not saving Lehman a mistake?

BUSH: We'll let the historians look back on that. At the time, the recommendation was not to, obviously. And some are second-guessing that. And in a situation like this, Charlie, where the administration is making big decisions and big calls, that there's going to be a lot of second-guessing. The one thing that I don't want to have happen is people say this thing was in a financial meltdown and we didn't do anything. And so we're moving — hard.

GIBSON: When you add it all up, you've got about $7.5 trillion in funded and unfunded backing of securities now.

BUSH: Yes.

GIBSON: And that's about half of what our economy is in its whole. Does that scare the willikers out of you?

BUSH: What scared me is not doing anything, which would have caused there to be a huge financial meltdown and the conceivable scenario that we'd have been in a depression greater than the Great Depression.

On the other hand, a lot of the — you know, these — some of these are investments. I've got faith that the economy will recover. As a matter of fact, I'm confident it will recover. I can't tell you exactly the moment, but when it does recover, a lot of the assets now owned by the government will be sold. And I can't guarantee that we'll get all our money back, but it's conceivable we could.

And the question is, is it worth it to save the system, to safeguard the system? And I came to the conclusion, along with other smart people, that it is.

GIBSON: Do you feel in any way responsible for what's happening?

BUSH: You know, I'm the President during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived in President, during I arrived in President.

I'm a little upset that we didn't get the reforms to Fannie and Freddie — on Fannie and Freddie, because I think it would have helped a lot. And when people review the history of this administration, people will say that this administration tried hard to get a regulator. And there will be a lot of analysis of why that didn't happen. I suspect people will find a lot of it didn't happen for pure political reasons.

GIBSON: How high do you think unemployment will go?

So either the video was radically edited, or the transcript was radically edited, or both.  My guess is that the video was edited, and that the transcript is somewhat closer to the truth. But whatever happened, it seems like spectacularly dishonest journalism to me. There's no obvious consequence in this case, but as I've pointed out over the years, this sort of "quotation", like the notorious techniques of Stalin-era news photography, can easily be to used to radically re-create reality.


  1. language hat said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 10:35 am

    I'm not sure whether he says "I've been the president" or "I'm in the president" at the start, but I'm quite sure "the" is there.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    hat: …I'm quite sure "the" is there.

    You might be right, but I'm skeptical that it's possible to be very sure about it.

    Here's the spectrogram and waveform:

    (Click on the image for a larger version.)

    Phonetically, you might believe that you could see a vowel-nasal-vowel sequence in the 120 milliseconds that I've labelled "??". But you could also… well, it's not very long or very clear, and in this sort of run-together reduced speech, it could be a lot of things. And this is exactly the sort of material where the natural version of the "phoneme restoration effect" works strongly, so that native-speaker perceptions are (alas) suspect.

  3. A good and proper linkdump said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    […] Bush reminds us he's still "in president." […]

  4. bulbul said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    "I've been a President" is what I heard the first few times I listened to that exchange. Then again, I often find it difficult to distinguish between "a" and "the" when they preceded by a nasal.

  5. Mark Gould said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    Just a quick data point: this Brit thought "in school" was American, and would be more likely to say "at school":

    "You are 17; are you still at school?" or "What did you do at school today?"

  6. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    For the first one, I hear "I been president." It does seem to be "in president" in the other two. Could he be saying a clipped version of "in the presidency," or combining that phrase with "as president"–trying to say both at once, as it were?

  7. John said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    For that first example, I hear something more like "I binna", like he's speeding through the phrase "I've been the". I think seeing video of his lips there would help.

    Also at about 18-19 seconds in, I think I can hear the audio splice as he inhales following the phrase "during I arrived in president". I'd be curious what the waveform looks like right there. That would support the hypothesis that the video and not the transcript was edited there.

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

    Another Brit here who was only ever "at school" never "in school".

    Incidentally, I work every day at a hospital but I've only been in hospital three times.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    To me, it sounds like he's saying
    "I've been the president" the first time,
    "before I arrived in present" the second time, and
    "during I arrived in president" the third time.

    If I'm right, the first time makes total sense, and the second two are a bit more problematic. I feel like he was trying to say "in present" both of the last two times. "Before I arrived in present" isn't pretty, but it's understandable. If I'm right, it was, then by a slip of the tongue that he said "president" instead of "present" the last time.

    Possibly this slip of the tongue happened as he realized that "I arrived" didn't work with "during", as he scrambled to try to move the sentence in a way that would make it make sense, but just got more jumbled.

    Maybe Bush does have as part of his idiolect an expression "in president" to mean "in the presidency", but I can't imagine that he meant to say "During I arrived…" The confused context of the rest of the sentence, and the possible alternate explanations for both of the other utterances that have been transcribed as "in president", make me suspicious that he ever meant to say it at all. I'd need to see more data.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

    @Craig Russell: What would "before I arrived in present" mean?

    The context suggests that "before I arrived in the presidency", i.e. "before I became president", is what the president wants to say. It's puzzling, though, why "… arrived in the presidency" would come out as "… arrived in president".

    Another plausible way to say the same thing would have been "before I became president". So I guess it's possible that this is a blend of "before I became president" and "before I arrived in the presidency".

  11. Killer said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

    I'd swear he's saying "I been the president" at the start.

  12. Nick Z said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    How would an American express the idea "in hospital"? Inquiring Brits want to know!

  13. Karen said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

    Americans say "in the hospital" for British "in hospital". We do have both "in the school" and "in school" – with different meanings – just as "in bed" and "in the bed" have different meanings.

    For me, at any rate, "at school" means "at the moment we're discussing" while the "attending regularly" is "in school" or "going to school".

  14. D Jagannathan said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

    I too sense that there's another syllable in that first expression (I – – president during this time), but I agree the restoration effect is probably quite strong here.

    Right after the 120 ms you label (??), though, is a bit of stuff that looks to me like [θ], which inclines me toward "I been the president".

  15. Craig Russell said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

    @Mark Liberman

    I would take "before I arrived in present" to be an awkward way of expressing an idea like "before I arrived, in this current period of time", i.e. "before this time we're in now, which started when I arrived."

    I'm not suggesting this because "before I arrived in present" sounds normal to me, but because (1) the audio for this bit sounds more like "in present" than "in president" to me, and (2) "in present" is less inexplicable to me than "in president".

    I'm really basing this on little more than my own speculation, but what I see this as is him misspeaking a little bit at first with "before I arrived in present", and his awareness of his mistake getting him so flustered that he makes it worse with "during I arrived in president", which even he wouldn't have said under other circumstances, and wouldn't have any explanation for other than as a slip of the tongue.

  16. blahedo said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

    I'll cast another vote for "I been the president" in the first line, and while I'm sure there's restoration going on there, and I wouldn't be "quite sure" of that exact interpretation, I am "quite sure" there's at least an extra syllable in there. I could be completely misremembering my acoustic phonetics class (it's been a long time) but if I'm seeing an 'n' or nasalisation at the end of your ??, then the gap between that blue line at the end of the ?? and the clear formants of "-resident" seems a bit too long to just be the stop for the 'p'; could that be a brief voicing of "th" right after the blue line?

    It's sort of a sidetrack anyway; I think the more interesting part is the before/during line—it makes a lot more sense now than when I first heard it on Jon Stewart last night. Then, it sounded crashingly bad, and it wasn't helped by Stewart's interpretation (that the "during" phrase was an attempted repair). Actually, I think, the second phrase was intended to continue the thought: that the decade in question was mostly before and partly at the beginning of his first term. And the main substitution (of "president") is not, I think, for "office" but rather for something like "Washington" or "the White House"—he's trying to completely dissociate himself from the decisionmakers of the era. That doesn't fix the second half (which requires an additional substitution of "as" for "during"), but still, it doesn't sound like nearly the train wreck that it first did.

    Of course, now I've thought about it too much. :P

  17. mollymooly said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 12:56 am

    While one may sometimes criticise transcribers for consciously altering speech, one should recognise it may be as hard for them to determine the correct words spoken as it is for the commenters to this post.

    Regarding in/at school: I believe the US-UK patterns are almost reversed Enrolled and regularly attending this year is "in" US & "at" UK, while In the classroom listening to a teacher right now is "at" US & "in" or "at" UK

  18. Paul said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 4:52 am

    It's worth remembering that in the and other similar stretches in English quite routinely don't have any frication in them at all, though the dentality in the [ð] the dictionary transcriptions tell us "should" be there in the is usually there. So it's quite possible for the to be present and to find no hint of a fricative in a spectrogram. Careful listening can reveal this and the obvious place to read about it is Sharon Manuel (1995) 'Speakers nasalize /ð/ after /n/, but listeners still hear /ð/'. Journal of Phonetics, 23, 453-476. Manuel's analysis suggests speakers can 'recover underlying /ð/', though her task was word-spotting so it's just as easy to say speakers were recovering those (which was the word she used). Another JPhon paper which discusses these issues (with some more examples) is John Local (2003) 'Variable domains and variable relevance: interpreting phonetic exponents.' Journal of Phonetics, 31, 321-339.

    Perceiving the may be less a case of phoneme restoration (since we seem to be listening for duration and dentality rather than some artificially conglomerated set of features at what we could call a phonemic level) and more a simple case of going directly to perceiving the word. After all, there's only a small set of things (predominantly a) that the needs to be distinguished from, so perhaps we don't desperately need to hang on to both place and manner of articulation: place is sufficient.

  19. Claire said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    To add to the 'school' preposition debate:
    It's very common to hear 'in school' in the UK in the sense of 'currently enrolled' – politicians are often saying things such as 'We need to encourage young people to stay in school past the age of 16', where the opposite situation of not attending school is in the forefront of the speaker's mind.

    But you'd also say something like 'my son's currently at primary school', or 'her children were still at school at the time'.

    So, UK usage varies.

  20. Barry Nordin said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

    Has no one noticed W places the blame for the economy on actions taken "a decade" before he became president (small "p" intentional).
    He's putting the blame on his father.

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

    I have often read him quoted referring to his present employment as "Preznit". I wonder if that is what is being transcribed as "present".

  22. Östen Dahl said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 4:14 am

    I have found a few occurrences of the phrase "in president" used in this way. It is of course hard to guarantee that they are not just slips.

    "Poverty, healthcare and gas prices are issues that I think Senator Obama should focus on when he is in President."

    "…Obama declared, 'When I am in president of the United States, we will end this war in Iraq and bring our troops home'…"

    "What was the US like when Theodore Roosevelt was in president?"

    "..but then she forgot that Bill Clinton let two of the bombers go when he was in president."

  23. Mark P said,

    December 7, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    TV interviews appear to be routinely edited to, for example, show the interviewer full-face-on while asking a question, looking over the shoulder of the interviewee, and then to show the interviewee full-face-on when he answers. It might be that there are enough cameras to do that without two takes, but you never see the other camera when it should be visible. ABC, or at least some of its reporters, have a history of fiddling with the truth. They might not be worse than the other major networks, but there are some particularly egregious examples. John Stossel has been accused of making up "evidence" in stories about organic food and medical treatment in Cuba. He has also been accused of being merely sloppy in his reporting. I witnessed a respected TV journalist make a authoritative report on a two-week trial at which she was not present except for about an hour after testimony and before the verdict; she asked a local newspaper reporter to call her and tell her what happened.

    As a former newspaper reporter, I have very little respect for TV journalists. I actually don't have much respect for the entire profession any more, but TV seems even worse than print journalism.

  24. Merri said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    Osten's examples support the idea that 'X is in president' can be used when one wants to insist that this person, and not one of its predecessors or followers, is in charge. When said rather than written, it would then be accompanied by a rising intonation on the name or pronoun.
    One may see it as a kind of reinforcement of the neutral 'X is president' or a shortened form of 'in one's presidential function'. Anyway, it doesn't shock me.

    Did GWB said 'before *I* arrived in president' ?

  25. Derrick said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

    As a Graduate student teaching Writing I, I am appalled by ABC's liberties with the video of the interview. If one of my student's quoted a source like that in their paper I would give them an F. I don't know how many times I've cautioned them not to take a quote out of context.

  26. Mark said,

    December 9, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

    I'm not a linguist – just stumbled onto (into? to?) this site and thread. As an American, I would say I was at the hospital if I were working or visiting there, but in the hospital if I were admitted as an in-patient. I always use the definite article "the" and it immediately catches my attention as a British construction when I hear "in hospital".

    No comment on the "president" expression, but it always drove me crazy during the recent campaign whenever I heard McCain mumble "Center" Obama (what is that, a basketball reference?). I notice Harry Reid slurs "Senator" as well.

  27. nosleepingdog said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    Change of topic here, to an apparent discrepancy between ABC's transcript (see where it all appears on one page) and the audio clip included in your blog post. The remarks that appear to be together in the audio, are divided in the transcript into answers to two separate questions. And those two questions are separated by several other Q & A.

    here is the relevant portion of the transcript:

    [(myl) I've removed a long transcript segment here, because it was already quoted in the body of the post above…]

    What went on here?? They cut and pasted/reorganized what was actually said, for the transcript?

    [(myl) Um, with respect, nosleepingdog, this "change of topic" was the topic of the last portion of the post that you're commenting on, and you don't seem to be adding anything to the observation that was made there. Or have I misunderstood?]

  28. nosleepingdog said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    Sorry, I hadn't read to the end of your post where you commented on the rearrangement of remarks in the transcript. I read the beginning about the odd "in president" expression, then went to the transcript and went from there. My apologies.

  29. Therese said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

    Going to disagree a bit here.

    US usage, in the Central Southern area at least:
    in school:
    Is she still in (attending) school?
    We were in (physically inside the school grounds, generally in class and listening to the teacher) school today when they called.

    at school:
    We were at (physically inside the school grounds, but not necessarily in class listening to the teacher — could be during lunch or recess) school today when they called.

    (I'd say that my fellow New Orleanians could also say "by school" in this instance.)

    I agree on the UK usage, however, at least how I hear it here in Hong Kong.

  30. locke said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    In a recent New Yorker piece, Hendrik Hertzberg quotes the same portion of the televised interview, but he transcribed it as "been President" and "as President". It is obvious from the transcription that Hertzberg was otherwise uninterested in cleaning up Bush's linguistic idiosyncrasies, as he does not modify "during I arrived as President" to make it appear more standard. My guess is that the possibility of Bush actually saying "in President" struck him as too odd to be the case… or maybe he simply didn't catch it. I e-mailed to ask about it (his aol e-mail address is given on his blog).

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