PARAPHRASING CONDI! Why did we say that Dowd was unfair? Several sharp readers asked: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 6, 2009
Paraphrasing Condi: Did Maureen Dowd paraphrase Condi Rice fairly in Sundays column? Was she right when she compared Rices statement at Stanford to Nixons famous weird statement (When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal)a statement which has been enshrined as one of the kookiest of the past thirty years?
On Monday, we said we thought that Dowd was wrong to compare the two statements (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/09). Some readers said they didnt understand why we would have said that. And this is an important topic, for several basic reasons:
On the mega level: Bad paraphrase has played a central role in our recent political history. George Bush reached the White House due to gruesome paraphrase. To all intents and purposes, the history of the past dozen years is the history of faulty paraphrase.
Why did we think Dowd was wrong to compare Rices statement to Nixons? A lot can be learned from this episode. As a basic starting-point, this was one sharp e-mailers query:
Did Rice mean that a president can authorize torture? We thought it was almost totally clear that she hadnt meant that. At any rate, here again is the way Dowd presented the matter. Dowd leaves out some of what Rice said, but her quotes are quite extensive:
Dowd omitted some of what Rice said. But at the time, we assumed that Rice had said what she later said she had said. We took her to be saying this:
As the e-mailer noted: If thats what Rice meant, its very different from what Nixon famously said. If thats what she meant, she was saying that she assumed that a good-faith legal judgment had been madenot that a president can just go ahead authorize any darn thing he pleases. In our view, this is still a shaky statement, for reasons we will discuss below. But it isnt what Nixon said.
Rice has now said that this is what she meant, during an underwhelming conversation with Leon Wieseltier. (To watch this discussion, click here.) In real time, why did we think this was almost surely what she meant?
This takes us to the heart of paraphrase, a very important topic.
Why did we think that was what Rice meant? Here are three basic aspects of the world of paraphrase:
Extemporaneous speech is often unclear: Extemporaneous speech is often jumbled, muddy, unclear. Rices statement was slightly jumbled (for our money, Dowd omitted the most unclear part of what she said). Indeed, Rices later clarification (to underwhelming Wieseltier) was also jumbled in parts. (Simple fact: Rice isnt nearly as sharp as the mainstream press often likes to pretend.) But if youre going to paraphrase sensibly, you need to start by understanding a basic fact: People often speak in ways which arent perfectly clear. No, Gore didnt say he invented the Internet. But what he did say was slightly unclear.
Typically, people dont say the craziest things in the world: If you want to be fair at all, you cant simply adopt the craziest possible version of somebodys unclear statement. Again, consider the history-changing paraphrase of Gore. Why was it always unlikely that Gore had said that he invented the Internet? Duh! Because that would have been a crazy statement (no one invented the Internet), and Al Gore isnt crazy! Similarly, it would have been very weird for Rice to have echoed Nixons famous ludicrous statement. We dont think Rice is anywhere near as impressive as the mainstream pundit corps often suggests. On the other hand, she isnt Michele Bachmann; she doesnt normally parade about making the craziest possible statements. Especially if you oppose a public figure, its tempting to adopt the craziest possible version of some unclear thing she has said. (People like Olbermann/Hannity do this constantly, thereby pleasing the demo.) This practice is highly pleasing; it just doesnt tend to be fair or accurate. No, Gore didnt mean to say that he invented the Internet. And we can see no reason to think that Rice meant to make the crackpot statement liberal hacks quickly put in her mouth.
If you arent sure what someone meant, the remedy is to ask her: Sometimes people say jumbled things and you really arent sure what they meant. In this case, we thought it was fairly clear what Rice meantshe meant the she had been assured that Bushs judgments were based on acceptable legal reasoning. But if youre truly puzzled by somebodys statement, the remedy is fairly obvious: You ask the person to explain what she meant. When Gore was asked to explain his statement about the Internet, he gave a perfectly sensible answer. (Because the press corps was seeking his blood, his explanation was quickly deep-sixed.) In this case, Rice was asked what she meant by her statement at Stanfordand she said she hadnt meant what Nixon said. We thought this was reasonably clear all along. But once a person has said that she didnt mean X (and doesnt believe X), theres no real reason, other than unvarnished partisanship, to keep asserting that she meant the thing she has disavowed.
None of this means the following:
None of this means that Rice gave a good answer to the questions at Stanford. We find it hard to believe that she didnt have questions or doubts about the legality of water-boarding, for instance. For all we know, she may have fought like a tiger, behind the scenes, against the use of water-boarding. Or she may have offered strong support for the use of these techniques, as Mark Mazzetti reported in Mondays New York Times. (Mazzetti referred to the early years2002-2004.)
It would make good sense to question Rice about these mattersespecially for those who treat this topic as a central issue. But wouldnt you know it? When Rices top aide (Philip Zelikow) appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show, he got no questions about such matters! When Colin Powells top aide appeared two nights later, he too got a total pass. (When Powell himself appeared on the show, Maddow failed, again and again, to ask the worlds most obvious question: Was water-boarding discussed in your presence?) Do you mind if we mention something about the real word? Its easier for a climber like Maddow to take a dive when the big shots are presentthen to adopt the worlds silliest paraphrase when the coast is clear.
Thats what Maddow has done in the past two nights. We have truly come to wonder if shes the fakest person in the world.
On the other hand, conduct like this will please the demo. And on corporate cable, the demo rules. The demo brings in all the swag, after all. That cash, and its attendant fame, end up in the lazy hosts pocket.
What Mitchell told Maddow RE Rice: On Monday night, Andrea Mitchell discussed the Rice matter with Maddow. Heres where it ended up:
We agree with most of what Mitchell said. Of course, Rice wouldnt likely have said something as weird as what Nixon told Frost. Obviously, thats why she is trying to clarify what she said.
But note the cynical thing Mitchell said right after that. Well paraphrase: Rice and Zelikow are trying to deflect the blame back to the Justice Departments lawyers. Theyre trying to palm off the blame, just the way the Bush White House used to do with the CIA.
Is that a fair assessment of what Rice and Zelikow are doing? Are they just trying to palm off the blame, or did they really oppose these practices from within? We dont have the slightest idea. You see, when Zelikow appeared on this same program, Maddow put her feet in the air, kissed his keister, and completely forgot to ask! He was allowed to bang away at Cheney. His own role was barely question; Rice didnt come up at all.
Mitchell suggested this may be a ruse. Maddow basically didnt ask. But if we might be a bit cynical ourselves: So it goes when the corporate suits pick our progressive stars for us.